Kentucky Derby and Preakness hero I'll Have Another turned in his customary one-mile gallop on the Belmont main track on Thursday, but only after evading a potentially disastrous collision with a loose horse.
Prior to his gallop, Isleta, a three-year-old maiden from the barn of Carl Domino, unseated her rider and ran off, passing within inches of I'll Have Another and exercise rider Jonny Garcia.
"Once we dodged that, everything went well," said Doug O'Neill, who trains I'll Have Another for J. Paul Reddam.
"He jogged great, galloped super. I noticed every day he's cooling out even quicker. He seems like he loves it here, and he's really getting used to the oval and getting used to the footing, and I couldn't be happier with the way he's going."
In the wake of I'll Have Another's near-miss, The New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) announced Thursday afternoon that it has designated a specific time each day available for Belmont Stakes contenders to train.
Starting Friday, the only horses that will be allowed to train over the Belmont Park main track from 8:30 to 8:45 a.m. (EDT) (right after the harrowing maintenance break) are Belmont Stakes contenders. This does not mean that Belmont Stakes contenders are required to train during this time frame, only that this time frame will be reserved for only Belmont Stakes contenders to train.
O'Neill discussed plans for Four Better and Unex Dali, who in company breezed four furlongs in :49 1/5 on the Belmont main track Thursday. Four Better will be making her North American debut in the $90,000 Fama overnight stakes on June 7, with Unex Dali aiming for an allowance race on June 8. Mario Gutierrez, rider of I'll Have Another, will have the assignment aboard Four Better and Unex Dali. Both races will be contested on turf.
"I really liked the way they both went," O'Neill said. "They both finished up with good energy and pulled up really well. Hopefully those are good spots for the horses and good spots for Mario to gain some knowledge of the track, even though they're both on turf."
O'Neill said Gutierrez will arrive in New York on Monday and will be at the track Tuesday morning.
"Hopefully for us he'll have a couple of (additional mounts), other than I'll Have Another," O'Neill said. "And with the help of Mark Hennig and Wesley Ward, there've been a few other trainers who have offered to give him some chances.
"His agent, the legendary Ivan Puhich, will be here with him. Ivan has probably been on the phone, hustling some, and we're hoping to give him 10 mounts before the big race."
O'Neill lamented withdrawing Reddam's Boxeur des Rues from the June 8 Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap, which would have given Gutierrez an opportunity to compete over the Belmont Stakes' course and distance.
"I was going to run him in the Brooklyn, but I haven't really been super happy with the way he has trained the past few days, so I don't think 'Boxeur' is going to run," O'Neill said.
"Somebody said (Gutierrez) might get a mount (in the Brooklyn), and Paul's been kind enough to say, 'If you find a horse that would have a legitimate chance in there, (I'd) invest in it to help Mario.' It would be great to have Mario get a chance to ride a mile and a half the day before the Belmont. It's been talked about, but we're kind of running out of time. Hopefully there's a trainer out there with a horse that's got a chance that still needs a pilot and will give Mario a chance."
O'Neill also got a visit from the preschoolers of Anna House, who made a good luck banner for I'll Have Another ahead of the June 9 Belmont Stakes. After watching O'Neill handle press inquiries, the children were introduced to Lava Man and learned about his racing career.
In other Belmont news:
As a follow-up to its newly unveiled protocols for Belmont Stakes runners, NYRA announced that Barn 2 at Belmont Park will serve as the secured Belmont Stakes Barn. The barn will be ready for Belmont Stakes contenders to move into starting on Tuesday.
At Churchill Downs, Belmont contender Optimizer breezed five furlongs in 1:00 3/5, third best of 19 works at the distance Thursday on the fast main track.
Working under Jon Court, the D. Wayne Lukas trainee recorded fractions of :13 1/5, :25 3/5, :37 2/5, :48 3/5 and galloped out six furlongs in 1:14 1/5. Lukas was pleased with the workout and said that Optmizer would head to Belmont Park on Tuesday.
The Grade 1-placed son of English Channel finished 11th in the Kentucky Derby and sixth in the Preakness.
Five Sixteen has been confirmed for the Belmont Stakes by Anthony Bonomo, husband of Mary Bonomo of MeB Racing Stables.
"Five Sixteen is turning out to be a pretty special horse," said Bonomo, who personally races under the Brooklyn Boyz banner.
"He's named after our son's (Anthony Bonomo Jr.'s) birthday. He's our general manager of both stables. We're excited about it. (Trainer) Dominick (Schettino) doesn't have time to be excited, but all the credit to Dominick because he's the guy who told us six months ago that he was a horse who could run in the Belmont because he could get the distance and was training well."
Five Sixteen, who in his two most recent starts won a March 14 maiden race and was fourth in an April 18 allowance at Aqueduct Racetrack, will be the Bonomos' first starter in the Belmont Stakes.
"We had a horse two years ago named Connie and Michael who finished second in the (Grade 1) Mother Goose and was out of the money in the Breeders' Cup (Juvenile Fillies)," Bonomo said. "That's the closest we've been to the big-stake racing. Being in New York, our home place, and being in the Belmont, it doesn't get much better than that."
Five Sixteen's longshot status hasn't deterred Bonomo from taking a shot at the Belmont.
"He's very lightly raced, so he hasn't really left a mark but you have to watch out for him," Bonomo said. "It's exciting being in a race like that, and it's exciting for racing in general to have a Triple Crown candidate. I think it's great for the sport. I look at it this way: the best horse that day will win. If it turns out to be I'll Have Another, that's great. If it turns out to be mine, that's great.
"That's even better!" added a Schettino hotwalker.
"That's even better," Bonomo agreed. "It's nice being in the race, especially when there is a Triple Crown on the line."
Bonomo said Five Sixteen will have one more work, likely over the next few days, prior to the Belmont Stakes.