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I'll Have Another looks to launch himself into thoroughbred racing history

06/07/2012 04:06 EDT | Updated 08/07/2012 05:12 EDT
ELMONT, N.Y. - He tweets, he runs, he wins.

There's not much I'll Have Another can't do, it seems.

The Canadian-owned chestnut colt will look to launch himself into thoroughbred racing history Saturday when he lines up with 11 others in the starting gate of the 144th Belmont Stakes.

A win and J. Paul Reddam's horse becomes only the 12th Triple Crown winner — and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

Trainer Doug O'Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez have found themselves squarely in the spotlight in the days leading up to the race. Sadly, a chance to throw out the first pitch at Friday's Yankees-Mets game doesn't look like it will happen because Gutierrez, in search of some intel on a track that is foreign to him, is riding in the Brooklyn Handicap that afternoon.

"The race is supposed to go off at 5:40 (p.m.) and they (the Yankees) want us there at 6:15," O'Neill lamented. "The Reddams were kind enough to offer to rent a helicopter but I think at the end of the day it's not going to work."

I'll Have Another didn't seem to mind.

Instead he offered a tweet — his profile reads "I am the Kentucky Derby and Preakness 2012 winning three year old chestnut colt living the dream. On the Triple Crown Trail. Next stop Belmont and History!" — in the form of a good night message from Barn 2 at Belmont with a dig at two fellow Belmont runners.

"Gotta go, Optimizer and Paynter threatening a pillow fight if I don't shut this hoofPad down now. Nite nite #sweetdreams #purplepower."

So who is tweeting for the horse, O'Neill was asked Thursday.

"The horse is. I'll Have Another is," he said to laughter. "I'll leave it at that. I hate to expose who does his translation. He has a hard time with the hoofs with the keys."

The feel-good story of a horse purchased by Reddam for just US$35,000 as a two-year-old has been amplified by the people around him.

And there are Canadian connections to this drama other than Reddam. Gutierrez calls Vancouver his second home after a successful stint at Hastings Racecourse.

The Mexican is a walking advertisment for the good life north of the border. Thanks to the five-foot-four, 114-pound jockey with the megawatt smile, the modest Vancouver track has earned unprecedented attention.

Gutierrez is an ah shucks sweetheart who has gone from nobody to photo sessions atop the Empire State Building.

"I had never really heard of Mario before coming to the Derby," confessed Dale Romans, trainer of rival Dullahan.

Still Romans couldn't resist complimenting Gutierrez for his work on and off the track, calling him "a good young man."

O'Neill is a laid-back funster who enjoys a good laugh, even at his own expense.

Asked whether he has allowed himself to think about what a win Saturday would mean, he replied: "Not really no. I mean obviously other than the birth of my two kids, I don't know how it could get much better.

"And they are a pain in the ass every now and then," he added dryly.

O'Neill has had his run-ins with racing authorities — a suspension from California was handed down last month — but he insists he has done nothing wrong when it comes to handling his horses.

Reddam stands by his trainer.

"When there's an event, people always look for an angle," said the 56-year-old native of Windsor, Ont., who now makes his home in California. "Unfortunately they tried to go through his background as a trainer as being the angle.

"But really, in the end, what he's been accused of is fairly minor. They talk about violations — not having his papers into the race office in time. Call that a violation if you want to but they've kind of made a much ado about close to nothing I would say."

Reddam, himself, is an unassuming millionaire whose day job is running the successful CashCall money-lending operation. He has not shrunk from the limelight this week at Belmont, but he is clearly happy to let others take the lead.

The other leading character in this Triple Crown story is I'll Have Another himself. Jockey and trainer talk about him as if he is human.

Gutierrez says the horse has the heart of a champion. And tweets aside, O'Neill says horses can communicate and I'll Have Another has let them know he's on point.

"If you get a real anxious horse, generally they're not going to eat. Their appetites aren't going to be strong through changing environments and changing tracks.

"They talk to you in their own way. And I'll Have Another has continued to tell us 'Bring it on. Whatever else is going (on), let's go.'"

Rather than lose weight, I'll Have Another has probably put on a few pounds since the May 5 Derby.

I'll Have Another has had to work hard to win people over. He wasn't favoured in either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness — that honour went to Bodemeister, whom I'll Have Another caught and overtook in both races.

The manner in which he pegged back Bodemeister, a talented horse who seemed to be doing everything right in the Preakness, has turned heads.

The 4-5 morning line favourite, I'll Have Another enters the race as top choice for the first time in his eight-race career.

The plotline is complicated by Belmont's longer distance of a mile and a half and mammoth oval, which provide different challenges — especially to a jockey and trainer new to the course.

O'Neill insists the distance should not be a problem for I'll Have Another.

"He's got a lot of stamina in his pedigree. And both in the Derby and the Preakness he was really striding out and finishing up stronger as the race wore on."

Jockey John Velazquez, who is headed to the National Racing Hall of Fame later this year, says the Belmont is a big challenge to those unaccustomed to its size and shape.

"When you ride a mile and a half in the dirt, it's very different than just riding another race — a mile and a quarter or even a mile and 3-16ths," said Velazquez, who will be aboard third-choice Union Rags.

"A big difference."

Velazquez calls Belmont a "very unique track and very deceiving."

"You have to know where you are."

O'Neil insists Gutierrez has the patience and resolve to run his own race.

The last Triple Crown winner was Affirmed in 1979. Since then, 11 horses have had the chance to join the select club, only to stumble at the Belmont.

The last to come up short was Big Brown in 2008.

I'll Have Another will start in post position 11, which has produced two Belmont winners since 1905: Sarava, a 70-1 longshot that beat Triple Crown hopeful War Emblem in 2002, and Conquistador Cielo in 1982.

I'll Have Another ran from the outside in both the Kentucky Derby (No. 19 in the 20-horse field) and the Preakness (No. 9 in an 11-horse field).

His major rivals Saturday are two Derby veterans: Dullahan (third at Churchill Downs) and Union Rags (seventh).

Both have had five weeks to prep for their roles as Belmont spoilers while I'll Have Another has been constantly on the move.

Dullahan is second choice at 5-1 while Union Rags is third at 6-1.

There morning line offers plenty of longshots from My Adonis and Optimizer at 20-1 to Unstoppable U and Atigun at 30-1 and Ravelo's Boy, Five Sixteen and Guyana Star Dweej at 50-1.

Andy Serling, the New York Racing's Association in-house analyst, isn't enticed by any of them.

Asked if he liked any of the longshots, Serling paused before saying: "To be honest with you, no."

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