Commentary

Double trouble for Triple Crown shot

I'll Have Another's team must defeat the field and unique, grueling Belmont track

Updated: June 7, 2012, 1:11 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- They are a pair to behold, this long-lashed, unknown jockey who cries for joy after victories and might as well list his hometown as Nowheresville, Mexico, rather than Veracruz, and his boss, the wisecracking SoCal-based trainer who wears the hipster straw hat and talks in Valley-speak about being "super excited" and "super pumped."

Mario Gutierrez, 25, is a rookie jockey only when it comes to Triple Crown races, not riding in general. And when you catch lightning in a bottle, taking a horse that went off at odds of 44-1, 4-1, 15-1 and 3-1 to four underdog wins -- the last three at the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- you don't come to Belmont, the most unique challenge of them all, atop a history-chasing mount like I'll Have Another and just wing it on Saturday.

If you're Gutierrez and trainer Doug O'Neill, you hit Manhattan on Tuesday and say, hell yeah, you have to cling to this conceit that you can plot one of most uncertain things in sports: a race at Belmont, the only track of its kind in horse racing.

[+] EnlargeMario Gutierrez and Doug O'Neill
AP Photo/Richard DrewMario Gutierrez and Doug O'Neill held court Tuesday for the New York media.

The mile-and-a-half land mine has snagged combos far more experienced or touted than the team of O'Neill, Gutierrez and I'll Have Another.

It's not just the weight of history that is stacked against them, or the grind of having to race three times in five weeks.

It's also this: Where else do you have to beat both the field and the unique track like you do at Belmont? It's not unlike having to navigate Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon, or the back nine at Augusta on Sunday with everyone chasing you. The pressure is incalculable. The variables and booby traps? Impossible to know.

Only 12 horses have ever pulled off a Triple Crown sweep, period, and the last one to do it was Affirmed way back in 1978.

Since then, another 11 horses have come to the Belmont with a chance and failed, for one reason or another. Real Quiet lost by a nostril in 1998, not even a full nose. Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin. In 2002, a 70-1 shot named Sarava -- whose trainer, Ken McPeek, may put two horses in this race, Unstoppable U. and Antigun -- upset War Emblem. In 2008, Big Brown arrived touted as a monster, then never fired once the race began and finished a mystifying last.

Still, if you think everyone is hoping I'll Have Another breaks the Triple Crown drought for the good of horse racing, think again.

"I hope 120,000 people are booing me on Saturday," Dale Romans, trainer of Belmont contender Dullahan, joked Tuesday when asked if he has mixed feelings about being the most feared spoiler in the race, along with Union Rags.

"I hope it rains," added Union Rag's Hall of Fame-bound jockey, John Velazquez, knowing full well that the only bad race of I'll Have Another's career came as a 2-year-old last fall at Saratoga, where he ran on a muddy track.

But O'Neill and Gutierrez -- who arrived in New York on Monday evening and spent part of Tuesday morning getting reacquainted briefly with I'll Have Another at the track, and part of it making a tourist visit to the Empire State Building -- have a plan. And it goes far beyond throwing off an air of cool amusement despite the new pressure they're under.

"Don't tell the trainer I'm eating," the 115-pound Gutierrez joked as he grabbed a chicken slider off the buffet at Tuesday's luncheon. Then he snapped his head around when someone told him too late, O'Neill was already there.

"He's a cool, confident customer," O'Neill said with a laugh, "just like the horse."

Of the three of them, Gutierrez, who was racing at a Western Canada track until just recently, might be considered the weakest link in the team. But his supporters say no, no, he's just the least known. There's a difference.

O'Neill insisted, "If we don't win Saturday, it won't be because of the jockey."

[+] EnlargeI'll Have Another
AP Photo/Mark LennihanI'll Have Another went through a morning workout Tuesday at Belmont Park.

Just to make sure, O'Neill is leaving no stone unturned.

O'Neill said he asked for, and received, video from Belmont officials of numerous past races and he said he intends to hunker down with Gutierrez and "some popcorn and sodas" in the next day or two. They'll be looking to see what they can pick up from how other jockeys and horses handled the course, then superimpose it over what their horse can do.

But how much can you learn like that?

"A lot," O'Neill said.

What makes Belmont so different is the track is a half-mile to three-eighths of a mile longer than other American tracks. By the time horse and rider are coming out of the second and last turn, it can feel as if the race still has forever to go. And horses aren't the only ones that fail here. There are myriad stories of jocks getting "lost" and not knowing how much real estate they still have to navigate to hit the wire, or jocks losing that internal clock in their head that tells them when to move and when to sit tight.

O'Neill has lined up some mounts for Gutierrez on Friday, just to give Gutierrez some live action on the Belmont track before the big race.

The trainer also tried to enlist Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, now an NBC analyst, to get on board I'll Have Another's stable pony, Lava Man, and take a workout trip around the track with Gutierrez to give him some tips. But NBC nixed that since Bailey will be part of its team that's covering the race. So now retired jockey Richard Migliore, who grew up in the New York area and won more than 4,450 races, many of them when he was based at Belmont, will talk with Gutierrez instead.

Much like Bailey, Migliore is impressed with Gutierrez's guts and calm under pressure. But he still has some tips about what to expect come Saturday.

"I don't know if 'ganging up' on him would be the term," Migliore said. "But every other challenger does go into this race knowing that to win it they have to now go through him. So he'll definitely be a marked man throughout the race."

Gutierrez, O'Neill and their chestnut horse are just a mile and a half away from riding into history together. But this last challenge at Belmont -- against the track and the field -- will be the toughest one yet.

"I've been in the jock's room after all 11 of the past [Triple Crown tries that failed]," Migliore said. "There's always a lot of mixed emotions. If you lose, you feel so alone. ... If you're the winner, you're almost apologizing to everybody."

But root for a Triple Crown before the race? Not a chance. The challengers usually say what McPeek told jockey Edgar Prado back in 2002 when he gave him a leg up on long shot Sarava: "Shock the world."

"They don't just hand out Triple Crowns -- we're going to make them earn it," McPeek said.

Johnette Howard is an award-winning writer and author who previously worked for Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Newsday. She contributes general sports columns to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com.

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