The silver Belmont Stakes trophy was five feet away from the table of I'll Have Another's connections at Wednesday's draw. So near, but still so far away -- a mile and a half, to be exact.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner drew post 11 in a field of 12 for Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes. He was installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite and will be the betting choice for the first time in his eight-race career. His most dangerous opponents -- on paper, anyway -- are Dullahan (post 5, 5-1), Union Rags (post 3, 6-1) and Paynter (post 9, 8-1), none of whom raced in the Preakness.
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Besides the top four, only Street Life (rail, 12-1), co-owned by Ward Melville High School graduate Dan Zucker and Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, is rated below 20-1. Optimizer (post 10) and My Adonis (12) are at 20-1; Unstoppable U (2) and Atigun (4) are 30-1, and Ravelo's Boy (6), Five Sixteen (7) and Guyana Star Dweej (8) are 50-1.
My Adonis is owned by George Hall, a 1978 Chaminade High School graduate and former Newsday paperboy, and his wife, Lori. The New Jersey residents upset last year's Belmont field with 24-1 shot Ruler On Ice. The Halls didn't make their decision to enter until Tuesday night.
Paynter, ridden by Mike Smith, looks like the controlling speed, and Unstoppable U also has early zip. I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, was pleased his superstar and jockey Mario Gutierrez drew outside Paynter.
"We have no strategy set," O'Neill said. "We'll put our heads together. But being in the 11 hole, we'll be able to see how the pace sets up. If they're crawling we'll hopefully be leading the crawl. And if they're flying, we'll be sitting in behind the horses flying."
Post positions are rarely significant in 1 1/2-mile races, and no one lamented or exulted over the luck of the draw.
If I'll Have Another doesn't win, most handicappers think the spoiler will come from among Dullahan, Union Rags and Paynter. Dullahan is training brilliantly, as is Union Rags, who had brutal trips with jockey Julien Leparoux in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. John Velazquez replaces Leparoux.
Six months ago, trainer Bob Baffert rated Paynter as better than his brilliant front-runner Bodemeister, a game runner-up in the Derby and Preakness. In his second career start two months ago, Paynter finished fourth, only 3 3/4 lengths behind I'll Have Another, in the Santa Anita Derby.
Jerry Crawford, the Iowa-based head of Donegal Racing, overruled trainer Dale Romans, who wanted to send Dullahan to the Preakness after finishing a fast-closing third in Louisville. "That was by argument, between Dale and myself," Crawford said. "If we'd won the Derby, and the way he finished, he certainly could have, of course we would have gone."
Romans admitted Crawford was right, and they're happy to have a fresh horse for the exhausting Triple Crown finale. Both praised I'll Have Another but made it clear they would have no regrets or mixed emotions if they prevented the first sweep of the classics since Affirmed in 1978.
"I don't think I'll Have Another, even with all the attention he's been getting, has gotten his full due yet," Crawford said. "Bodemeister was spectacular in the Derby and Preakness, and I'll Have Another ran him down both times. We're going to try to keep him from getting the Triple Crown, but if I'll Have Another wins Saturday, he will have exceeded all expectations."
O'Neill is confident his colt can become the 12th Triple Crown winner.
"It's been an incredible ride," O'Neill said, "and it's all thanks to the great I'll Have Another. His appetite is strong, his coat looks great and he couldn't be training better."