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Belmont Stakes Report -- May 31
I'll Have Another shipped to Belmont Park the day after his thrilling Preakness victory and is acclimating well to his new surroundings according to all reports. An enormous sense of anticipation is building because he seems perfectly positioned to end the 34-year-old Triple Crown drought.
To complete the rise to superstardom, I'll Have Another must overcome the most extreme challenge in the series, the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. It's a beast of a race at an untested distance, the third start in a five-week cycle for Triple Crown hopefuls, and typically features at least a couple of quality rivals from the Kentucky Derby lying in wait off a sensible rest as well as the possibility of dangerous new shooters.
The stark reality of past failures -- 11 since Affirmed in 1978 -- should temper any unbridled enthusiasm surrounding a Triple Crown bid, but it's easy to get excited. I'll Have Another looks like the right horse to finally break down the barrier, with the potential to bring new fans into Thoroughbred racing in the process.
California-based horses dominated the first legs of the Triple Crown, accounting for the top two finishers in the Kentucky Derby and the entire trifecta in the Preakness, and I'll Have Another captured his first two starts this year in the Golden State, rolling to a convincing tally in the Grade 2 Robert Lewis prior to a nose score in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
He was overlooked at 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby despite those accomplishments and a terrific pedigree for the 1 1/4-mile distance. There were false concerns about his health (shock wave therapy treatment in April) and whether he was fast enough (his 98 BRIS Speed rating in the Santa Anita Derby was misleading due to a slow pace) before he rallied boldly to a 1 1/2-length decision, netting a career-best 108 BRIS Speed figure.
Derby runner-up Bodemeister was still favored in the Preakness, but I'll Have Another dispelled any doubts with a scintillating stretch run, reeling in his classy rival by a neck on the wire. He received a 109 Speed figure that afternoon and there is no reason to believe that he won't be ready for another top showing three weeks later.
The chestnut colt has not been burdened by a hard schedule -- trainer Doug O'Neill's decision to wait nine weeks for the Santa Anita Derby after the Lewis worked perfectly -- and his ability to improve upon each start enabled him to reach such heights. I'll Have Another's ascension to the top of three-year-old division took observers by surprise: he was dismissed at 43-1 when returning this year in the Robert Lewis and has not been favored in any of his seven career starts.
I'll Have Another is built to relish the extended Belmont distance and possesses an ideal running style, with plenty of tactical speed at jockey Mario Gutierrez's disposal to overcome any pace scenario. His main rivals from California will bypass the Belmont and I'll Have Another looms a threat to crush his opponents if he continues to move forward, which is certainly possible. However, the chance of a regression can not be dismissed. Strange things happen in the Belmont Stakes, with 2010 winner Da Tara, a slow 38-1 maiden winner who never won again from 11 starts, serving as the most glaring recent example.
Factors to consider
Here are three key factors that could negatively impact I'll Have Another in the Belmont Stakes.
1) Belmont inexperience: They call it Big Sandy and it's a much different track than Churchill Downs, Pimlico or any other surface that I'll Have Another has competed over. Experience on the unique configuration is at least a slight edge, with the last three Triple Crown heroes -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- all winning multiple races at Belmont beforehand. No horse based exclusively in California prior to the series has ever won the Triple Crown.
2) Jockey's race: Unlike the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the Belmont tends to be much more of a jockey's race due to the marathon distance -- the pace is slower and jockeys conserve their mounts before deciding upon the right time to ask them. Veteran riders don't have to think about where they are on the massive oval so familiarity is a plus. Gutierrez was relatively unknown outside of Canada before this year, based for years at Hastings Park in Vancouver, a five-furlong bullring track, before moving his tack to Southern California. He's proven his skills this spring, establishing himself as a prominent up-and-comer, and will ride some races at Belmont next week in preparation, but a crash course may not be good enough. Inexperience is a potential liability in a close race.
3) Track conditions: There is rain in the advance forecast, with showers possible during the week and race day, and anything less than a fast track is undesirable considering I'll Have Another's lone appearance under wet conditions. He recorded his only unplaced career effort over a sloppy track in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, retreating to finish nearly 20 lengths back in sixth. In his defense, I'll Have Another exited the early September race with shin issues that cost him the rest of his two-year-old season, so it wasn't necessarily a true indicator, but it remains an unpleasant experience nonetheless.
I will preview the Belmont next Friday.