Horseracing

I'll Have Another finally top pick

Hear from Doug O'Neill after the Belmont Stakes draw.
Hear from Doug O'Neill after the Belmont Stakes draw.
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Sam Gardner

Sam Gardner is a general assignment writer for FOXSports.com. Originally from Orlando, Fla., he previously covered the Orlando Magic for FOX Sports Florida and has also covered the NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Finals and MLB playoffs. Follow him on Twitter.

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NEW YORK

When I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez take the track at Belmont Park on Saturday with a $1 million purse and horse racing history at stake, they’ll do so from an unfamiliar spot at the betting windows — as the favorite to win.

In seven career races, I’ll Have Another never has run as a favorite. Only now — after wins in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness — is I’ll Have Another being tabbed as the likely victor, at 4-5 odds on the morning line, as he aims to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978.

Just 1-1/2 miles of dirt stand between the 3-year-old perennial underdog and racing immortality, and no one saw it coming. So when a horse brought up amid this little fanfare garners this much success, it almost begs the question: How in the world did this happen? How have gamblers missed so badly on such a good horse?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that I’ll Have Another is a thoroughbred who truly came from obscurity.

“No question about it,” New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling told FOXSports.com Tuesday during an interview at Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan, about 20 miles from the track where I’ll Have Another will take the post at 6:35 p.m. ET on Saturday.

“If someone had said, before he ran the Bob Lewis, ‘I went into my time machine, and this horse is going to win the Triple Crown,’ you would have told them, ‘I don’t know what you think you’re on, but you’re crazy.’ ”

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It was at that Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4 at Santa Aniita in Arcadia, Calif., that I’ll Have Another first grabbed the attention of the racing community. He won the 1-1/16-mile race as a massive, 43-1 long shot.

Two months later, at the Santa Anita Derby on the same track, I’ll Have Another came in as the bettors’ second choice to Creative Cause, the West Coast’s best bet at the time for a Triple Crown. But I’ll Have Another won again, this time edging the favorite by a nose.

Still, though, it wasn’t enough to make I’ll Have Another the prospective Kentucky Derby favorite. His odds were at 15-1 when the gates dropped on the May 5 race in Louisville — though they could have been much higher.

“You’ve got to realize, the Derby having 20 horses in it, 10- or 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby is a pretty good chance to win it, you know?” Serling said. “So he was a long shot, but not for the Derby. It’s just hard; he was just one of a number of horses who could win it.”

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I’ll Have Another did just that, passing Bodemeister down the stretch for a 1-1/2-length win. But even beating the Derby favorite wasn’t enough to put him ahead in the minds of oddsmakers and bettors for the second leg of the Triple Crown. So when the Preakness rolled around in Baltimore two weeks later, I’ll Have Another came in at 3.2-1 odds while Bodemeister was still the favorite at 1.7-1.

“Triple Crown races are funny,” Serling said. “I’ll always say if that race was the sixth race on a Thursday, they would have bet it very differently. But Bodemeister had run a better race in the Kentucky Derby than I’ll Have Another. It’s not just as simple as who finishes first, second and third, or we’d all be geniuses and win every day at the racetrack. So Bodemeister deserved to be favored over him at the Preakness.”

At post time, though, I’ll Have Another shined once more, this time edging out the rival Bodemeister by a neck at the finish line for a victory that netted $600,000 — not too shabby for a horse that was purchased for $35,000 in 2011 — and paid $8.40, $3.80 and $2.80 to bettors.

“He’s a horse that came from obscurity with a rider that people weren’t familiar with and (trainer) Doug O’Neill, who has been very successful, but he’s not Bob Baffert, who trained Bodemeister, or Todd Pletcher or Nick Zito, or one of these trainers everyone has heard of,” Serling said. “So he was kind of a little bit off the radar, and until winning that Preakness, people didn’t know whether or not they could really respect him, no matter how well he ran in his previous starts.”

Suffice it to say, they’ve learned now. With a Belmont win to cap an unfathomable run, I’ll Have Another’s name would be etched in racing lore, alongside the likes of Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Secretariat and Citation.

Meanwhile, O’Neill could put his name up along with the likes of Zito, who has two Derby wins, a Preakness, and two Belmonts under his belt; Pletcher, who won the 2007 Belmont with the filly Rags to Riches as well as the 2010 Derby; or Baffert, who has three Derby wins, five Preakness wins and Belmont win in 2001.

“It’s surprising, but I can understand,” O’Neill said of the low expectations for I’ll Have Another up until the Belmont. “When you’ve got a Baffert in any classic, if you’re betting hard-earned money, you’re going to bet what’s succeeded in the past.”

There’s one Baffert horse running in the Belmont, Paynter, who currently sits at 8-1 odds to win — but Bodemeister isn’t running. A few others, Dullahan (5-1) and Union Rags (6-1), are considered significant threats to I’ll Have Another’s run at glory.

For the rest of the long shots, it’s just an opportunity to become the next Triple Crown spoiler. In 2002, as a 70-1 long shot, Sarava ended War Emblem’s quest for the Triple Crown. In 2008, it was the 38-1 Da’Tara who spoiled the attempt by Big Brown, who didn’t finish the race.

“It’s a weird race, and Sarava proved it; Da'Tara proved it," said Ken McPeek, trainer of Atigun (30-1) and Unstoppable U (30-1). "It’s a great sport because you never know. If you’ve got one that’s eating well, doing well, and you’ve got a client who wants to play the game, that’s what it’s all about."

In the unpredictable world of thoroughbred racing, little is certain. But one thing for sure is that all eyes — and many bets — on Saturday will be on I’ll Have Another, who, after a yearlong climb to the top, is finally a favorite.

“This is why everyone is involved in horse racing,” Serling said. “There are a lot of people who have 50-1 shots in their barns in January that you would scoff at them if they said, ‘I’m not going to just win the Kentucky Derby, I’m going to win the Triple Crown.’ You would laugh at them.

“But it’s possible, and it shows the great possibility in this game. You can go from nowhere to the top of the heap in a very, very short period of time.”

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner

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