That's heady company for a colt who has yet to be favored in any of his seven races. That should change in the Belmont.
"We're thinking Triple Crown, baby," elated winning trainer Doug O'Neill said. "He's a special horse. We'll see how he comes out of it, and if he comes out of it in good shape, we're heading to New York, baby."
I'll Have Another won by 11/2 lengths in the Derby and by a neck in the Preakness the same margins Affirmed posted in wins over rival Alydar in those two races 34 years ago.
But there's one big storyline difference this time: Bodemeister is skipping the Belmont. "He's getting off the bus here," trainer Bob Baffert said.
The 13⁄16-mile Preakness unfolded the same way as the 11/4-mile Derby, with the speedy Bodemeister moving to the lead under Mike Smith and I'll Have Another hanging back in fourth in the 11-horse field. The early fractions were slower than the Derby, but when it came time for Bodemeister to dig in, it was I'll Have Another who found another gear under young jockey Mario Gutierrez and surged past the tiring pacesetter in the shadow of the wire.
Since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, 11 horses have won the first two legs only to come up short in the 11/2-mile Belmont, the longest of the races also known as the "Test of the Champion." The most recent try came in 2008, when Big Brown was pulled up around the turn for home and did not finish. Before that, Smarty Jones was run down in the final 70 yards by Birdstone in the 2004 Belmont.
With the colorful and controversial O'Neill squarely in the limelight, scrutiny is sure to intensify about his violations for allegedly giving his horses improper drugs. He was fined $1,000 and suspended 15 days in one incident. He is contesting another.
"We know we play by the rules," O'Neill said. "It's all about the horse, and we're just going to focus on the horse."
I'll Have Another has made a habit of close calls. Before the Triple Crown began, the chestnut colt won the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over Creative Cause. As usual, owner Paul Reddam wasn't sure his colt would come through this time.
"I didn't feel confident we were going to get there until 10 yards from the wire," Reddam said. "I wasn't sure that we would get there, but I knew that our horse had a lot of heart and a lot of fight."
With a record crowd of 121,309 watching, I'll Have Another was sent off as the second choice at 3-1, with Bodemeister the 8-5 favorite. The winning time was 1:55.94.
I'll Have Another paid $8.40, $3.80 and $2.80. Bodemeister returned $3.20 and $2.80, and Creative Cause paid $3.60 to show.
Zetterholm was fourth, followed by Teeth of the Dog, Optimizer, Cozzetti, Tiger Walk, Daddy Nose Best, Went the Day Well and Pretension.
Baffert, a Hall of Famer and five-time Preakness winner, thought his colt named for his 7-year-old son, Bode would outlast I'll Have Another.
"I felt really good about where he was," Baffert said. "I really thought he was going to do it. The winner is a good horse. He should get the respect now that he deserves."
The victory was worth $600,000, boosting his earning to $2,693,600. Not a bad return for Reddam, who bought the colt for $35,000 on the advice of O'Neill's brother, Dennis.
"He showed he's the real deal. He's a real race horse. He gutted it out," Reddam said. "The other horse was not stopping. He ran a bang-up race, to come and catch him, how can you criticize that? For those who have followed the horse and bet on him, that's been pretty rewarding. I don't know if that will be the case next time, though."
I'll Have Another could have plenty of company for the Belmont, including some familiar foes from the Derby: third-place finisher Dullahan; seventh-place finisher Union Rags; eight-place finisher Rousing Sermon and 12th-place finisher Alpha. Other possibles include Paynter trained by Baffert and Peter Pan winner Mark Valeski.
Gutierrez, who was riding at Hastings Park in Western Canada until showing up in California last winter, displayed the calm and cunning of a veteran.
"It's not me, it's him. It's all about the horse," the 25-year-old jockey from Mexico said. "He just keeps proving people wrong. I'm so happy for him because he's such a great horse. He has a tremendous kick in the end."