BALTIMORE >> I’ll Have Another poked his head out of his stall, started nibbling on his nameplate tacked to a wall and looked up at all the people watching his every move.
Yes, I’ll Have Another came out of his thrilling Preakness victory over Bodemeister in "super shape," trainer Doug O’Neill said Sunday, and now it’s on to New York for a Triple Crown try in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.
"We’re ready. Bring it on," O’Neill said as he held court outside the stall of his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner. "I can’t put into words how incredible it is. We’re just on Cloud 9. It’s super exciting."
The colorful and controversial trainer returned to his home base in California later Sunday, and has begun making plans for the trip to New York in the next week or so. I’ll Have Another, meanwhile, was loaded onto a horse van en route for Belmont Park. O’Neill’s assistant, Jack Sisteron, will oversee the chestnut colt until O’Neill and the rest of his team arrive.
The trainer took time to soak in the moment at Pimlico, and contemplate the pressure-packed days that await leading to the first Triple Crown attempt since 2008. It will be the 12th try since 1978, when Affirmed won thoroughbred racing’s most elusive prize.
"It’s hasn’t completely sunk in yet," he said. "The party out here after the race was like wow! I’ve never seen anything like that — everyone so excited about horse racing and I’ll Have Another 2-for-2. I definitely feel the energy and buzz in the air."
He hasn’t seen anything yet.
The Triple Crown quest brought some tantalizingly close calls since Affirmed turned back Alydar in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont 34 years ago — the longest drought between Triple Crown champions.
There was Real Quiet in 1998, who looked like a lock to take the Belmont until he was nailed at the wire by Victory Gallop. And there was Smarty Jones, who also looked golden in the Belmont stretch only to be reeled in by 36-1 long shot Birdstone in the final 70 yards.
J. Paul Reddam, who owns I’ll Have Another, would like nothing better than to have his horse join the equine pantheon of Triple Crown heroes that includes Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Citation. He’s just not ready to deal with the three-week buildup to a race also known as the "Test of The Champion."
"I’m actually not looking forward to the next three weeks at all," Reddam said. "I know there is going to be a certain amount of tension, and I’m not eager to do a bunch of TV interviews. That’s not me."
O’Neill, however, has embraced the hoopla. He can’t wait to take Manhattan.
"Like we did in Louisville and Baltimore, when we come to New York we’re going to see the town, enjoy it, soak it in," he said. "And the reason we’re enjoying it so much is the horse has been thriving so much. If he continues to do good, we’ll have a good time."
There could be bumpy times, too. O’Neill has been under scrutiny over his many violations for giving his horses improper drugs. He has been accused in California of "milkshaking," the illegal practice of giving a horse a blend of bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes. The mixture is designed to reduce fatigue and enhance performance. He was fined $1,000 and suspended 15 days in one incident. He is contesting another and faces penalties ranging from a minimum 90-day suspension and a $5,000 fine to a maximum 180-day suspension and fine of $15,000.
"I can’t talk about all that stuff," O’Neill said. "I know we play by the rules, and I know we love our horses and we take great care of them."
He chooses to accentuate the positive.
"One thing we have here is an open door policy and a backstage pass for everybody," he said. "And it’s been a great opportunity to share with everybody who loves horse racing to see what goes into trying to take care of a horse," he said.
And that horse has proved again he’s deserving of a chance at greatness. Purchased for $35,000, he won the Santa Anita Derby by a nose over Creative Cause. He came back a month later and caught Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to take the Derby, and then produced an even more dramatic finish when he ran down Bodemeister in the final strides to win the Preakness by a neck.
In less than three weeks, I’ll Have Another will be looking for one more win — this one for history.