Five things to watch heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes

Five things stand in the way of I'll Have Another ending the Triple Crown drought

  • Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another is ridden by exercise rider Jonny Garcia during a morning workout at Belmont Park on Saturday.
Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another is ridden by exercise… (Al Bello, Getty Images )
June 02, 2012|By Chris Korman | The Baltimore Sun

When I'll Have Another narrowly dodged being clipped by a rider-less horse who had gotten loose on the Belmont Park track last week, he avoided the sort of complication nobody had been talking about.

Who could worry about something like that when there are so many other things that could go wrong?

The final leg of the Triple Crown has proved, for almost a century, to be difficult enough without factoring in unruly horses.

Eleven of the 30 colts who won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness managed to win the Belmont Stakes.

Eleven since the last to do it have failed.

On Saturday, I'll Have Another will attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and end a 33-year drought, the longest since Sir Barton first swept the races in 1919.

The bargain of a colt — I'll Have Another fetched a measly $35,000 at sale — has fared well in training at Belmont so far, trainer Doug O'Neill says.

"He jogged great, galloped super," O'Neill said Thursday. "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."

I'll Have Another will likely be, for the first time in his career, the morning-line favorite. But the Belmont has been difficult to handicap; last year's winner, Ruler on Ice, went off at 24-1. Sarava, who thwarted War Emblem's attempt to capture the Triple Crown in 2002, went off at 70-1. Since 1995, only three betting favorites have won.

The race is long, the shape of the track unique and the dirt surface dry and deep.

Which just means Belmont is the perfectly tumultuous final test for I'll Have Another.

Here's what stands in his way.

How will the young jockey handle it?

Mario Gutierrez has shown, so far, an uncanny ability to ride I'll Have Another. He timed his charge on Bodemeister — who will not be in New York — perfectly in the Kentucky Derby. At the Preakness, he again knew exactly when to move and won in a duel with veteran jockey Mike Smith at the end.

But the 25-year-old has never raced at Belmont. Inexperience, at least according to one veteran rider, will be his undoing. Kent Desormeaux, winner of six Triple Crown races and twice the jockey aboard a horse who won the first two legs but lost the third, does not believe Gutierrez will be able to acclimate to the mile-and-a-half race over a track of the same distance (both Churchill Downs and Pimlico Race Course are mile tracks).

Gutierrez will arrive early this week in New York. O'Neill and I'll Have Another owner J. Paul Reddam are hoping the jockey will ride in as many as 10 races before the Belmont. One of those races is the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap, which is also 11/2 miles. Veteran jockey Richard Migliore has offered to take Gutierrez on a tour of the track to share his insights.

Introduced to horses at a young age by his father, a jockey in Mexico, Gutierrez appears to be a natural whose light touch leaves his horses moving confidently when it matters. Winning the Belmont, though, might demand a firmer hand and a more refined race plan.

Has O'Neill been too distracted?

On his 44th birthday last month — 16 days before the Belmont and his opportunity to make history — O'Neill was given a 45-day suspension (it won't begin for several weeks, and he could appeal) and $15,000 fine by the California Horse Racing Board. It found that he had raced a horse with elevated total carbon dioxide levels in 2010. And though it ruled that he was not guilty of the illegal act known as "milkshaking," the most common cause of high total carbon dioxide levels, it punished him anyway.

His record had already been in question because of three other similar violations, and on Wednesday, New York's governing body — also the subject of controversy after the state recently seized control of the private company because of allegedly loose oversight — introduced new, stricter rules.

O'Neill, speaking to the Associated Press, shrugged off any suggestion that the changes are in response to his troubles, but his routine will surely be disrupted. At the Preakness, he had eschewed using the special stakes barn, preferring instead to keep all of his horses together. But I'll Have Another will be forced to move to a designated barn Wednesday, where almost every interaction he has with a human being will be documented.

Can I'll Have Another find a way?

The last four horses to win the Belmont and complete the Triple Crown did so by running in front of the pack for the entire race.

I'll Have Another has won a race in that fashion only once, when he broke his maiden in a 51/2-furlong race last summer.

I'll Have Another won the first two classics by moving into position right before the stretch, but Belmont's sweeping turns have sapped the energy of many contenders.

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