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Jun 08, 2012

Belmont Stakes: I'll Have Another's main challengers

By: By Jeff Frank, Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - I'll Have Another is bred to relish the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes distance. Fortunately for the Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner, many of his prime competitors for Saturday's potentially historic race are not as well-equipped to handle the demanding 12 furlongs.

The horse many folks expect to give I'll Have Another the toughest test is Union Rags, the seventh-place finisher in the Derby.

Union Rags never had a chance in the race after getting bumped and squeezed out of the gate. The second choice in the betting found himself in front of only two horses and 19 lengths behind Bodemeister after the first half-mile. Still, he was able to rally for seventh due to a 25 2/5-second final quarter- mile. Only one horse finished faster and that was Went the Day Well.

On the negative side, the whole country witnessed how poorly Went the Day Well ran in the Preakness. In addition, Union Rags' 50 4/5 final half was equaled by I'll Have Another. Even Dullahan, who wasn't as far back as Union Rags, ran a faster final four furlongs.

Union Rags also was unimpressive in his final Kentucky Derby prep race - the Florida Derby. He was defeated by not only Take Charge Indy but also by 30-1 shot Reveron. A lot of experts attributed the loss to a poor ride by jockey Julien Leparoux, but the horse just didn't fire as a 2-5 shot should. It is obvious he has not progressed from his 2-year-old campaign.

As for Union Rags' pedigree, his father, Dixie Union, was a horse who has yet to sire a winner at 1 1/4 miles, let alone 1 1/2. On the bright side, Union Rags' second dam, Terpsichorist, was a multiple graded stakes winner, including a victory in the 1979 Long Island Handicap at 12 furlongs.

The percentage is high that Union Rags will be hard-pressed to last the 1 1/2 miles and his chances of winning the Belmont Stakes are much lower than those of I'll Have Another.

Dullahan is the other horse who will vie for second choice in the wagering. The show horse in the Derby also will have had five weeks in between races, so he should be fresh for the Belmont.

I mentioned in a column before the Derby that his running style had changed as a 3-year-old.

In his first year on the track, the son of Even the Score lagged far back in the early stages of his races. However, he showed more early quickness in his first two starts in 2012, so it shouldn't have been a shock to see him just 7 1/2 lengths off the lead in the Kentucky Derby after the first quarter-mile in 22 1/5. His Sunday morning bullet, four-furlong work of 45 4/5 shows he will once again be much closer to the pace than a year ago.

Dullahan followed Creative Cause for much of the race and outfinished that colt at the wire. Nevertheless, he was still almost two lengths shy of I'll Have Another despite a relatively clean trip.

The Dale Romans-trained colt is arguably the third-best 3-year-old behind I'll Have Another and Bodemeister, so one can expect another good effort Saturday. His pedigree is not as solid as I'll Have Another's, but it is better than Union Rags' in terms of ability to last the distance.

Dullahan's dad, Even the Score, has already sired a winner at 1 1/4 in Take the Points and his dam produced Mine That Bird, who won the 2009 Kentucky Derby and finished third in the Belmont Stakes while running the 1 1/2 miles in a decent 2:28.


Hours after the Preakness, trainer Bob Baffert decided to rest Bodemeister until the summer. The horse who extended I'll Have Another to new heights had strung together three tough races in five weeks, so it was obvious the connections would need a new colt to run in the Belmont if they wanted to deny I'll Have Another a chance to win the Triple Crown.

Enter Paynter, a regally bred son of Awesome Again who has posted a pair of victories in four career starts.

After breaking his maiden running 5 1/2 furlongs in a brisk 1:02 4/5, Baffert did the unthinkable and sent Paynter into the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at nine furlongs.

The colt bobbled at the start and was no match for I'll Have Another and Creative Cause, but finished fourth, beaten less than four lengths. Baffert then sent Paynter to Kentucky for the Derby Trial, but a torrential hailstorm hit the track that evening, which might have affected the horse's performance.

He broke well from the gate and had the lead with a furlong to go. Unfortunately, Hierro motored by in the slop to garner the 1 1/2-length victory. Paynter barely held off Stealcase by a neck for second.

From there, it was off to Pimlico and an allowance race on the Preakness undercard. Sent off as the 1-10 favorite, Paynter battled with Brimstone Island through moderate fractions of 24 1/5 and 48 1/5 and 1:12 1/5 before opening up through the stretch to win by 5 3/4 lengths.

It is somewhat ironic that Baffert held off from sending Bodemeister to New York but brings in Paynter, a horse that has already run three times since April 7. The big difference is that all of Bodemeister's starts were at 1 1/8 miles and beyond while Paynter has raced just once at nine furlongs.

The jury is still out on how good this colt can be. His breeding suggests he will absolutely adore the distance, but his lack of experience might be his undoing.

Street Life, trained by Chad Brown, will not win the Belmont Stakes. Still, it might be wise to include the son of Street Sense in the exotics as he is liable to pass tired horses through the stretch.

His closing kick was apparent in the Broad Brush Stakes in mid-March when he stormed past Copy My Swagger to win by a half-length. Street Life failed miserably in the Wood Memorial (sixth) but improved with blinkers to run third in the Peter Pan. On the negative side, he failed to corral Right to Vote, who held on for second despite running demanding fractions throughout.

On the surface, it appears only Dullahan has a legitimate shot at preventing I'll Have Another from winning the Triple Crown. It will be up to Mario Gutierrez to remain patient on the Derby-Preakness winner and not try to press the issue early on.

If he can stay calm and let the race fall apart on its own, all he will have to do is hold off Dullahan and the Triple Crown is his. Will he do it? Only time will tell.

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