Preakness Stakes 2012: I’ll Have Another is more impressive in this leg of the Triple Crown

BALTIMORE — I’ll Have Another came into the Preakness facing one of the toughest possible tactical situations in racing. His most formidable rival, Bodemeister, was the solitary front-runner in the field and would be able to control the pace as his jockey dictated. That’s usually a formula for victory whether the scenario develops in a maiden race or the second leg of the Triple Crown.

So when I’ll Have Another made his last surge in the Pimlico stretch and caught the leader, this wasn’t simply a case of a stretch-runner overhauling a tired leader. Bodemeister is a superior speed horse and he ran as well Saturday as he has ever done in his short career. I’ll Have Another’s performance — though the winning margin was only a neck — was much more impressive and authoritative than his triumph in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier.

He and Bodemeister both ran fast and trounced the rest of the field by almost nine lengths, erasing the impression that this is a mediocre group of 3-year-olds.

In the Derby, Bodemeister had to set a torrid pace to outrun other fast rivals, and I’ll Have Another’s little-known jockey, Mario Gutierrez, secured a perfect trip to rally and catch the tired favorite in the stretch. But when the other speed horses defected from the Preakness field, Gutierrez was put in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t position. Should he try to put pressure on Bodemeister, and risk enervating his own mount, or let Bodemeister have an unchallenged lead. Before the race, Gutierrez told trainer Doug O’Neill: “If he goes slow I want to be on top of him.” O’Neill assented.

But when the gate opened at Pimlico, Gutierrez did something that demonstrated a coolness and sophistication that few people would have expected from a jockey who had spent most of his life in the minor leagues. He didn’t try to impose his will on his horse. He neither restrained I’ll Have Another nor pushed him to chase Bodemeister. He got him out of the gate with alacrity, but then was willing to let I’ll Have Another run his own race.

As Bodemeister took command early, another rival, Creative Cause, tried to chase the leader and apply mild pressure, while I’ll Have Another settled into fourth place and got hung three-wide on the first turn. As owner J. Paul Reddam watched, he was fretting: “When he got caught wide at the first turn, I was saying ‘I don’t know if I like this.’ ”

Jockey Mike Smith, meanwhile, loved the way the Preakness was developing. He was nursing Bodemeister on the lead, maintaining a one-length advantage over Creative Cause, and his mount was behaving perfectly. Bodemeister wasn’t headstrong, as young horses with his running style can be; he cruised on the lead and hit the half-mile mark in 47.68 seconds — a soft pace that should have given him an insuperable advantage. It was the slowest half mile in the Preakness since 1982, when Aloma’s Ruler went in 48 seconds and proceeded to lead all the way. The racing strip at Pimlico on Saturday was relatively slow, but the track was no slower than last year, when Shackleford vied for the lead in 46.87 and went on to win.

Bodemeister shook off the ineffectual challenge of Creative Cause on the turn and opened a three-length advantage in the stretch. That’s when Gutierrez asked his mount to run in earnest. At first he barely cut into the leader’s margin; Bodemeister was still strong after those slow fractions. An eighth of a mile from the finish line, I’ll Have Another still looked beaten. That was Smith’s impression. “I thought I put him away,” the Hall of Famer said. Bodemeister’s trainer Bob Baffert was feeling confident, too: “I really thought he was going to do it.”

But in that final furlong, to the roar of 121,309 people, I’ll Have Another surged powerfully and Bodemeister could not repel the challenge, just as he couldn’t repel it at Churchill Downs. But though the finish at Pimlico may have looked much like the Derby to casual observers, this race helped redefine both horses — and this equine generation.

I’ll Have Another’s final time of 1:55.94 was a super effort considering the slowness of the racing strip. He and Bodemeister earned preliminary Beyer Speed Figures of 109, which would be the fastest Preakness performance since Curlin — the eventual horse of the year — won in 2007. The winner is not in the league of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed — names that will be evoked frequently in the next three weeks as I’ll Have Another aims to become the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. But he proved at Pimlico that he is worthy of the task.

For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.

 
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