NEW YORK (AP) — He was a horse with no name, a yearling in a sales ring at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., about 90 minutes from Churchill Downs, home of the most famous race in the universe, the Kentucky Derby.
An exercise rider working for a training center in Florida liked what he saw, bought the colt for the low price of $11,000 with the idea of preparing him for the races, then selling him as a 2-year-old for a nifty profit.
If he had only known.
That unnamed baby became I'll Have Another, an extraordinary thoroughbred who with a win in Saturday's Belmont Stakes would become the 12th Triple Crown champion, and first in 34 years.
"I never saw this coming," says Dennis O'Neill, the brother of I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug, who picked out the horse at the Ocala Breeders' Sale for 2-year-olds in training in April 2011, and bought him for a modest $35,000 for owner J. Paul Reddam.
"Nowhere in our wildest dreams did we think we had a Derby winner," says Doug O'Neill. "I'm a very lucky guy to have such an amazing horse."
The story of I'll Have Another began at Brookdale Farm, 500 acres of Bluegrass in Versailles, Ky. That's where the stallion Flower Alley was bred to Harvey Clarke's mare Arch's Gal Edith.
Flower Alley won the 2005 Travers Stakes and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. His father was Distorted Humor, who produced 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide. On I'll Have Another's mother's side, there is a long line of horses with speed and stamina, an asset when it comes to the 1½-mile Belmont. Not regal bloodlines, but there was potential.
Upon arrival at the 2010 Keeneland November Yearling Sale, Victor Davila — who works for Eiasman Equine training center in Williston, Fla. — gave himself a $10,000 budget, but overspent by $1,000 on the colt. He liked the way the chestnut yearling moved, and after having turned profits on several previous purchases, figured the investment was worth it.
He saddled and broke the horse at his house, and then brought it to the Eiasman's training center.
"I don't' think anyone at that time in life recognized he would be vying for a Triple Crown," said Barry Eiasman, who runs the center with his wife, Shari. "His basic skills were good. He was like a good junior high school player. But he also had that one special aspect — a gusto for the sport — and he really was a nice runner."
Dennis O'Neill is a regular at the Ocala sale, and said over two days last April he bought six horses. The modest sized, muscular chestnut son of Flower Alley was "probably in the top three.
"He breezed 10 2/5 (for an eighth of a mile) and just had a beautiful fluid stride," said O'Neill. "When I took him out, I liked the horse physically and told Paul (on the phone) he'd probably go for $60,000 to $80,000."
When the hammer went down at $35,000, O'Neill was stunned. However, what happened a few minutes turned into a fateful decision.
The underbidder approached O'Neill, told him he "screwed up" and should have bought the horse. He offered O'Neill $60,000, a quick $25,000 profit. O'Neill called Reddam, told him about the deal, and Reddam turned it down.
"If it was me as the owner and I didn't have a buyer I wouldn't have owned him, and would have left $10 million on the table," said O'Neill. "It shows how fate sometimes plays into it."
Reddam sent the colt to Doug O'Neill, who runs one of the largest stables in Southern California. Reddam, meanwhile, said he named the horse after his answer when his wife Zillah asked if he wants more cookies. "I'll have another," he would reply.
I'll Have Another made his debut last July 3, going wire-to-wire at 5½ furlongs and winning by three-quarters of a length at Hollywood Park.
"When he won the first time out, the way he won we thought he was going to be a stakes caliber horse at that point," said Doug O'Neill.
The Best Pal, a Grade 2 race, was up next at Del Mar on Aug. 7. I'll Have Another, with Joel Rosario aboard again, was pressed the whole way and beaten 1¾ lengths by Creative Cause.
"I'd say Creative Cause was one of the best 2-year-olds in the country at that time, and at that point I was high on him," said Reddam.
On to Saratoga for the Grade 1 Hopeful on Sept. 5. A win and I'll Have Another would establish himself as an early top Kentucky Derby contender. But it wasn't to be. With Julien Leparoux aboard, I'll Have Another ran fifth over a sloppy track, came out of the race with sore shins, and was all but forgotten.
He was returned to California, and given five months to recover. Team O'Neill, though, needed a jockey. Reddam had seen a young rider named Mario Gutierrez, and was impressed with the way he handled himself in a race he had seen. He recommended him to O'Neill, and the trainer hired the 25-year-old from Mexico who had been riding at Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, before arriving in California for a go of it.
When he first climbed aboard I'll Have Another for a workout at Hollywood Park, Gutierrez was star-struck.
"I tried to compare him to horses I had ridden in the past, but I wasn't able to," he said. "He was so professional with the way he moves. He was like an expensive sports car with a lot of gears. Every time you switch gears to go faster, he'll just give it to you. Not many horses can do that."
I'll Have Another was ready to open his 3-year-old campaign, and was sent off at 43-1 odds in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on Feb. 4. With Gutierrez up, the colt stalked the pace, then sprinted away at the top of the stretch for a huge upset.
"He had trained really well going into it, but it was his first time going two turns and first time off a five-month layoff," said Doug O'Neill. "That was really an incredible effort. And that's when we started thinking not only is he a stakes horse, but a Derby caliber horse. I think the Bob Lewis was the last sign. We said 'aha!' This is the real deal here."
He was correct. I'll Have Another proved the win was no fluke when he nosed out Creative Cause to win the Santa Anita Derby on April 7. The rest has been well documented.
Sent off at 15-1 in the Kentucky Derby, I'll Have Another and jockey sensation Gutierrez caught front-running Bodemeister in the final 100 yards and won by 1½ lengths. Two weeks later, he did it again, reeling in Bodemeister in the final strides and winning by a nose.
In the Belmont, I'll Have Another will be the favorite for the first time in his career.
If you listen to Eiasman, it would be wise not to best against him. In fact, he and his wife, along with Avila and his family, will be at Belmont Park on Saturday to see if the yearling they singled out in Lexington, can become racing's 12th Triple Crown champion.
"When he gets in a racing situation, he has what it takes," said Eiasman. "He's the guy you want batting in the ninth inning of the World Series with the game tied. He will not fold under pressure."
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