Summer promises competitve racing
Let the summer racing season begin.
I'll Have Another may be at the top of the class of 3-year-olds for now, but the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner is off to retirement after a tendon injury forced him to miss the Belmont Stakes and a chance to become the first Triple Crown champion in 34 years.
A big blow to the sport for sure, though it sets the stage for Belmont winner Union Rags, and perhaps another 3-year-old or two, such as trainer Bob Baffert's Bodemeister and Paynter, to make a run at a division championship with a sizzling summer campaign.
Union Rags' trainer Michael Matz is conceding nothing to I'll Have Another in the quest for an Eclipse Award.
''It all depends on how we finish the season,'' Matz said Sunday, the day after his colt nipped Paynter by a neck in the 1-1/2-mile Belmont.
I'll Have Another won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in similar fashion, running down Bodemeister in the final 100 yards in the Derby and duplicating the feat — this time in the final 20 yards — in the Preakness.
''They ran one time against each other, and that was it,'' Matz said of the Derby, where his colt had a troubled trip and finished seventh as the second favorite. ''(I'll Have Another) was very impressive in those two races he ran with Bodemeister. Again, I was so confused with the voting last year as a 2-year-old, who knows what can go on?''
In 2011, Union Rags won his first three starts, including the Champagne by 5-1/4 lengths but finished a close second to unbeaten Hansen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was beaten out for the Eclipse Award for 2-year-old male champion.
Union Rags, with John Velazquez aboard for the first time after replacing Julien Leparoux, came through along the rail for the win, one that reaffirmed Matz's belief that his colt was a serious Triple Crown threat going into the Derby.
Union Rags was back the Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., where he will get time off before his next start, likely in the Jim Dandy at Saratoga on July 28 or the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park a day later. The goal is the Travers at the Spa on Aug. 25.
Paynter proved he's an up and comer. In only the fifth race of his career, the son of Awesome Again led throughout but could not hold off the relentless charge of Union Rags. The loss left Baffert a runner-up in all three Triple Crown races.
''Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?'' he asked after the Belmont.
Here are some numbers to make Baffert wonder: His horses were leading the Triple Crown races about 98 percent of the time. The combined distances of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont total 3-15/16 miles, or 6,930 yards. His horses were in front for about 6,800 yards.
Paynter returns to Santa Anita, but will head back East for the Jim Dandy, and then the Travers. Bodemeister is being pointed to the Haskell.
Paynter came out the Belmont with a nick on his left hind leg after losing a shoe during the race.
''I don't know when it happened, but it must have been near the end,'' Baffert said.
Look for the return of Withers winner and Wood runner-up Alpha in the Jim Dandy, as well as Wood Memorial winner Gemologist, who finished 16th in the Derby in his first loss and is recovering from a foot injury. Creative Cause, fifth in the Derby and third in the Preakness, also is a horse to watch when he returns.
And there's a few 3-year-olds on the rise, including trainer Ken McPeek's Atigun and Unstoppable U.
Unstoppable U remained in contention until the stretch and faded to sixth in the Belmont, while Atigun making a strong move and finishing third at odds of 20-1.
''We asked a lot out of Unstoppable U,'' McPeek said of his colt making his third start. ''He ran a great race. We'll look for a Grade 2 or Grade 3 for him, or possibly the Haskell.''
Atigun will be on the Jim Dandy, Travers track.
''With I'll Have Another retired, it's going to be an interesting second half of the season,'' Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha, said. ''There are some nice horses out there, and there's some new ones we know of yet that will keep improving.''
Hansen, ninth in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and missed Saturday's Woody Stephens at Belmont because of a low red blood cell count, could show up next in the Iowa Derby on June 30, followed by the West Virginia Derby on Aug. 4.
Velazquez, meanwhile, got his third Triple Crown race victory. Each time, he inherited the mount. He won the 2007 Belmont with Rags to Riches and the 2011 Derby with Animal Kingdom.
''All my (Classic) wins are horses that I picked up. It's incredible,'' Velazquez, who will be inducted into racing's Hall of Fame in August, said. ''After riding so many good horses all these years . . . some of the best horses I've been on didn't make the Derby. I guess that's part of the business, and I guess that's the way it was meant for me. Some people get lucky and get a good horse.''
I'll Have Another retires with five wins in seven starts and earnings of $2,693,600 for owner J. Paul Reddam, who bought the colt for $35,000 about 14 months ago. He won all four of his races in 2012, starting with the Robert B. Lewis and the Santa Anita Derby. The colt was set to return to California on Monday.
''It usually takes horses 10 days to two weeks to wind down,'' trainer Doug O'Neill said. ''Once he's ready to go to the ranch, he will. I'd love to keep him around forever, but he'll stay with us until he has a final spot.
''Hopefully in the next few weeks, they'll ink some type of deal.''