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I'll Have Another never given respect – until now

ELMONT, N.Y. – The disrespect started on July 3, 2011. That was the first time I'll Have Another ran a race, and the first time the betting public failed to fall in love with him.

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I'll Have Another is bidding to become the first horse in 34 years to win the Triple Crown. (Reuters)

It was the second race on a Sunday at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, Calif., a 5 ½-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds that had never won a race. The purse was $55,000, with $33,000 going to the winner. The race that day was named in honor of Hollywood park patron Jim Truschel, who was celebrating his 84th birthday.

There was no buzz about the race, no inkling that such a nondescript event would launch the star thoroughbred of 2012.

The track handicapper favored Scorpion Warrior, a well-bred colt who was bought for $125,000 in a 2-year-old sale, making him a strong 7-5 favorite. I'll Have Another, who was purchased for a mere $35,000 at 2, was the second choice in the morning line at 3-1. By post time, Scorpion Warrior had been bet down to 4-5, while I'll Have Another's odds had floated up to 5-1.

I'll Have Another led from wire to wire under prominent California jockey Joel Rosario, holding off Scorpion Warrior by three-quarters of a length. It was an impressive but hardly earth-shaking debut.

What became of the favorite? Scorpion Warrior hasn't raced since that day, according to Equibase statistics, though he did record a workout last week.

We all know what has become of the second choice. After nearly paying off his purchase price in his first outing, I'll Have Another has gone on to win almost $2.7 million and is poised to capture the Triple Crown Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

But at every stop along the way, the doubts persisted. It is stunning to think that up to this point, I'll Have Another has never been favored in a race.

"I will be shocked if we are not favored on Saturday," trainer Doug O'Neill deadpanned.

[Related: Jockey Mario Gutierrez closes in on Triple Crown bid with I'll Have Another]

I'll Have Another should go off at about the price Scorpion Warrior did some 11 months ago, when this journey to the edge of immortality began. But it has taken a lot of work between then and now for I'll Have Another to convince the world how good he is.

After winning that maiden race, owner Paul Reddam and O'Neill immediately pointed I'll Have Another toward bigger game and better competition. On Aug. 7, 2011, he stepped up to the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar – a $150,000 race that began sorting out 2-year-old contenders and pretenders.

The race served as I'll Have Another's first of several memorable meetings with the glam horse of Southern California, Creative Cause – a $135,000 yearling purchase. And it would mark the only time I'll Have Another would lose to his rival.

Favored Creative Cause won at odds of 4-5, passing I'll Have Another and Rosario in the stretch to win by 1 ¾ lengths. But I'll Have Another again exceeded expectations, finishing second after being sent off as the 7-1 third choice. The Bob Baffert-trained Brigand, a $925,000 purchase, went off at 7-2 and finished fourth.

After losing to Creative Cause, O'Neill shipped I'll Have Another east to run in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes last Sept. 5 at Saratoga in New York, and outfitted him with a new jockey, Julien Leparoux. Bettors were so underwhelmed that they sent the colt off at 12-1, the seventh choice in a field of 10. I'll Have Another lived down to those expectations, finishing an uninspired sixth on a sloppy track.

"Failed to threaten," said the race chart.

The Hopeful winner was Currency Swap, sent off as the 2-1 co-favorite. Currency Swap, a $70,000 yearling purchase, stayed on the Kentucky Derby trail until finishing a dismal 11th in the Illinois Derby in April. He since rebounded to win a race at Belmont and is entered here for the Woody Stephens Stakes Saturday – on the undercard of a day that belongs to a horse Currency Swap once defeated by 19 lengths.

The Hopeful Stakes clunker threw I'll Have Another off the Breeders' Cup trail and pretty much off the racing radar. Reddam and O'Neill gave him five months off to regroup, then made the fateful decision to give unheralded jockey Mario Gutierrez the mount for I'll Have Another's 3-year-old debut Feb. 4 in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.

The horse has not lost since. The horses favored to beat him have.

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I'll Have Another will finally be favored when he's called to post at the Belmont. (AFP)

Coming off consecutive losses, a five-month layoff and a jockey change to a complete no-name, I'll Have Another was universally dismissed in the Lewis Stakes. He was sent off at 43-1, longest shot in the eight-horse field.

The favorite that day was the Baffert-trained Liaison, who clipped heels with another horse and unseated jockey Rafael Bejarano in midstretch. Liaison, a $290,000 yearling purchase, went on to finish fourth, while I'll Have Another cruised to a two-length victory.

After winning the Lewis, everything began to change for I'll Have Another. But not completely.

"Creative Cause was always the horse [in California]," Baffert said.

And so Creative Cause was again favored in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby, a $750,000 race, when he hooked up with I'll Have Another. This time 4-1 IHA turned the tables on the even-money favorite, winning a thrilling stretch duel by a nose.

That was a major victory four weeks before the Run for the Roses, but still the doubts did not disappear. No horse had won the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby since 1989. O'Neil had an undistinguished Kentucky Derby record. Gutierrez was still a nobody rider.

I'll Have Another wasn't prominent in many minds before the Derby, and the fact that he never had a major workout at Churchill Downs only kept him off radar. After drawing the daunting No. 19 post for the Derby, he was made the 12-1 sixth choice – same as Creative Cause.

Those odds only grew longer on race day. I'll Have Another went off at 15-1.

"I was a little surprised," Reddam said. "I thought he'd be 8-1 or 10-1. But I knew I was going to bet him, so I liked it."

[Related: I'll Have Another gets favorable post position for Belmont]

He loved it two minutes and change later, when I'll Have Another roared past Bodemeister in the stretch to win the Derby and earn a place in racing history.

Still, much of the post-race attention centered on Bodemeister, a $260,000 yearling purchase who endured a withering early pace and still nearly held on to win. Surely, most thought, Bodemeister would turn the tables in the Preakness – a shorter race that seemed certain to be contested at a more forgiving pace.

So Bodemeister went off two weeks later in Maryland as the 2-1 favorite. I'll Have Another, on a three-race winning streak, was second choice at 3-1. And when the race unfolded exactly the way Bodemeister needed it, and the speedy colt began to pull away in the stretch, it appeared that the bettors had it right.

But the equine Tim Tebow closed with another rush, sticking a neck in front of Bodemeister at the wire to win the Preakness. Nine lengths back in third was the former glam horse, Creative Cause.

"He guts it out," Baffert said admiringly of IHA. "He gets in a fight and he wins. … He just hasn't gotten the respect. He got my respect. He just keeps winning."

Said Reddam: "It really took a race like the Preakness, where it was a smaller field and it really was a gun fight, to convince people. It was only after the Preakness that a lot of people – including some turf writers – stood up and said, 'Wow, this is a really good horse.' "

The respect has finally been earned – one beaten, high-priced favorite at a time. If I'll Have Another can have another dazzling performance Saturday, he will enter the select company of Triple Crown champions. There will be no more doubters, forever.

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