Bucking The Odds

BREAKING NEWS: I'll Have Another Has Scratched from the Belmont Stakes Due to Injury. Here's what John had to say.

In a matter of moments after my Friday column was posted, I received the shocking news that I'll Have Another was scratched from the Belmont due to the onset of tendenitis in the left front.

I'm willing to take trainer O'Neill at his word despite conspiracy theorists, but, as a member of the media, I was disappointed for two reasons.

1. O'Neill chose to break the news on Dan Patrick's low-rated TV show, rather than notifying the turf writers, who have been tracking the horse and trainer's every move 24/7 since the Preakness.

I know if I had been a part of the media, which had been putting in 12-to-14 hours a day raving about Team O'Neill, I would have been very disturbed to get the news in this fashion.


2. O'Neill has been writing a daily diary for the New York Post. In Friday's editions, he penned the following: "I'll Have Another continues to train great. Good energy. Good stride. He's healthy and injury-free. That's the key to this whole thing."

That said, how does he explain Friday that a) IHA "whacked" himself at some point Thursday, and b) he sent the horse to the racetrack Friday morning at 5:30, three hours earlier than the media was expecting.

In the aftermath of the announcement of the scratch, everyone -- NYRA, rival trainers, etc. -- are all saying the right things -- they feel bad for the horse, and for the connections, etc., etc.

Oh, well. It could have been much worse. O'Neill could have waited 24 hours to announce the scratch when the joint would have been packed. Or, worse yet, he could have run I'll Have Another, and the horse breaks down during the race.

Like everyone else, I'm glad the injury isn't life-threatening, and IHA likely wi'll be a productive stallion.

If the colt's connections were not totally honest so be it. It wasn't the first time, and it won't be the last.

Meantime, as far as the Triple Crown is concerned, let us wait 'til next year.

It won't be long before I'll Have Another is yesterday's news.


By John Piesen

Seven springs back, standing above a crowd of 65,000 at Oaklawn Park, I watched Afleet Alex explode from the pack to win the Arkansas Derby by a dozen lengths. I thought for sure I was eyeballing the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

As the fates would have it (a bad trip in the Derby), Afleet Alex wound up "settlling" for two-thirds of the Triple.

But little did I -- or anyone else -- know that beautiful spring day in southwestern Arkansas, that Flower Alley, a remote second to Alex in the Arkansas Derby, would go on to sire the horse who, six years later, will be the first since Affirmed...

Of course, I'll Have Another still has to win the Belmont, but if you believe most of the media, that will be just a formality.

Of course, there are the doubters.

"I have a better chance of climbing Mount Kilimanajaro on roller skates than I'll Have Another does of winning the Belmont," says sports columnist/poker whiz Norman Chad.

Personally, I wouldn't go that far...even though I'm proud to say I have a daughter who climbed Mount Kilimanjaro (without the roller skates), but I agree that I'll Have Another will get beat.

You can find my somewhat shocking selection here online, or by calling the John Piesen Hot Line toll free at 1-888-612-2283. We're talking Big Mo here. The 13-race Full Card is available and will take care of all the exotics including the $1 million pick-4 and pick-6.

Chad makes an interesting point:

"I don't have an advanced degree in math or statistics," he says, " but I do recognize that if a set of conditions produces a  similar result 11 times out of 11,  there is a 100 per cent chance the 12th time will yield the same result."

You'll recall the last two leap years, Smarty Jones and Big Brown were regarded as sure things to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed...and, we all know what happened. And no one can tell me that I'll Have Another is in the same league as Smarty and Brownie.

The Smarty comparison is especially significant because we are looking at a similar circumstance.

Although jockey Elliott was a seasoned veteran, he was unfamiliar with the racetrack and the distance, and rode Smarty with the proverbial target on his back. Jockey Gutierrez is a stone cold rookie, a Belmont Park novice, and, likewise carries a target on his back.

(Elliott didn't help his cause by spending most of Belmont Day working on endorsements with Mad Men types).

Take a glance at the other riders in this Belmont field. Virtually all are talented, seasoned veterans with a rich history of accomplishments at Belmont Park.

Jockeys Leaparoux and Desormeaux, although dumped from Union Rags and Dullahan, respectively, wound up accepting mounts on longshots with little or no chance. It's not difficult to read their minds. Obviously, both think the favorite is beatable.

And what about Mike Smith? The Hall of Famer, who hates to fly, is making the 6,000-mile round trip from LAX to ride Paynter, a horse who's had only four races.

Folks who toss Paynter are the same folks who tossed Drosselmeyer, with jockey Smith up, in the Belmont and Breeders' Cup Classic.

This I get.

What I don't get is that Jerry Bailey, Mike's best buddy, back in '04 conspired to get Smarty Jones beat in the Belmont. The universal thinking at the time was that Jerry felt, if someone were going to win the Triple Crown, it would be Jerry Bailey.

Fast forward eight years...and now, Bailey, since retired and toiling as a TV racing commentator, took time out this week to tutor jockey Guitterez on riding the Belmont Stakes.

Back to damning statistics for a moment:

  1. Five of the last 12 Belmont Stakes winners -- Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone, Empire Maker and Commendable -- raced in the Derby, and passed the Preakness.
  2. Five of the 11 who failed to become the first since Affirmed in 1978 were based in California. They were Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic.
  3. This year only two horses (I'll Have Another and Optimizer) will make all three TC races.

And where's Bodemeister? I'd be the last person in the world to tell Bafferrt how to train his horses, but presumably, Bodey came out of the Preakness OK, and would figure to give I'll Have Another all he could handle Saturday.

It's not like Bodey has a previous engagement.

As always, pace makes the race, and this Belmont is no exception.

On paper, the only speeds in the field of 12 are Paynter and Unforgettable U. Judging by their recent works, you figure that Dullahan and Union Rags will be a lot closer than they were in the Derby, and so will the favorite...if that's what Bailey advises Mario.

Trainer O'Neal says publicly that he is thrilled with post 11. But consider the possibility
a bunch of those blood-thirsty veteran jockeys conspire to keep the favorite wide on the first turn. And that's a very long first turn.

They say post position in the Belmont Stakes means nothing, but I've watched thousands of races at Belmont, and noticed that saving ground is vital -- at least up until they turn for home.

And in a century and a half, only two horses have won from the 11-hole.

I just hope that, unlike the Preakness -- when only two horses did any running -- we will see a competitive race in the 11th on Saturday evening at Belmont.

The Belmont will kick off the greatest sports evening in memory. There will be Yankees-Mets  a half-hour away at the Stadium, as well as Phils-Orioles and Nats-Bosox; game seven of Heat-Celtics; game five -- and possibly  the deciding game - of the Stanley Cup across the river in Newark, and the Pacquino-Bradley fight in Vegas.

The chalk (I'll Have Another, Yankees, Heat, Kings, Pacquino) can't all win can they?

Win or lose, Saturday, you can't beat the action -- starting with the Belmont.

The first race Saturday at Belmont goes at 11:35 a.m. The Belmont (race 11) is scheduled for 6:40, and the finale (race 13) will go sometime after 8 p.m. -- or shortly after they drop the puck in Newark.

Let's take a look at the other stakes...

RACE SIX  (The Easy Goer)

Unlike the Belmont, where trainer Lukas is blowing smoke with Optimizer, DWL has the only stakes-winner in this 100K stake for 3-year-olds. That would be  Skyring, a last-out, front-end winner of the J.W. Murphy Stakes on the Preakness undercard.

Optimizer and Skyring are both sons of English Channel, a grass champ trained by Wayne's most successful protégé, Todd Pletcher.

But, unlike the Murphy, there's enough speed in here to keep Skyring  busy.

The Toddster is represented by Bridge Loan, a son of Belmont winner Empire Maker. Shows how tough it is to win a Triple Crown race. Empre Maker was Bobby Frankel's only TC winner.

Brimstone Island will give us a line on Paynter.

Teeth of the Dog  goes from Bravo to Rosario.

RACE SEVEN  (The True North)

Lukas strong again with Hamazing Destiny in this 400K for 3 and up at seven furlongs.

Last time out, Hamazing Destiny broke Wayne's streak iof 131 straight losses in graded stakes when he won the Maryland Sprint Handicap on the Preakness program, and on Wednesday, he reared up and kicked Wayne in the head. Wayne managed to sell two horses to his doctors during his brief hospital stay.

Smiling Tiger was left at the post against Shackleford on the Derby undercard. First-time Mike Smith. Needs the lead. May not get it.

Giant Ryan, last year's champion New York-bred, was not embarrassed in Dubai, and keeps jockey Martinez, who was Smarty's exercise rider.

Caixa Electronica down in class and distance, keeps Castellano, and draws well for the Toddster.

RACE EIGHT (The Just A Game)

Winter Memories, four-for-four on Belmont grass, will be a short-priced favorite and universal single in this 500K for fillies and mares at a mile on the Widener Turf.

Hungry Island beat Winter Memories in the Lake Placid last summer at Saratoga when WM had a nightmare trip. Exits sharp stakes score with Castro, who was replacing Castellano, who had a Derby conflict. One of several live mounts Saturday for Javier.

Tough spot for up-and-comer Sylvestris.

RACE NINE (The Woody Stephens)

Trinniberg clearly the one to catch and beat in this 400K, seven-furlongs sprint for 3-year-olds named for the five-time consecutive Belmont Stakes winner.

Currency Swap beat Trinniberg last summer in the Hopeful, and has returned running.

Castellano replaces Alvarado on Hardened Wildcat, who had a rough trip behind Currency Swap as the stick. Hierro beat Payntor on the square in the Derby Trial, but adds five pounds, and gets the rail and Leparoux.

Il Vallano's trainer, Susan Crowell, is the daughter of Jersey regular Charlie Harvatt. Power World has improved under new trainer Mott.

RACE TEN (The Manhattan Handicap)

They are running this 500K Grade One without Gio Ponti for the first time in years, and the big question is: Will NBC bother to take the two-minutes to show the race during its two and a half-hour Belmont telecast?

Hudson Steele is 4-1-0 in his last five starts for Pletcher, and yet another live mount for Castellano.

Brilliant Speed exits a troubled third to race-stealer Little Mike on Derby undercard.

Boisterous will be closing fastest for the Shugster.

Finally, our condolences to the family of Mike Martin, the two-time Eclipse Award winning photographer for Daily Racing Form. Mike, who died the other day of cancer at age 54, is best remembered for his shot of Frankie Dettori's flying dismount in the Breeders' Cup.

Thanks for tuning in. Have a great weekend, don't forget to check out my Belmont picks, and see you back here next Friday.

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