BALTIMORE — It was as if they were watching a replay of the race they had experienced two weeks ago.
Bob Baffert was standing inside Pimlico's indoor paddock Saturday. Seven-year-old son Bode was in front of him. Wife Jill was at his side.
All eyes were on the NBC HD monitor, the one showing Baffert's Bodemeister, named for Bode, leading the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes just as he had led the 138th running of the Kentucky Derby, at the beginning, the middle, and nearly the end.
Bodemeister was leading, leading, leading. The Pimlico wire was coming, coming, coming. And then in deep stretch here came another horse closing, closing, closing until, just before the finish, closing became passing and passing became winning.
I'll Have Another, who won this Preakness before a record crowd of 121,309, is not just another horse.
This wasn't the same race. This was more impressive than the race two weeks ago.
The Preakness is one-sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Kentucky Derby's 11/4 miles. Bodemeister ran slower fractions Saturday than in the Derby. And yet, I'll Have Another caught Bodemeister all over again.
"I think there was a common feeling from what I read that the horse won the Derby because he got the perfect trip," J. Paul Reddam, I'll Have Another's owner, said afterward in the news conference tent, a gaggle of connections whooping and hollering in the background.
"I think today went at what I would call a reasonable pace. He didn't have trouble, but he was certainly wide the first turn. He shows that he's the real deal. He's a real racehorse. He gutted it out."
Can I'll Have Another "gut out" the Belmont Stakes? Get ready. Here we go. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. That's 34 years. A horse hasn't won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness back to back since Big Brown in 2008.
There hasn't been a trainer, at least a recent one approaching a possible Triple Crown, like Doug O'Neill, either. Asked if he might throw out a first pitch at Yankee Stadium (as he did here at Camden Yards) or appear on the Letterman show, O'Neill blurted, "I would love to."
Barclay Tagg he's not.
We will not see the same race a third time, however.
For one thing, Bodemeister won't be at the Belmont. Neither New York nor the mile-and-a-half distance is on his travel itinerary.
"The bus stops here," said Baffert after the race.
Dullahan, third in the Kentucky Derby, will be fresh after skipping the Preakness. So will Union Rags, Michael Matz's star who played bumper cars at Churchill Downs and never got to run his race. He should be ready June 9.
I'll Have Another has proven tough to outrun, however. He's now 4-for-4 this year. His freshness should be an advantage.
Plus, he has a running style that appears perfect for the Belmont's unusually long run. His pedigree appears advantageous to the marathon distance.
"Look, there are a lot of horses that have been in this position the last 15 years and it didn't happen for them," Reddam said. "So we're only two-thirds there, right? So we've got to be cool and block everything out. When we get to the Belmont, just ride the race, and if it happens, it happens."
It could happen.
"The way this horse runs, they're going to have a hard time catching him," said Dennis O'Neill, Doug's brother and the bloodstock agent that picked out the $35,000 purchase for Reddam. "I don't think anybody doubts he'll get the mile and a half. So we're excited. I can't wait to get to New York."
The guy who finished second again, Baffert, has worn similar shoes to the Big Apple. Three times he took a Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner to New York on the verge of a Triple Crown.
Silver Charm won the first two legs in 1997. Real Quiet won the first two in 1998. War Emblem won the first two in 2002.
None of the three could win the Belmont.
"The next leg," Baffert said, "is always the toughest."
He's seen that race, too.