The withdrawal from the Belmont and retirement from racing of Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another today makes this story from Amy Isackson on our show The California Report, which ran on the radio a mere minutes before the news broke this morning, all the more poignant. The script has been edited to take into account today's developments...
By the way, the horse's jockey, Mario Gutierrez, rode at Golden Gate Fields in Albany in 2009-10.
Horse racing has suffered lately from low attendance, drugging scandals and the exposure of a dismal safety record. But an unlikely grouping of southern California trainers, a Mexican jockey and a horse nearly overlooked at auction had a shot at reviving racing with what would have been the first Triple Crown win in 34 years.
The Cinderella tale began with a tail, literally. A short stubby horse’s tail.
"Babies, they bite each other's tails," says Leondoro Mora, the assistant to I'll Have Another trainer Doug O’Neill. "So they chew it. He was the unlucky one who some other baby was chewing his tail."
I'll Have Another was valued at more than $10 million based on the two precious jewels -- The Kentucky Derby and The Preakness -- it has under its saddle.
At Hollywood Park’s backstretch, as a groom raked out the barns and the horses finished eating their breakfast, Mora says that just a year ago I’ll Have Another was no gem. "He was little and he had no tail and lots of people go buy a horse for his body and when they see the tail chopped off, they think it is a cheap horse."
Last spring, the horse was up for auction in Florida, and Team O’Neill was there in search of new ponies. The little brown horse didn’t have a name yet, and he wasn’t a looker, but O’Neill’s guys were able to see beyond the horse’s abbreviated backside. They were impressed with his efficient stride and picked him up for $35,000, chump change in the horse racing world.
Mora says after awhile, the horse’s tail grew. He looked good on the track, but not great. And he got a name, which was just as serendipitous as his purchase.
"Paul Reddam was having coffee or tea with his wife at home," he says of the horse's owner. "And they had some cookies, and she asked Paul, "Do you want another cookie? He says, 'I'll have another.'"
And a name was born.
Enter a jockey named Mario Gutierrez.
Six years ago, a talent scout plucked him from a track in Mexico and brought him to Canada...where he attracted zero recognition. Last winter, he headed south to try his luck at Santa Anita.
About that time, O’Neill and Reddam were looking for a jockey to ride I’ll Have Another in a big race, but their first and second choices were already taken. Reddam remembered Gutierrez. They pulled him out of his barn and told him they’d give him a try. Together, Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another rode to victory -- like hand in glove, says Sandy Gann, who’s worked closely with the jockey.
"He had the patience of Job and the hands of an angel. He had natural talent that you can't teach," Gann says.
Mora says that was the race that showed how I’ll Have Another could run. After that, they knew they’d be in the Kentucky Derby.
The Saturday of the Derby, I’ll Have Another went into the starting gate as a 15 to 1 longshot. He rode in seventh place for most of the race, but on the turn for home his stubbornness kicked in. Horse and rider devoured the ground to pass the leader for the win. Mora watched from his Hollywood Park barn. "I got goose bumps and I took a couple of shots of tequila," he said.
Two weeks later, it was onto the Preakness in Baltimore, where I’ll Have Another gave another heart-thumping performance on the way to victory.
George Ortuzar manages marketing at Hollywood Park. He says this odyssey has been wonderful for California racing. "It's always been an air of the snobby people in the East," he says. "You know, with their best-bred racehorses against those guys on the West Coast."
But the attention hasn’t all been positive. A recent New York Times investigation tallies the rate of breakdowns and injuries for Doug O'Neill's horses at more than double the national average.
A few weeks ago, California’s Horse Racing Board fined and suspended O’Neill for 45 days, starting in July, for running a horse that wasn’t fit to race.
This is one of more than a dozen violations O’Neill has racked up around the country in the last 14 years.
Mora says they’ll fight this latest sanction and denies doing anything illegal to give horses an advantage.
Meanwhile, Belmont Stakes officials have required all trainers to move their horses into a high-security barn so officials can keep an eye on everyone.
Before I'll Have Another's withdrawal from the Belmont, Mora said he'd be at the race praying, wearing his lucky shirt.
"If he wins, I'm going to need an oxygen tank or something, because I don't know what is going to happen. I don't know what to tell you because I waited 30-plus years for this to happen. Not only me, everybody else around the nation, including California."