For every dreamer, potential Triple Crown champion I'll Have Another offers hope.
He was purchased for $11,000 as a yearling and later for $35,000 by Dennis O'Neill on behalf of J. Paul Reddam at an Ocala, Fla., sale for two-year-olds in training. Reddam was so surprised by the price that he asked O'Neill, "What did you miss?"
After Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes victories and $2,693,600 in earnings, the more appropriate question for the prescient O'Neill has become, "What did you see?"
"He was a little weak behind and his legs were kind of long," he said. "Buying these horses, you are trying to project what they are going to look like in six months. That's what I do. Sometimes you're right.
"The horse just blossomed. If you look at him now, he's a magnificent animal. He filled out behind and grew into his legs. He's a very correct horse and that same stride he has is just awesome. He's just a beautiful-moving animal."
Part of Thoroughbred racing's charm is that glory cannot be bought. Doug O'Neill, who trains I'll Have Another and is Dennis' brother, said of the modest sums the Kentucky-bred twice brought, "It's something a group of people could have invested in and been sitting where we're sitting.
History is replete with bargain hunters' delights:
- 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew was purchased as a yearling for $17,500 in July 1975. There was nothing about him that suggested greatness. Trainer Billy Turner thought so little of his appearance that he often referred to him as an "ugly duckling."
- The great gelding John Henry, who earned $6.59-million, was a $1,100 yearling purchase. He ran five times in claiming races, making him available to any qualified owner. There were no takers.
- Northern Dancer, who won 14 of 18 starts before he was retired in 1965, failed to sell for $25,000 as a yearling. He was so unimpressive in stature that Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote, "You wouldn't pick him over a burro if you placed them side by side."
No wonder Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito is fond of saying, "Nature keeps everything on the level."
No wonder O'Neill views every horse that enters his barn as having the potential for greatness.
"With all of your horses, your expectations are high," he said. "And then when you start training and getting closer to competing, they usually dwindle. When you see their morning workouts, you realize they are not what you dreamt they would be."
It was different, of course, with I'll Have Another. The more O'Neill saw, the more enthralled he became with him.
"He's always had that brilliant stride," he said. "He never lost that through all the training and racing."
Then came a lucky break - in the form of an injury. Shin problems eliminated the demanding Breeders' Cup Juvenile from any consideration and sidelined him for the rest of the season. Doug O'Neill calls that a "blessing in disguise" because it gave the two-year-old valuable time to develop and mature.
Another bit of good fortune came at the very beginning, when Doug opted not to accompany his brother to the sale. He readily admits that he might have passed on the horse who can become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years by winning the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
"He didn't have the size and length and all the wowing things trainers are looking for," Doug said. "He was nice, but he wasn't perfect."
Doug's tendency is to see flaws while Dennis eyes potential. This has triggered more arguments at sales than either brother wished to engage in. Doug finally agreed to allow Dennis to go bargain hunting on his own.
"We do our best work," Doug said, "when I stay home."