Saturday's Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby promised to be a showdown between the West Coast's top two Kentucky Derby contenders, and the historic feature duly lived up to its billing. Reddam Racing's I'll Have Another and Creative Cause served up a pulsating stretch duel, with 42-1 pacesetter Blueskiesnrainbows hanging tough on the rail, but I'll Have Another prevailed to earn "Best of the West" status on the way to Churchill Downs.
"This is so unbelievable," winning rider Mario Gutierrez enthused. "He is such a good horse and he gave me a big kick at the end. There wasn't any doubt in my mind that my horse would give me everything in the stretch leading up to the wire."
The two principals were both coming off major prep wins at Santa Anita. Creative Cause was bet down to 4-5 favoritism here off his victory in the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 10. I'll Have Another was last seen pulling a 43-1 upset in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis on February 4. Owner J. Paul Reddam talked trainer Doug O'Neill into skipping the San Felipe, so I'll Have Another entered the Santa Anita Derby off a two-month break, and ranked as the 4-1 second choice.
On paper, Blueskiesnrainbows was the least of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert's trio, which also comprised Grade 1 hero Liaison and recent maiden winner Paynter. Blueskiesnrainbows was seemingly outclassed, having been trounced in his starts outside of maiden claiming or starter allowance company. But the longshot went straight to the early lead and rattled off fractions of :23, :47 and 1:11. As he continued to hold a daylight lead swinging for home, Blueskiesnrainbows brought back memories of Hero of Order, who stunned last Sunday's Grade 2 Louisiana Derby at odds of 109-1.
There would be no such shock at Santa Anita, for the cream would rise to the top. I'll Have Another had been stalking in second, occasionally in tandem with Longview Drive, but always traveling more comfortably than his partner, who soon faded. Creative Cause, who had been reserved about midpack, advanced along the inside on the far turn. The favorite moved past I'll Have Another entering the stretch, primarily because I'll Have Another floated a bit wide exiting the turn.
As the pair straightened down the drive, they took dead aim on Blueskiesnrainbows, and the chances of an upset suddenly receded. Blueskiesnrainbows still clung to a narrow lead through a mile in 1:35 1/5, but the leading players were bearing down.
Creative Cause momentarily appeared ready to take charge, but I'll Have Another surged on the outside. Blueskiesnrainbows grudgingly yielded, leaving the top two to continue the battle. Just when I'll Have Another had the upper hand, Creative Cause tried to fight back, but it was not enough to overcome the winner.
I'll Have Another, officially a nose in front on the line, finished 1 1/8 miles on the fast track in 1:47 4/5.
"It was a great ride by (Mario) Gutierrez," O'Neill said. "To me, he's the closest thing to (Rafael) Bejarano we've got. He's such a brilliant rider and he's got real finesse. He's confident but a humble kid. If you can't get Bejarano, why not Gutierrez?
"I saw Creative Cause come up on the inside and I thought for a split second, running second in the Santa Anita Derby is pretty freaking good. All the wins are big at the time, but right now, this feels as big as it ever gets.
"I loved the way the race unfolded and how Mario had him positioned going into the first turn. Creative Cause coming up on the inside definitely gave me a scare, but our horse fought on. He's doing so good. Hopefully, he comes out of this good and if he's 100 percent, it's on to Louisville."
Creative Cause was a half-length up on Blueskiesnrainbows, and the connections of the runner-up believed that he was just beaten by a better horse on the day.
"I've ridden the winner before (I'll Have Another) and he can run," Creative Cause's jockey Joel Rosario said. "My horse gave me 100 percent, but I think we were second-best today. Sometimes it's hard to keep winning. I waited inside and had a perfect trip. No excuses today, just second best."
"He (Rosario) rode him good," trainer Mike Harrington said. "He said the horse tried, he just got outrun. That happens. I thought the horse ran a helluva race. I thought Joel rode him perfectly. The other horse beat us today, but will he beat us next time? I don't know."
Creative Cause was running without blinkers for the first time on Saturday, and Harrington indicated that the headgear would stay off for the Kentucky Derby.
"Sure, I mean, why not? He was more focused," the trainer said. "I mean, he never bobbled today. He ran his race. He just got outrun. That happens in this sport. He's not tired. He'll come out of this race -- he ran such a huge race last time (winning the San Felipe on March 10), he couldn't improve on that race too much. I mean, how far can you go? He ran a zero Thorograph in the last race, so how much further can you go?
"This will set him up (for the Kentucky Derby). He ran hard. It didn't hurt him. He's still got a lot left in him. Maybe the other horse (I'll Have Another) had to run too hard to beat him. We won't know for four weeks."
Another 3 1/4 lengths astern in fourth came Paynter, followed by the maiden Brother Francis, Liaison, Midnight Transfer, Senor Rain and Longview Drive. Holy Candy was scratched in favor of next Saturday's Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland.
I'll Have Another, who returned $10.20, $4.20 and $3.60, boosted his bankroll to $634,000 from his 5-3-1-0 line. The son of Flower Alley was a debut maiden winner at Hollywood last summer, and finished a solid second to Creative Cause in the Grade 2 Best Pal at Del Mar. I'll Have Another shipped East to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Hopeful, but never got going in the slop and wound up sixth in the only poor race of his life.
Unraced for five months, I'll Have Another tried two turns for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis, where the combination of the layoff and the step up distance led to his massive overlay at 43-1. He outperformed those odds with a 2 3/4-length win in the race's fastest-ever running on dirt (1:40 4/5).
Bred by Harvey Clarke in Kentucky, I'll Have Another was a bargain $11,000 Keeneland September yearling. Dennis O'Neill, the trainer's brother, purchased him for $35,000 as a two-year-old in training at OBS in April.
"I was thinking of the biggest wins in your life," Dennis O'Neill said, "and I always thought Stevie Wonderboy (2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner for the late Merv Griffin) was it, but this tops it. It doesn't get any better than this. It's great for Paul Reddam. This is why you're in the game."
Out of the winning Arch mare Arch's Gal Edith, I'll Have Another comes from the family of Grade 1 winners Roanoke and Into Mischief. He counts as his fifth dam the influential matron Patelin, ancestress of champion Pleasant Stage and such Grade 1 winners as A Phenomenon, Seattle Meteor, Pillaster and Class Play.
I'll Have Another was ponied to the start of the Santa Anita Derby by retired fan favorite Lava Man, whom Doug O'Neill claimed and then developed into a handicap star last decade. Now 11 years old, the $5.2 million-earner might have passed on a few tips to his younger companion.