UPDATE: The dream of a Canadian-owned horse winning the Triple Crown with a Canadian-trained jockey aboard has come to a crashing end. I’ll Have Another, the star colt who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, has been scratched from the Belmont Stakes due to swelling in one of his front legs. His trainer, Doug O’Neill, delivered the news on a U.S. radio program.
It took a keen eye to pick him from the others—a herd of future also-rans, many of whom looked every bit as promising at the annual Ocala Breeders’ Sale in central Florida last year. No less than 1,300 thoroughbreds went up for auction that week in April, many showing better rear muscle mass, or registering better times in a preview race, than the animal now known as I’ll Have Another.
But something about the lanky chestnut won Dennis O’Neill’s admiration. “He had a beautiful way of going,” recalls the veteran horse buyer. “Head perfectly positioned—not too high, not too low. The legs were in a perfect spot, nice and straight at the front. The back ones had good, long reach. He just looked to me like an athlete.” O’Neill had attended the sale on behalf of Canadian businessman and racing enthusiast J. Paul Reddam, whom he phoned for permission to bid on horse No. 494. The price could run as high as US$80,000, he warned: surely other scouts had noticed that stride. But the bidding stalled at $35,000, leaving Reddam with a two-year-old colt and O’Neill with a severe case of self-doubt. “I immediately wondered, what the hell did I miss?” he says, laughing. “Does he have a leg on sideways or something? I got up and ran outside to have a look at him again.”
The horse’s legs were attached just right, of course—so well, in fact, that he’s poised for a gallop into history. I’ll Have Another’s heart-stopping wins at both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore make him the most accomplished Canadian-owned thoroughbred since Northern Dancer. This week, Reddam’s chestnut will try to pick up where E. P. Taylor’s fabled Canuck stallion fell short in 1964. If he wins the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y., he will become just the 12th winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown and the first Canadian-owned horse to pull off the feat since a colt called Sir Barton did it back in 1919.
The prospects look good. Belmont Park’s 1.5-mile track is the longest of the three in the U.S. Triple Crown, and I’ll Have Another is a horse built for distance. At both Pimlico and Churchill Downs, he seemed to slingshot off the final turn to score come-from-behind wins, and his stretch runs during training at Elmont have impressed the racing cognoscenti. At press time, handicappers were offering just 3-5 odds on an I’ll Have Another win, compared to 5-1 on putative contender Dullahan, who place third at the Kentucky Derby. “Everybody’s been saying how good he’s looked,” Mike Welsch, an analyst with the Daily Racing Form, told his online audience Sunday, after clocking I’ll Have Another’s practice run. “Well, he looked as good today as he did prior to the Derby. He’s obviously the horse to beat going into the Belmont.”
He is not, it must be said, a Canadian horse so much as a confluence of Canadian stories. I’ll Have Another was sired by Flower Alley, a Kentucky-bred stallion belonging to Eugene Melnyk, the pharmaceutical magnate and owner of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators. An exercise rider named Victor Davila bought him for $11,000 as a yearling, then sold him a year later to Reddam, who moved him to his stables near Sunset Beach, Calif., where he runs a high-interest personal loan company called CashCall.
Reddam’s company has been criticized for taking advantage of the U.S. economic slump. But he is not your stereotypical money man. Born and raised in Windsor, Ont., he nursed a passion for horse racing while taking graduate degrees in philosophy at the University of Toronto and, later, the University of Southern California. His talent for logic got him a tenure-track job at California State University, Los Angeles, and his talent for business led him to found Ditech.com, a mortgage loan company he sold to General Motors in 1999. He bought his first horse in 1988, and never looked back. He now has a stable of 40 thoroughbreds.
Racing brings out Reddam’s homespun side. The name I’ll Have Another refers not to liquor consumption, he says, but to Reddam’s appetite for late-night snacks. “My wife and I sit on the couch and watch television in the evenings, and she’ll get the cookie package out,” he tells Maclean’s this week. “I’ll go, ‘I’ll have another.’ ” He bets on his horses as enthusiastically as any punter—just on a slightly grander scale. Last month in Louisville, Ky., he wagered six figures on I’ll Have Another, who entered the race a 15-1 long shot. It’s not every year, after all, that your horse runs in the Kentucky Derby.
Reddam’s penchant for the big risk also led to the most inspired stroke of his storybook 2012 season. While lunching one afternoon last January at the Santa Anita raceway, he spotted Mario Gutierrez, a second-tier jockey plying the tracks of southern California, and pointed him out to Doug O’Neill, Dennis’s brother and the trainer of Reddam’s best horses. Impressed by Gutierrez’s stillness and confidence, O’Neill decided to let the 25-year-old “breeze” I’ll Have Another—horse racing lingo for running the animal at a controlled pace.
Unbeknownst to either Reddam or O’Neill, the Mexican-born Gutierrez had five solid years of racing under his belt. He’d been recruited at 19 by veteran B.C. stable owner Glen Todd to ride at Vancouver’s Hastings Park, arriving, as Todd has it, “with a garbage bag full of bits of clothing.” Gutierrez roomed at Todd’s sprawling home, and soon became one of the family. The two stayed in touch after the jockey struck out on his own in 2011, heading for California to be closer to his family in Veracruz, Mexico. The afternoon he breezed I’ll Have Another, Gutierrez dialed up Todd with a breathless report. “Partner, listen to me,” he said. “I just worked an unbelievable horse. I don’t think they’re going to let me ride him. But he’s a really, really good horse.”
Today, Gutierrez calls I’ll Have Another “my boy.” He was aboard for the horse’s first win, at the Robert B. Lewis Stakes in Santa Anita, and the five straight victories I’ll Have Another has reeled off since. Notwithstanding the sentimental sheen applied to any winning rider-mount duo, it’s clear the two enjoy a special rapport. At the paddock, and during the pre-race horse parade, the jockey can be seen whispering encouragement. “I sometimes wonder if he knows exactly what I’m thinking,” Gutierrez says in an interview. “When he heads toward the entry way, we both go quiet. I know at that point that we want the same thing. As soon as that gate is open, it’s, ‘Okay, let’s race.’ ”
A good thing, because there’s been plenty of distraction. Five days after the Preakness, Doug O’Neill was suspended for 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board amid suspicions of “milkshaking,” or giving baking soda solution that damps down the production of lactic acid, staving off fatigue. No one has suggested I’ll Have Another was milkshaked. And O’Neill’s lawyers successfully fought the charge, which dated back to 2010. But it would have been the trainer’s 15th drug or medication violation in 14 years.
Gutierrez, meanwhile, admitted the barrage of media attention he endured in the run-up to the race taxed his patience. “I can’t see my friends, can’t nap, can’t go for dinner,” he fretted at one point. Yet neither he nor anyone else on the team was fretting about the readiness of the main protagonist. As the world outside thrummed with anticipation, I’ll Have Another was chalking up breathtaking practice times at Belmont, showing every inclination to join the rarified company of Sir Barton, War Admiral and Secretariat. “I’ve been doing this 30 years, and I’ve never seen a horse that loves to compete this much,” says Dennis O’Neill. “If he’s somewhere within a length or two when they’re turning for home, I have a hard time thinking any horse could pass him.”