Two down, one to go for I’ll Have Another

I’ll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez go for the Triple Crown at the Belmont Stakes on June 9.

BALTIMORE — In a reprise of the Kentucky Derby’s thrilling finish, I’ll Have Another ran down the favored Bodemeister in the final furlong Saturday to win the 137th Preakness Stakes and keep alive his pursuit of horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Should the chestnut colt win the June 9 Belmont Stakes, he’d become the first thoroughbred since Affirmed in 1978 to win the Triple Crown. The last horse to earn the chance by following a Derby victory with a Preakness triumph was Big Brown in 2008.

Bought for just $35,000, I’ll Have Another has never been favored in a race — not even Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, despite his Kentucky Derby crown. That status belonged to Bodemeister, the bay colt deemed to have superior speed and schooled by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

But with his long stride, furious kick and unquantifiable determination, I’ll Have Another proved there is nothing serendipitous about the sterling resume he has compiled since February. He has won all four races he has run this year. And all have been with an unheralded jockey aboard — 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, who has steadfastly refused to siphon accolades from the horse he adores.

“It’s not about me; it’s about the horse,” Gutierrez said. “I’m so happy for him because he’s just a great horse. He has a tremendous kick in the end. And he’s more smart than I am. The horse deserves the credit.”

Bodemeister, who led until the final strides, finished second. And Creative Cause came home third to deliver a 1-2-3 sweep for California-based horses.

A glorious May afternoon, with sun-drenched skies and temperatures in the low 80s, drew a record crowd of 121,309 to Pimlico’s grounds. The handle for the event, $80.46 million, was the sixth largest in Preakness history.

The $1 million race was projected to be a two-horse battle, with Bodemeister seeking to atone for his final-furlong fade against I’ll Have Another two weeks ago at Churchill Downs.

With 11 thoroughbreds, it was the smallest Preakness field since 2007. As such, it made for an easier trip than the recent 20-horse Derby.

Bodemeister and I’ll Have Another both started well. Just as in the Derby, Bodemeister quickly took the lead, maneuvered inside toward the rail and led the field through the first turn.

Bodemeister’s jockey Mike Smith continued to dictate the proceedings through the halfway point, while I’ll Have Another claimed the outside lane, where he ran a solid fourth. From there, Gutierrez moved him into third behind Creative Cause. And with the finish in sight, Gutierrez asked for more, and his colt shifted into another gear.

With a few furious strides, I’ll Have Another pulled alongside Creative Cause and then pulled easily away, leaving only Bodemeister in his sights.

Then, straining his neck and long limbs, he overtook the familiar front-runner for the victory as his trainer, Doug O’Neill, yelled his lungs raw and flung his straw hat in the stands.

O’Neill, 43, is among the sport’s more charismatic and controversial figures. And he has been its public face since his Derby triumph despite the specter of a potential 180-day suspension for a failed test by one of his horses, who was found to have high levels of carbon dioxide, a performance enhancer, in his system. It was O’Neill’s fourth such violation in the last six years.

Asked if he lamented the prospect of intensified scrutiny now that he is within one victory of the Triple Crown, O’Neill said: “Not at all. We know we play by the rules. It’s all about the horse.” I’m just going to focus on the horse. I think we’ve got a horse and a team that, with little bit of luck, can have an unbelievable time in three weeks 1/8when the Belmont is run 3/8.”

Saturday’s record turnout made for a splendid day for Pimlico Race Course and the Maryland Jockey Club, which owns and stages the race.

Alarmed by rising tide of debauchery in the infield, officials barred fans from bringing their own alcohol into the infield following the 2008 race. They were met with howls of protest, and attendance plunged more than 30 percent (from 112,222 to 77,850) as a result.

But four years later, the dividends are clear: It brought about the cultural shift Pimlico officials sought.

There was no shortage of alcohol in the infield Saturday, but it was controlled by vendors in Grey Goose and Jagermeister tents. The upshot was a more upscale, legitimately “of-age” demographic that was less interested in the porta-pottie races of old and more interested in the four live bands and two Olympic volleyball teams hired to entertain.

“We knew it would take three or four years to fix it,” said a delighted Tom Chuckas, president and chief operating officer of the Maryland Jockey Club. “They’re there to have a party; they’re there to have fun. It’s a lot safer than it ever was before.”

Tiger Walk, the 30-1 shot owned by Under Armour founder Kevin Plank and based at Planks’ newly restored Sagamore Farm, finished eighth. But Plank won the battle for corporate-tent supremacy, with Sagamore Farm’s trackside pavilion flanked by Under Armour logos squarely in the sight lines of grandstand patrons and “” plastered across the pitched roof in letters large enough to be seen by window-seat airline passengers.