He was a horse with no name, a yearling in a sales ring at Keeneland in Lexington, about 90 minutes from Churchill Downs, home of one of the most famous races in the world, the Kentucky Derby.
An exercise rider working for a training centre in Florida liked what he saw and bought the colt for the low price of US$11,000 (Dh40,400) with the idea of preparing him for racing, then selling him a year later for a nifty profit.
In a sense, the plan came off perfectly; the original owner sold the colt for $35,000 at the Ocala Breeders’ Sale last year. But the payday could have been far bigger.
That unnamed colt became I’ll Have Another, an extraordinary thoroughbred who was aiming to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years before being scratched yesterday from the Belmont Stakes.
Earlier in the week, Dennis O’Neill, the brother of I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug, conceded they had no idea the anonymous colt would win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Dennis O’Neill bought the horse for Paul Reddam at a sale for two-year-old colts in training. “Nowhere in our wildest dreams did we think we had a Derby winner,” Doug O’Neill said. “I’m a very lucky guy to have such an amazing horse.”
The story of I’ll Have Another began at Brookdale Farm, 500 acres of bluegrass in Kentucky, where the stallion Flower Alley was bred to Harvey Clarke’s mare Arch’s Gal Edith. Flower Alley won the 2005 Travers Stakes and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
His father was Distorted Humor, who produced the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.
On I’ll Have Another’s mother’s side is a long line of horses with speed and stamina.
Not regal bloodlines, but potential was there.
Upon arrival at the 2010 Keeneland November Yearling Sale, Victor Davila, who works for Eiasman Equine training centre in Florida, gave himself a $10,000 budget, but overspent by $1,000 on the colt. He liked the way the chestnut yearling moved, and after having turned profits on several previous purchases, figured the investment was worth it.
He saddled and broke the horse at his house, and then brought it to the Eiasman’s training centre.
“I don’t think anyone at that time in life recognised he would be vying for a Triple Crown,” said Barry Eiasman, who runs the centre with his wife, Shari.
“His basic skills were good. He was like a good junior high school player. But he also had that one special aspect – a gusto for the sport – and he really was a nice runner.”
Dennis O’Neill is a regular at the Ocala sale, and he bought six horses in April of 2011. The modest-sized yet muscular chestnut son of Flower Alley was “probably in the top three”.
I’ll Have Another breezed an eighth of a mile in 10.4 seconds, and Dennis O’Neill was impressed with his “beautiful, fluid stride”.
He added: “When I took him out, I liked the horse, physically.” He said he called Reddam and predicted the horse would cost $60,000 to $80,000. When the hammer went down at $35,000, O’Neill was stunned. However, what happened a few minutes turned into a fateful decision.
The underbidder approached O’Neill, told him he “screwed up” and should have bought the horse. He offered O’Neill $60,000, an instant $25,000 profit.
O’Neill called Reddam, told him about the offer, and Reddam turned it down.
“If it was me as the owner and I didn’t have a buyer I wouldn’t have owned him, and would have left $10 million on the table,” O’Neill said. “It shows how fate sometimes plays into it.”
Reddam sent the colt to Doug O’Neill, who runs one of the largest stables in southern California. Reddam, meanwhile, said he named the horse after his answer when his wife, Zillah, asks if he wants more cookies. “I’ll have another,” he would reply.
I’ll Have Another made his debut on July 3, going wire-to-wire at five furlongs and winning by three-quarters of a length at Hollywood Park. “When he won the first time out, the way he won we thought he was going to be a stakes-calibre horse at that point,” Doug O’Neill said.
The Best Pal, a Grade 2 race, was up next, at Del Mar on August 7. I’ll Have Another, with Joel Rosario aboard again, was pressed the whole way and beaten by a length by Creative Cause.
He was moved to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Hopeful on September 5. A win and I’ll Have Another would have established himself as a leading Kentucky Derby contender. But the colt, under Julien Leparoux, ran fifth over a sloppy track and came out of the race with sore shins. He was all but forgotten.
He was returned to California, and given five months to recover. Team O’Neill, though, needed a jockey.
Reddam had seen a young rider named Mario Gutierrez, and was impressed with the way he handled himself. He recommended him to O’Neill, and the trainer hired the 25-year-old Mexican who had been riding at Hastings Park in Vancouver, Canada.
After his move to California, Gutierrez was star-struck when he first climbed aboard I’ll Have Another for a workout at Hollywood Park.
“He was so professional with the way he moves,” he said.
“He was like an expensive sports car with a lot of gears. Every time you switch gears to go faster, he’ll just give it to you. Not many horses can do that.”
I’ll Have Another was ready to open his three-year-old campaign, and was sent off as a rank outsider in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on February 4. With Gutierrez up, the colt stalked the pace, then sprinted away at the top of the stretch for a huge upset.
“He had trained really well going into it, but it was his first time going two turns and first time off a five-month layoff,” Doug O’Neill said. “That was really an incredible effort. And that’s when we started thinking not only is he a stakes horse, but a Derby-calibre horse. I think the Bob Lewis was the last sign. We said: ‘Aha! This is the real deal here.’”
He was correct. I’ll Have Another proved the win was no fluke when he nosed out Creative Cause to win the Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
Sent off as a hopeful at the Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another and Gutierrez caught the front-running Bodemeister in the final 100 yards and won by a length. Two weeks later, he did it again, reeling in Bodemeister in the final strides to win the Preakness by a nose.
In today’s Belmont Stakes, I’ll Have Another would have been the favourite for the first time in his career.
Eiasman had been talking up I’ll Have Another as the 12th Triple Crown winner.
“When he gets in a racing situation, he has what it takes,” Eiasman said. “He’s the guy you want batting in the ninth inning of the World Series with the game tied. He will not fold under pressure.”
* Associated Press
Follow us @SprtNationalUAE