I will be the first to admit that I'll Have Another kind of snuck up on me.
Early in the year, I didn't really know who he was. As the prep races for the Kentucky Derby were run, I could tell this is a deep year with a lot of nice horses. It is an above-average crop, for sure.
I'll Have Another showed he belonged with the best of the class when he beat a nice colt named Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby. The Kentucky Derby moved him up even more in my estimation. Bodemeister ran a heck of a race, but there was no denying the quality of the winner.
I regarded the Preakness as the toughest test for I'll Have Another, simply because I thought the configuration of the racetrack at Pimlico Race Course and the shorter distance would better suit Bodemeister. Just when I felt Bodemeister had it won, I'll Have Another dug down and got it done again. I could not help but be reminded of Affirmed.
I'll Have Another likes to battle just the way my colt did. He doesn't mind being in a dogfight. It appears to me the harder he is pushed, the more he likes it.
To win a Triple Crown, it is as much about the team as it is about the horse. It looks to me as though the winner of the Derby and Preakness has the right team behind him.
His jockey, Mario Gutierrez, looks as though he picks things up quickly. He's ridden the horse perfectly the first two races. He shows no sign that the pressure is getting to him. I don't think the moment will be too big for him.
I'll Have Another and Gutierrez will have to be at the top of their games to handle Dullahan and Union Rags, the two starters I see as the greatest threats to him. Both are class horses. Dullahan had a wide trip in the Derby. Union Rags has been as unlucky as it gets. It will surely help their cause that they skipped the Preakness.
The key question with them, and with every Belmont starter, concerns whether they will stay the mile and a half. Based on his history of strong finishes and his breeding, I'll Have Another should stay as well as any of them. Beyond that, he has a great turn of foot. That is a huge plus.
The key to the outcome will involve how Gutierrez uses that speed at a track where he faces an immediate disadvantage because of his lack of familiarity. Although he is riding a handful of races before the Belmont, there is no way he can match the experience of Johnny Velazquez (who picks up Union Rags) or other veteran members of the New York jockey colony who regularly compete at Belmont Park.
In my mind, you almost can't wait too long. When you turn for home, that stretch looks as though it goes on forever, especially if you are on the lead. That last eighth of a mile, sometimes you are running on a wing and a prayer.
I remember the desperation I felt when Affirmed was trying to fight off our old nemesis, Alydar. I had one thing remaining to do that I thought would help him find a final decisive burst. I began hitting him left-handed, something I had never done. It was my way of reminding him, "Hey, we're still fighting here."
And we fought our way into history.
I expect Mario and I'll Have Another to join us. I'll Have Another shows the best form right now. He has beaten every horse he has taken on this year through four races. I just think it's time.
While a Triple Crown winner won't change our sport, it would sure help. Just the way basketball needs another Michael Jordan, we need heroes and champions.
If I'll Have Another can join my beloved Affirmed and racing's other immortals, I will be the first to toast him. And maybe I'll have another.