Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another is led back to the stable by… (Gary Jones / Associated…)
BALTIMORE -- Triple Crown horse racing season is a respite. It allows a deep breath for a sport that is desperately seeking reason.
The Preakness is similar to pro golf's Saturday. They call it moving day, because it is the last chance to get in position for the big prize. The difference is that, when 11 horses load into the gate here Saturday afternoon, only one can land the big prize, the Triple Crown.
That one, Kentucky Derby winnerI'll Have Another, is not only a horse to be admired, but a story with lots of weird chapters. This is not a tale of your bred-in-Kentucky and owned-and-raced-to-fame-by-the-bluebloods horse. Only the bred-in-Kentucky part is correct.
His owner is J. Paul Reddam, who uses the initial because his father was also John Paul. He is a rare PhD in philosophy who wanders the backside of racetracks comfortably. He is president of the California-based finance company CashCall, which pays better than his previous professorship at USC.
He named the horse after his habit of eating cookies on the couch and asking his wife, Zillah, for another. Zillah set the record straight here.
"Contrary to popular belief," she said, "I don't just sit around and bake cookies."
Reddam was presented with the horse by Dennis O'Neill, brother of trainer Doug O'Neill. Dennis is a cancer survivor, and now, a proven talent scout. I'll Have Another cost Reddam $35,000 and has already won $2.093 million.
"I love to tease and abuse Dennis," Reddam said. "We are very frank at horse sales. I asked him, 'How did the horse vet [check out]?' He said, 'Perfect.' With Dennis, there is no 10-minute dialogue."
The O'Neill brothers — the four Ds of Danny, Doug, David and Dennis — are now three. Danny died of cancer in 1998. David lives in Hawaii and isn't in the racing business. Mom's name is Dixie. What else? Her husband, Patrick O'Neill, played the horses a lot in the Midwest, when the boys were young and before they moved to California. Doug said the family moved around a lot in those days. He was never sure why, but he had an idea, and Dixie wasn't happy about it.
I'll Have Another's jockey is 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, who was so far from the Triple Crown scene this time last year that he might as well have been in Antarctica. He was a top rider at Hastings in British Columbia, who worked his way to Santa Anita and had the luck to ride there one day when Reddam and Doug O'Neill were watching. Gutierrez looked calm, Reddam remarked about it, and they decided to give him a try.
"Doug likes to spread the love around among jockeys," Reddam said. "I prefer to stick with the top guys. With Mario, this was just one of those weird intuitions."
Gutierrez has received lots of public love for his Derby ride, but not much business. Asked if he is getting a lot of calls, he said, "Yes." For rides? "No."
Doug O'Neill is the ringleader of this most recent try for the Triple Crown, something lusted after by the sport and not achieved since Affirmed in 1978, a 34-year drought. O'Neill has been the vocal and emotional leader from the moment I'll Have Another sprinted past Bob Baffert's Bodemeister and won the Derby.
Pimlico Chief Executive Tom Chuckas spoke fondly of his 10-day, media-friendly stay here.
"Doug O'Neill has embraced Baltimore," Chuckas said.
Baltimore has embraced back.
O'Neill's Irish charm and blarney have been everywhere. The frequent target of his quips is himself. Reacting to Gutierrez's current lack of business, O'Neill said, "It won't be long before we'll call up Mario to ride and he'll say, 'Oops, thanks. I know we won the Kentucky Derby together, but I ride for Baffert now.'"
I'll Have Another has 5-2 morning line odds. Ten other horses, including 8-5 favorite Bodemeister, will try to add another year to the Triple Crown drought. The public will see value in exotic bets that include I'll Have Another and Bodemeister, although there will be no repeat of the $306 exacta that the pair brought at Churchill Downs, when I'll Have Another went off at 15-1.
Two 6-1 horses, Went The Day Well and Creative Cause, will get action individually and in exacta and trifectas with the favorites. After that, it appears to be a dart toss, progressing from 12-1 Daddy Nose Best and 15-1 Teeth Of The Dog, to the longshots — 20-1 Zetterholm and 30-1 plays Cozzetti, Optimizer, Pretension and Tiger Walk.
Several story lines have been overshadowed in the 24/7 O'Neill blitz.
Baffert, five-time Preakness winner, named Bodemeister after his son, Bode, who was named after Olympic skier Bode Miller, who Baffert hadn't met until after he named his son. Now, the original Bode attends Bodemeister's races and will be at the Preakness.
Bodemeister's jockey, Hall-of-Famer Mike Smith, rode the come-from-way-behind Zenyatta to 16 of her 19 wins and never was near the lead until he could see the finish line without squinting. Now, his horse will go right to the front.
Trainer Mike Harrington's Creative Cause is getting attention, and Harrington says: "No question we belong. We've already beaten the two favorites."
Optimizer will attract sentimental backing because his trainer is 76-year-old Wayne Lukas, also a five-time winner here. So will Michael Matz, who trains Teeth Of The Dog and had ill-fated Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro, who broke down in the 2006 Preakness; also, Graham Motion, who trains Went The Day Well and had Derby winner Animal Kingdom last year.
So Saturday is a day when Lasix, "milkshakes," dwindling attendance and handles, exorbitant betting takeouts, inbreeding, synthetic tracks and ugly breakdowns play second fiddle to 11 horses and more than 100,000 people on track.
Racing wishes it was ever thus.