BALTIMORE — On the first Saturday of February, I'll Have Another was not on any list of Kentucky Derby contenders.
On the second Saturday of June, I'll Have Another will go for the elusive Triple Crown.
The Kentucky Derby winner needed just about every yard of the Pimlico stretch Saturday to run down Bodemeister and win the Preakness Stakes by a neck. It was nearly 9 lengths back to the third horse, Creative Cause, as the top two staged a near copy of their Derby stretch duel.
Bodemeister controlled the pace early. I'll Have Another's owner, Paul Reddam, and trainer, Doug O'Neill, were wondering why jockey Mario Gutierrez was waiting so long to go.
The jockey, a complete unknown at the top level, obviously knows something.
Bodemeister led by 3 lengths at the eighth pole, 220 yards from the finish. One stride at a time, I'll Have Another cut into the lead.
"It wasn't until about 20 yards from the wire that I thought he was going to win," Reddam said.
The colt was a 43-1 shot when he won the Robert Lewis on Feb. 4, 4-1 when he won the Santa Anita Derby, 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby — and even after he won that, I'll Have Another was the 3-1 second choice in the Preakness, where Bodemeister was favored at 8-5.
I'll Have Another has never been favored in any of his seven races. That figures to change June 9 in the Belmont Stakes.
"We're thinking Triple Crown, baby," an elated O'Neill said. "He's a special horse. We'll see how he comes out of it, and if he comes out of it in good shape, we're heading to New York, baby."
The Preakness, at 13/16 miles, is 110 yards shorter than the Derby. At that point of the Derby, Bodemeister was in front by a neck. This time, it was the other way. The fractions were very fast on a very fast surface at Churchill Downs. They were moderate at Pimlico on a surface that was not especially fast. The result was the same.
"I just can't put it into words," said O'Neill who won the Preakness with his first starter in the race. "It's just incredible."
I'll Have Another ran the distance in 1:55.94, a terrific run on a track not yielding fast times.
"I wasn't sure we would get there, but I knew I had a horse with a lot of fight and a lot of heart," Reddam said.
I'll Have Another won by 1½ lengths in the Derby and by a neck in the Preakness — the same margins Affirmed, the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978, posted in wins over rival Alydar in those two races.
Since then, 11 horses have won the first two legs only to come up short in the 1½-mile Belmont, also known as the "Test of the Champion."
The next three weeks will no doubt be intense: "There's a good chance I might change my phone number," O'Neill suggested.
And there will be fresh horses waiting for I'll Have Another in New York, including Dullahan (third in the Derby) and Union Rags (seventh).
But can they, or any other 3-year-old, beat I'll Have Another at Belmont Park?
"He's an amazing horse, and I'm just happy to be riding him," Gutierrez said.