First on the track at 8:30 a.m. (EDT) during the special time slot set aside for Belmont Stakes contenders, Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another had an easy gallop around the dogs over a sloppy, sealed Belmont Park oval Saturday morning.
Cones were set eight feet from the rail for the training session, which saw a number of Belmont hopefuls jogging and galloping in preparation for the 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion" on June 9.
As has been his routine, I'll Have Another was accompanied to the track by his stable pony, Lava Man, with whom he jogged to the backstretch before breaking off for a one-mile gallop through the mud under exercise rider Jonny Garcia.
In his only start over an off-track, I'll Have Another finished sixth in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga, but trainer Doug O'Neill did not think the going contributed to that loss.
"He had a lot of trouble in the Hopeful and came out of it with sore shins," said O'Neill, who was sporting a New York Mets baseball cap in honor of Johan Santana's historic no-hitter Friday night. "During this whole Triple Crown run, he's trained over a lot of sloppy tracks and he gets over it really well. I don't think track surface will be an issue."
O'Neill said the colt will walk through the Belmont Park paddock and school Sunday morning prior to his gallop, instead of heading directly from his barn to the track.
As he prepares to move I'll Have Another into a security barn that will house all the Belmont Stakes contenders beginning at noon on Wednesday, the trainer remained upbeat and positive as he and his team focus on the task at hand.
"With a horse like I'll Have Another…you're under a really strong microscope," he said. "I think it's all just trying to show the public we care for the horses and that when you put your hard-earned money and you bet on one of the horses you can know they're all clean and pure and ready to go."
O'Neill said that I'll Have Another's jockey, Mario Gutierrez, is scheduled to arrive in New York Monday evening, and that the 25-year-old rider will have a number of mounts at Belmont next week. Among those is the O'Neill-trained Boxeur des Rues, whom the trainer is pointing to the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap on Friday after apparently resolving a foot bruise earlier this week.
"The race starts at the spot the Belmont does, and I think it will be a great help to Mario to get that under his belt," O'Neill said. "If the horse is not right, he won't run, but as of this morning, so far so good."
O'Neill's Saturday press conference can be viewed here.
In other Belmont Stakes news:
With the main track listed as sloppy following overnight rain, no Belmont Stakes contender worked out at Belmont Park on Saturday. Instead, the majority of the field will have their final breezes on Sunday.
Dullahan had a leisurely jog on the main track Saturday and will breeze on Sunday, trainer Dale Romans confirmed.
Trainer Chad Brown said Street Life will also have his final pre-Belmont workout on Sunday. On Saturday, Street Life galloped 1 1/2 miles.
"I've had a wet track in the morning a couple of other times this month," Brown said. "I thought he went very well over it. It really wouldn't matter to me if the track came up wet, from what I've been seeing."
Ken McPeek pushed back Atigun and Unstoppable U's breezes until Sunday or Monday, with the former the more likely option. The pair galloped 1 1/2 miles using the same routine McPeek used in 2002 with Sarava, who upset the Belmont Stakes at 70-1.
"I call it the 'Belmont gallop,'" McPeek said. "We jog to the quarter pole, then we jog back to the wire, and then they take off and make a loop and finish up the last part of it. It's a nice mile-and-a-half gallop with a gallop out past the gap."
The connections of Paynter initially were undecided as to whether he would breeze Sunday or Monday, but Saturday Jim Barnes, assistant to Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, revealed they are leaning in favor of Sunday. On Saturday, Paynter galloped 1 5/8 miles.
Guyana Star Dweej, who galloped 1 1/4 miles on Saturday, will breeze Monday or Tuesday, according to trainer Doodnauth Shivmangal.
"We normally jog on an off track, but today we galloped him," Shivmangal said. "We want to get him a little more fit and we don't want him to be idle because he had a break last week after the breeze. He went out easy and came back pretty good. We are looking to breeze him Monday or Tuesday. We have until Wednesday to decide (whether we'll race in the Belmont Stakes or Easy Goer overnight stakes), but right now we are heading towards the Belmont."
At Fair Hill in Maryland, Union Rags galloped 1 1/4 miles and will breeze on Sunday, trainer Michael Matz said. Optimizer and Ravelo's Boy continued their preparations at Churchill Downs and Calder, respectively.
Video of Belmont contender gallops can be viewed here.