BALTIMORE — Twenty-three years ago, a California-based colt arrived for the Preakness Stakes fresh off a stirring triumph in the opening leg of the Triple Crown. Despite having conquered his much-hyped rival in the Kentucky Derby, that colt played second fiddle in the court of public opinion.
Like eventual champion Sunday Silence in 1989, this year's Derby winner I'll Have Another hasn't convinced everyone he is better than the foe who ran second on the first Saturday in May — and that was driven home when Bodemeister was made the 8-5 morning-line favorite after landing the No. 7 spot in Wednesday's post-position draw for the 137th Preakness.
That's all fine and good as far as I'll Have Another's connections are concerned, just as long as he continues to emulate his predecessor for at least the next few days.
Despite being overshadowed by rival Easy Goer in the run-up to the middle jewel of the Triple Crown, Sunday Silence triumphed more than two decades ago in what was one of the most memorable finishes the sport has seen.
Saturday's 13⁄16-mile Preakness also is being billed as a showdown between the one-two finishers in the Kentucky Derby. Bodemeister is looking to validate the praise he received for his runner-up effort and I'll Have Another, the 5-2 morning-line second choice out of post No. 9, is seeking to end speculation that the best sophomore runner might not have taken home the roses.
Unbeaten in three starts this year, I'll Have Another became the first Santa Anita Derby winner since Sunday Silence to capture the Kentucky Derby. Though Bodemeister was beaten by 11/2 lengths that day, the Arkansas Derby winner has been hailed as a freak for running one of the fastest half-miles in the race's history (:45.39) and still being the one to catch at the eighth pole.
"He was glorious in defeat," said Bodemeister's trainer Bob Baffert, who has saddled five Preakness winners. "He ran a great race, an incredible race; he deserves this chance. When I've won the Preakness, I've always won it with the best horse. We'll find out if we're the best horse."
Unlike the Kentucky Derby which had an abundance of contenders with early speed, the 11-horse Preakness lineup is looking like a two-horse battle for front-end supremacy.
Bodemeister was pushed through his early Derby fractions by Trinniberg and, behind him, juvenile champion Hansen. But with those two sitting out the Preakness, trainer Doug O'Neill said I'll Have Another could take over the duties of keeping his main challenger honest.
"We had talked about the possibility of being inside of Bodemeister and really forcing our hand to push him early," O'Neill said. "Now it's in (jockey) Mario Gutierrez's hands to still push Bodemeister, but we'll be on the outside of him. I like the fact that if Bodemeister is absolutely flying we don't have to use our horse to track him."
Though Gutierrez, 25, rode a picture-perfect race in his first Kentucky Derby, the up-and-coming jockey will not be under the radar for his second classic. Bodemeister has a Hall of Fame jockey in Mike Smith. Gutierrez has never ridden at Pimlico, but he has picked up some mounts in the coming days to try to gain experience over the oval.
"We were blessed to have (Secretariat's jockey) Ron Turcotte here the other morning, and he said you want to make sure you don't get too far back," O'Neill said. "Around the far turn here, it takes a little bit of an uphill turn, and he said a lot of times you'll get separation. And by the eighth pole it pitches down a little bit and it's hard to make up a lot of ground in the last eighth. It's almost like you have to treat the eighth pole as the wire."
There are four others from the Kentucky Derby field making the two-week turnaround for a Preakness run: Went the Day Well (fourth), Creative Cause (fifth), Daddy Nose Best (10th) and Optimizer (11th).
Went the Day Well and Creative Cause figure to be the most dangerous of the bunch, and both have the running styles to capitalize if Bodemeister and I'll Have Another take the best out of each other up front.
Went the Day Well in particular made a huge rally from well back in the 20-horse field during the Kentucky Derby — a performance that comforted and tormented Team Valor CEO Barry Irwin.
"When he ran fourth, I was not disappointed," said Irwin, whose Team Valor syndicate campaigns Went the Day Well. "I watched the replay, and I thought he could have run better. But then when I watched that blimp shot and I saw how he finished, I wanted to throw up because I knew that if he broke cleanly he could have won that race."