I’ll Have Another has defeated 29 horses in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He’ll have to beat 11 more Saturday to win the Belmont Stakes and become the sport’s 12th Triple Crown champion.
His main challenger, Bodemeister, who finished second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, won’t run in the Belmont. But there are quality foes in the bulky Belmont field, which is one of the reasons the Triple Crown has been elusive the past 34 years.
For example, the past three Triple Crown winners – Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed – faced only four, seven and four Belmont opponents, respectively.
I’ll Have Another is perfect this year in winning the Robert Lewis, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. His running style epitomizes a push-button horse, which will aid him Saturday.
He rates kindly when jockey Mario Gutierrez wants him to relax early. And when Gutierrez asks for speed, typically at the top of the stretch, he has taken off jet-like and reached the finish line first.
Meanwhile, trainer Doug O’Neill has done all he can in keeping I’ll Have Another fresh. The horse’s last workout was April 27 at Hollywood Park. Instead, O’Neill has relied on long, strong gallops between starts.
Speed-figure handicappers believe I’ll Have Another is due to bounce, or regress, in the Belmont. O’Neill gave the colt a nine-week break between the Lewis and the Santa Anita Derby. Combine that with stamina-building gallops and it’s the best O’Neill can do to keep I’ll Have Another fresh and sharp.
Another negative angle, which no handicapper can figure out with certainty, is how badly a Belmont detention barn will affect the horses. Horses are creatures of habit, and changing those habits can have unknown consequences.
Only three of the Belmont horses have started in the Kentucky Derby and/or Preakness: Dullahan, Optimizer and Union Rags. I think Dullahan and Union Rags are the obvious threats.
Dullahan ran third in the Derby and was closing fastest of all. Trainer Dale Romans skipped the Preakness to focus on the Belmont. Dullahan has shown great energy in morning workouts and appears ready to fire.
Union Rags is a big, rangy horse that had trouble trips in the Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby. His trainer, Michael Matz, also skipped the Preakness. Union Rags will relish the big oval at Belmont Park, plus the race will suit his style, a strong galloping pace.
The standout among the new shooters is Paynter, a stablemate of Bodemeister, from the barn of trainer Bob Baffert. Paynter has good speed, which is an asset in the Belmont. Contrary to public belief, a horse with speed in the Belmont is much more dangerous than a dead late closer.
ENG’S PICKS – I’ll Have Another, Union Rags, Dullahan, Paynter.
■ MOHEGAN SUN – On Saturday, I’ll be at Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., for its free Belmont party. Tom Quigley, publisher of The Horseplayer Magazine, and I will be guest handicappers.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.