Love the horse. Love I'll Have Another the way jockey Mario Gutierrez loves him. Sure, the colt has changed the young rider's life, brought him out of the morning shadows of Santa Anita Park, where he worked horses for trainers who did not care to know his name, and into America's living rooms for the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
I'll Have Another has given Gutierrez the ride of his young life, but sitting in the saddle, still out of breath, after he and his colt ran down Bodemeister in the final strides of the 137th Preakness Stakes on Saturday, he wanted everyone to know he had little to do with the improbable past two weeks. He wanted them to know what Gutierrez knew the first time he climbed on I'll Have Another's back.
What he knew before he won the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago at Churchill Downs. He wanted them to know what every good rider knows, no matter if he is an unheralded track jockey like him from the relative unknown of Canada's Hastings Racecourse or a Hall of Famer like Mike Smith, who was aboard Bodemeister: You know a transcendent horse when you get on him.
“He's just a great horse,” Gutierrez, 25, said. “I believe in him because I'm on him.”
Now there are a great many people who believe in I'll Have Another, starting with the 121,309 here Saturday who watched as he made up nearly four lengths in the stretch to collar Bodemeister at the wire and win by a neck. It was how the colt did it that was remarkable – legs reaching and clawing with every stride, Gutierrez in rhythm atop him like a beating heart.
The colt is scheduled to head up the I-95 in the morning to Belmont Park, where he will try to become the 12th horse to sweep the Triple Crown, horse racing's holy grail, and the first one since Affirmed did so in 1978.
Eleven horses in the past 34 years have pulled into Belmont Park with a shot to win the crown, the last being Big Brown in 2008. They all failed, but Gutierrez wants all to believe that I'll Have Another is different. The colt is four for four this year – all in stakes races in which was he was never the favourite.
I'll Have Another was not the betting public's choice here Saturday, either. Smith and Bodemeister were sent off at odds of nearly 2-1 on the strength of a courageous run in the Derby, where Bodemeister led the field through wicked fractions but was caught in the deep stretch by I'll Have Another. Gutierrez and his colt were granted generous 3-1 odds on the notion that the kid rider had gotten a perfect trip in a crowded field at Churchill Downs.
Not here, not now, was history going to repeat itself. Bodemeister was the lone speed horse. He wouldn't have to go so fast. Gutierrez would have to use his smarts rather than his soft hands to earn his trip to New York.
As Smith and Bodemeister bounded out to an easy lead under leisurely fractions of 1:11.72 for six furlongs, Gutierrez didn't look too smart.
He was spotting Bodemeister too many lengths – or at least that was what Smith thought.
“I had slowed down the pace and had plenty of horse,” Smith said.
Even I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, was worried.
“I was concerned, but Mario was keeping him in the clear,” he said.
As Bodemeister led the field of 11 into the far turn, Gutierrez and his colt cut inside and got behind Creative Cause, who had been tracking in second place. Still, Bodemeister's trainer, Bob Baffert, was not worried. He thought Smith was sitting on a monster.
“I felt really good where he was,” Baffert said of Bodemeister. “It looked like he was travelling nicely.”
In an instant, Gutierrez dropped his reins and put his head down to urge on his colt. I'll Have Another rounded the turn as if fired from a slingshot. When horse and rider hit the quarter pole, I'll Have Another squared his shoulders and took aim at Bodemeister, who was gliding down the stretch as if on a conveyor belt.
Atop I'll Have Another, Gutierrez knew something extraordinary was about to happen. He was flush with the feeling that he was merely a passenger on a winged horse.
“No one put him in this race,” he said with a mix of appreciation and disbelief. “He put himself into the race.”
In the stretch, I'll Have Another was unleashing one ground-gobbling stride after another. The distance between him and Bodemeister was narrowing in a hurry.
“I knew we were going to be in a dogfight,” said the colt's owner, Paul J. Reddam.
Gutierrez was not worried at all.
“He has a tremendous kick,” he said. “He's more smarter than I am, so he just wait for me until I ask him.”
The no-name jockey asked. The great horse answered. I'll Have Another reached Bodemeister's throat latch two strides before the wire. He was by him on the next one.
The numbers are impressive but soulless. I'll Have Another covered the mile and three-sixteenths in 1:55.94 and earned Reddam a $600,000 first-place cheque, pushing the colt's career earnings past $2.6-million (U.S.). A bettor who loved I'll Have Another as much as Gutierrez was rewarded $8.40 for a $2 bet.
But the jockey understood who really earned their trip to New York and a shot at the elusive crown.
“This is not about me,” Gutierrez said.
For two minutes at least, it was not about O'Neill, the trainer with a long list of drug violations who had run afoul of regulators in four states and earned stern words from the Humane Society over the weekend.
No, Gutierrez wanted people to appreciate the gift that had been given to him as much as he does. He loves his horse. He wants everyone else to love him as well.
“He's an amazing horse,” he said again.
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