Mark Wiedmer: Belmont still to go: Is another in him?

Mark Wiedmer: Belmont still to go: Is another in him?

May 20th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

With 200 yards to go in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another looked like yet another pretender, apparently unable to do so much as win two legs of his sport's holy grail, much less become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.

Yes, he'd chased down Bodemeister in the Derby, and here was the Bode Man again on the lead, sailing for home, just as he had two weeks earlier at Churchill Downs before I'll Have Another showed off another gear.

But the Preakness is an eighth of a mile shorter than the Derby. And time was running out, despite Pimlico's long, long straightaway. Surely this was where jockey Mario Gutierrez had been too patient. Surely this time the bettors who'd made Bodemeister the favorite had it right.

But then it happened again. I'll Have Another closed like Harry S. Truman against Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election.

Or maybe this was merely the second coming of the last Triple Crown winner in 1978 -- Affirmed.

Just as Affirmed got by archrival Alydar by slender margins in both the Derby and Preakness, I'll Have Another has now edged Bodemeister by the same amounts in those races, winning the Derby by one and a half lengths and the Preakness by a neck.

Said Bodemeister trainer Bob Baffert of Another after Saturday's race: "The winner is a good horse. He should get the respect now that he deserves."

Baffert knows more than most that (a) only great horses win the Triple Crown, and (B) it's really hard to get that respect from anyone outside the thoroughbred racing community without winning all three Triple Crown races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, which will be run on June 9.

After all, Baffert has trained three Derby winners -- Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) -- all three also winning the Preakness. None, of course, won the Belmont.

In fact, 11 horses total have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown since 1978 yet failed to conquer the Belmont's grueling one-and-a-half-mile course. The most recent to come up short have been Big Brown in 2008, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Funny Cide in 2003.

So why should we have any reason to believe I'll Have Another will succeed where the last 33 3-year-old crops have failed?

Perhaps this single statement from Gutierrez, who said of his mount: "He has tremendous kick in the end."

A lot of horses have that kick at the Preakness, but winning both the Derby and the Preakness in blazing stretch runs is rare. Yes, Kentucky Derby also-rans Dullahan and Union Rags -- who both sat out the Preakness -- are expected to return for the Belmont.

And it's not even a certainty that I'll Have Another will run. Horses are fragile creatures. Though he seemed to exit the Preakness in good shape, a lot can change in three weeks.

On one hand, his owners may say, hey, he was originally sold as a yearling for $11,000. What have we got to lose?

Or they might say, hey, he was originally sold for $11,000, we bought him for $35,000, and if he never races again he's worth millions. Let's take the money and run.

But thoroughbred racing badly needs I'll Have Another to run in the Belmont and win it. It probably won't happen, but you could almost see the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the Jockey Club buying up newspaper ads over the next three weeks screaming: We'll Have Another -- Please!

Until then, we'll have to make do with Another trainer Doug O'Neill revising his earlier pledge to buy his family a hot tub back in California if they won the Derby.

Said O'Neill after the Preakness: "If we win the Triple Crown we might have to buy a house with a yard big enough to have a real swimming pool."

If I'll Have Another can win another one with that tremendous kick before he loses another one, O'Neill can have any house he wants, and the country just might have another sport to care about for the first time in 34 years.