Recap and final thoughts on Kentucky Derby 138

Standing outside of barn 3, stall 17 at Churchill Downs Monday April 30th, I remember watching a groom carefully tend to Kentucky Derby contender I’ll Have Another’s shoe and ask several other workers to feel certain points from hoof to knee. A chiropractor going by the nickname of “The Thumper”, a moniker that befits an injury attorney rather than equine specialist, was standing several stalls down fielding questions from reporters and allowing them to try out his vibrating machine on their heads. He was flown in from Southern California with the rest of trainer Doug O’Neill’s operation for the main purpose of keeping I’ll Have Another limber and comfortable.

The entire scene did not give you the feeling I’ll Have Another was ready to run the race of his life five days later. However, I turned around and found O’Neill talking to a lone reporter. With a shaggy beard and wearing a baseball cap he made an almost unrecognizable appearance. “Beautiful mover”, “Loves the track”, “Can’t be doing any better”, were quotes that came pouring out from the 43-year-old trainer. He was relaxed, extremely confident, and happy to be flying somewhat under the radar. O’Neill attempted the Derby twice before, failing to hit the board in either attempt, but felt I’ll Have Another was the best shot he brought into the race so far.

I'll Have Another in his stall April 30th, 2012

On the track in the mornings I’ll Have Another was very eager in his gallops. By Thursday it almost appeared he was putting in an official workout down the backstretch, but he would come back hardly blowing or breaking a sweat. Based on his last two races, a belief the West Coasters were tough this year, and what I’d seen in the mornings, I decided the horse would be on a majority of my betting tickets.   

When the gates opened for the 138th Kentucky Derby, I’ll Have Another was at 15-1 odds. O’Neill said if the colt was based on the East Coast and had Todd Pletcher for a trainer he would have been among the top favorites. I’ll Have Another will likely not go off in double digits again for quite some time.

Piloted by an unfamiliar-to-most 25-year-old jockey Mario Gutierrez, I’ll Have Another sprung from post 19 and quickly made his way closer to the rail in the opening stretch of the Kentucky Derby. He was suddenly in an ideal spot taking a short route trip just behind a blistering pace set by the favorite Bodemeister. Not only did Gutierrez arrange perfect placement, but he also timed the upcoming winning move like a seasoned veteran. Into the final turn he asked for more and got it eventually grinding his way past a tiring Bodemeister to finish ahead by a length and a half at the wire.

L-R: Doug O'Neill, Gutierrez, Reddam, Dennis O'Neil
Gutierrez, a native of Mexico, toiled in the minor circuits of Mexico City, Vancouver, and Northern California before catching the eye of owner Paul Reddam at Santa Anita. Reddam decided to give him a shot on I‘ll Have Another in the Robert Lewis (G2) in February, where he won off a layoff and terrible race as a 43-1 shot. The partnership with the Derby contender was solidified with that win, and Gutierrez clearly loves the colt saying he “always reaches every step of the way”.  

I’ll Have Another is by a modest sire Flower Alley, whose stud fee is only $7,500. He is out of an Arch mare that only raced once and won. In the Keeneland September weaning sale of 2010 he sold for a mere $11,000. The following year he was sold again at the OBS Two Year Olds in Training sale for $35,000, still on the extreme low end of the majority of Kentucky Derby starters. Reddam said he thought it was a bargain at the time, but the price was attributable to a slow 2-furlong breeze. He was certain I’ll Have Another fit the profile for runners in his stable. 

While I’ll Have Another deserves most of the attention, I would be remiss not to mention Bodemeister’s effort. Setting torrid fractions­­– the fifth fastest of all-time in the Kentucky Derby– he almost pulled off a wire-to-wire victory. Afterwards trainer Bob Baffert and owner Ahmed Zayat praised the horse and jockey Mike Smith, although I’m not sure accolades should be given to the rider. Smith had to have known the pace would be quick with Trinniberg and Hansen in the field, but stubbornly guided the colt to the lead with no restraint whatsoever. Baffert said he would have nightmares about Trinniberg costing him his 4th Derby win, but after the first quarter mile Bodemeister was in the clear by over a length at every call until the last. So, saying he was under a lot of pressure the entire way is an overstatement. Nonetheless, Bodemeister is something special and showed his brilliance to hang on for second. Other horses that were just behind him on the pace– Hansen, Gemologist, Trinniberg, and Daddy Long Legs– finished 9th, 16th, 17th, and 20th respectively.

Dullahan and Went the Day Well completed the superfecta and appeared to be closing at the same lightning quick measure. If they had another 1/16th of a mile or perhaps cleaner trips they would have caught the winner and runner-up. They will both prove to be dangerous as they continue down the Triple Crown path and into the Breeders’ Cup season.

As with all Derbies, there were rough trips and disappointments for many. Union Rags, who left the gate as the second favorite, had a terrible trip when sandwiched and pinched back from the start. Later, he met trouble again when he was unable to get out of traffic along the rail to make a winning move. My top pick, Gemologist, appeared to have a clear trip in the early stages, but was too keyed up and essentially quit before the race really got going.  It was later revealed he suffered a bruised left front foot that was described as "dead lame".

For those who followed the Derby Trail from the beginning, it was a more rewarding experience than usual. One Kentucky Derby starter began racing last year as early as May, three in June, and six in July, including the winner. That’s half of the field competing in months when no one likes to even whisper Derby talk. 

Early juvenile graded stakes, which are commonly disregarded due to their short distance and spot on the calendar, gained some much-needed relevance. Races like the Best Pal (G2) at Del Mar and Saratoga Special (G2), both held in August, had multiple Kentucky Derby starters, including I’ll Have Another in the latter, battling it out over a mere 6 ½ furlongs. The granddaddy of all redheaded stepchildren, The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) brought 9 of its 13 entrants to the First Saturday in May.

We also had our fair share of drama that included torn hooves, chiropractors, cuts and infections, missed workouts, jockey switches and indecisions, last minute defections, and even a childish owner obsessed with a spray painted tail. It’s something new every year, which makes it an always-intriguing path to follow. And when you’re rewarded with a deserving and promising Kentucky Derby winner with humble connections, you hope the next chase goes as well as the last.