The last man to take a horse to Belmont with a chance to snag the elusive final gem in the Triple Crown has some advice for Doug O'Neill.
Stay true to the horse.
"I think trainers going around asking other people what they should do, looking for how to handle it, that's stupid," Rick Dutrow, trainer of Big Brown in 2008, said in a phone interview Sunday. "It's got to be about your horse. Whatever anybody else did doesn't matter. You know your horse."
O'Neill, trainer of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another, has already disregarded common wisdom over the past three weeks. His decision to come to Baltimore two days after the Derby, eschewing the decades-old trend of shipping only a few days before the race, now seems brilliant.
His large entourage — he had at least eight different people working with the horse — was unusual. Employing the close-knit contingent relied on considerable financial investment from owner Paul Reddam, of course, but also bent the idea that a thoroughbred might respond best when it forms strong bonds with only a few people.
Against the odds — literally, as he has yet to be favored in a race — I'll Have Another has put himself in position to become the 12th Triple Crown winner. He'll be the 12th horse to have that chance since Affirmed won all three races in 1978. And he could break the longest drought — 33 years — since Sir Barton first accomplished the feat in 1919.
Sunday morning from Pimlico, O'Neill appeared unbowed by the increased pressure. A Triple Crown winner has long been seen as the panacea for all that ails the sport. Whether true or not, O'Neill has said he'll gladly take that burden.
Dutrow said that the media attention should not bother O'Neill. Both men have faced questions about medication issues with their horses while simultaneously thriving in front of cameras.
"That part was fun, actually," Dutrow said. "I don't see how that could get to you or the horse."
Dutrow brashly predicted a win prior to his Belmont, calling it a "foregone conclusion" and saying the other "horses just cannot run with Big Brown." O'Neill will have no such issue. Though he's repeatedly showed confidence in his horse, boasting comes as naturally to him as running the last few yards of a race comes to poor Bodemeister, spectacular runner-up in both the Derby and Preakness.
O'Neill likewise won't have to deal with what Dutrow said was the hardest part of his three-week wait for the Belmont: strife with his jockey. Big Brown, he said, never liked Kent Desormeaux, but the colt's owners insisted on keeping the hall of fame rider. Dutrow and Desormeaux quarreled after Big Brown's rough ride, which ended with him being pulled up despite no obvious injury.
For Mario Gutierrez, the Triple Crown rookie, O'Neill has had nothing but praise.
Big Brown had suffered a quarter crack on his front left hoof a week after the Preakness, and although Dutrow called it "a hiccup" at the time, he views the time it cost the colt on the track — about three days — as one of the things that hurt his chances.
There are few times that any trainer would ask a horse to run three races in six weeks, let alone at such long distances against top-level competition. Lack of resiliency — not lack of talent — in today's horses has generally been cited as the reason for a lull in Triple Crown winners.
"Not many trainers have to ever deal with this situation," Dutrow said. "So it's more important than ever that you just take what the horse tells you."
I'll Have Another appeared fine — even frisky — Sunday morning as he prepared to leave Baltimore on a van headed to New York. He nipped at his handlers after eating everything in his feed tub.
"He looked great," O'Neill said. "He had licked his feed tub. Once we cleaned the poultice off, his legs were ice cold. He had good energy."
O'Neill hadn't yet decided what he'll do with I'll Have Another in the coming days, but the colt probably won't run on the track until at least midweek.
O'Neill actually flew back to California on Reddam's private jet to check on his horses there. Assistant Jack Sisterson and others accompanied the horse to New York, hitting traffic along the way and arriving almost six hours after departure.
Basically a Pimlico rookie — he'd never seen one of his horses race in Baltimore until this week — O'Neill has more familiarity with Belmont. One of his colts, Stevie Wonderboy, won the Breeders' Cup juvenile there in 2005 and would have been a 2006 Triple Crown contender had he not shattered an ankle in February.
Still, the shape of the track and length of the track are cause for concern.
As are the fresh shooters.
Union Rags remains pointed at the Belmont. The Michael Matz-trained colt won the Champagne Stakes there last year, which marked him as one of the top horses in the age group. He sat out the Preakness following a troubled but intriguing run — at least the last part — at the Derby. Matz said the mile-and-a-half race won't trouble Union Rags.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem," Matz said. "He's won there before, so I don't think that part of it will be a problem."
Dullahan, third place in the Derby, will also be fresh for Belmont. He had a promising workout at Churchill Downs on Sunday.
"He's on track for a big Belmont," trainer Dale Romans said.
And while D. Wayne Lukas would not guarantee that his Derby and Preakness horse, Optimizer, would be part of the field in New York, the 13-time winner of Triple Crown races — tied for the most all time — did promise one thing.
I'll Have Another "is a nice horse," he said. "But we're not going to hand it to him. He's got to earn it."
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