Saturday at Santa Anita brought the expected bright sunshine, impressive scenery and nice crowd. It also brought the completely unexpected.
In the big race of the day, the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds, the horse with the longest odds on the boards, I'll Have Another at 43-1, stole the day.
If you happened to punch the No. 4 on the betting machine or give the clerk at the window that number by mistake, you would have collected $88.60, $35.80 or $12.00 on a $2 bet, depending on your appetite for win, place or show. If you did something really silly, like putting $20 across the board, you are now booking your vacation flight.
This result was further startling because the Lewis Stakes is one of those key races leading up to the Kentucky Derby, the Holy Grail of racing. Usually, by now, just three months from that revered first Saturday in May, the main characters have been pretty well identified. I'll Have Another was not even on the radar. Before Saturday, in at least one Las Vegas sports book, gamblers were getting 200-1 odds on him winning the Derby.
I'll Have Another is owned by J. Paul Reddam of Anaheim, the one-time college professor turned owner of the quick loan company CashCall. Reddam has won two Breeders' Cup races and had four previous Derby entries, but with no luck. In 2007, his two entries finished 13th and 14th.
"It was pretty bad," he said Saturday.
I'll Have Another is trained by Doug O'Neill, who also trained those two Reddam Derby entries in '07. O'Neill is a successful Southern California trainer, but he admitted that the Kentucky Derby was a bit too much for him the first time around.
"He was a bit overwhelmed," Reddam said. "I think he felt just happy to be there. He said that, the next time, he would be there to win."
I'll Have Another was ridden by Mario Gutierrez, who is a top rider at the Hastings track in Vancouver, but has only 20 rides at Santa Anita this season. Ten of those 20 have been in claiming races. Before Saturday's stunner, Gutierrez's best efforts at Santa Anita were three places and a show. It was the first time he had ridden for O'Neill and his 10% of the $120,000 winner's purse brought him a nice $12,000 payday for his 1 minute 40.84 seconds over the 1 1/16 miles.
"We were sitting in the Front Runner restaurant [at Santa Anita] one day, watching the races," O'Neill said, "and Paul said we ought to give Mario a try sometime. So it was his call."
The call was also likely made easier because there weren't any A-list jockeys knocking down the door to get on I'll Have Another.
The horse was identified and recommended to Reddam by Dennis O'Neill, Doug's brother and business partner.
"I told Paul it would take between $80,000 and $100,000," Dennis O'Neill said. "Turned out there was nobody on him except me."
He paid $35,000 for the horse, and Reddam named him sitting on his couch.
"I'll sit there, having cookies," he said. "When my wife [Zillah] asks, I'll say, 'I'll have another.' So that's how he got his name."
What kind of cookies?
"Any kind … unfortunately," Reddam said.
The original plan had been to get I'll Have Another, a winner of one of three races lifetime, into a less high-profile allowance race. O'Neill pushed for that and Reddam overruled him.
"He loves to put up the money and take chances," O'Neill said, joking now, after the fact, that rumors he had advocated the allowance race "were not true."
The hair-challenged O'Neill has recently grown a beard and said that the obvious good luck it brought Saturday means he won't shave it. Reddam looked at the beard and said, "I thought that was just for grafting to your head."
Assuming he comes out of the race healthy, I'll Have Another will run next April 7 in the Santa Anita Derby, a final Kentucky Derby prep.
The favorite in the Lewis, Bob Baffert's Liaison, seemed empty on the home stretch and got squeezed so badly trying to find a hole to the finish line that jockey Rafael Bejarano got knocked off and third-place finisher Groovin' Solo had his number taken down. Bejarano rode in the next race and finished third.
The Lewis Stakes was one of three Grade II races on a day that drew 17,169. The Strub Stakes for 4-year-olds was also worth $200,000 and the Arcadia Stakes for 4-year-olds and up $150,000.
The Strub also brought a surprise winner, but not a shocker. Tapizar, prepared by famed Eastern trainer Steve Asmussen, was heavily favored and dawdled home a beaten fourth. Winner Ultimate Eagle paid $17.
In the Arcadia, the expected happened. A Triple Crown contender last year, favored Mr. Commons, who is trained and ridden by the Zenyatta combination of John Shirreffs and Mike Smith, squirted through a hole and held off an Irish horse, Willyconker, fittingly trained by the Irish O'Neill.
"He makes me feel like a kid again," Smith said. "I know he is going to go anywhere I ask him, and with extreme acceleration."
Shirreffs, a master of dry wit, was asked what the plan was going forward for Mr. Commons, who paid $2.80.
"Plan? I guess we have a plan," he said. "We're waiting for it to come to us. We've got a crock pot in the office. We'll just put it in there and see what happens."