Triple Crown drama: cheating scandal, meteoric rise and mystery are all present

Published: Thursday, May 24 2012 11:45 a.m. MDT

I'll Have Another (9), ridden by Mario Gutierrez, beats Bodemeister, ridden by Mike Smith, to the finish line to win the 137th Preakness Stakes horse race at Pimlico Race Course, Saturday, May 19, 2012, in Baltimore.

Associated Press

Sports fans have June 9 circled in red on their calendars because that is when the racehorse I'll Have Another will run in the Belmont Stakes and try to become the first horse since 1978 to capture the Triple Crown.

The 3-year-old colt has already won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, interesting enough for many, but he and his handlers find themselves swept up in a whirlwind of compelling storylines such as the veteran trainer embroiled in a cheating scandal and the young jockey trying to make his way in the world.

Doug O'Neill is the Southern California-based trainer of I'll Have Another. He awaits a Thursday decision by the California Horse Racing Board regarding accusations that he cheated in 2010 — a finding that could slap a 180-day suspension on O'Neill but wouldn't affect his ability to train I'll Have Another for the Belmont Stakes.

"The board will decide whether to accept the decision of a hearing officer on charges that in 2010 an O’Neill horse by the name of Argenta was given a 'milkshake,' a performance-enhancing concoction of baking soda, sugar and electrolytes delivered through a tube down a horse’s nose to combat fatigue," the New York Times reported Thursday. "If he is found guilty, it will be the third time O’Neill has been found to have cheated in this way at a California racetrack."

Mario Gutierrez is the 25-year-old, Mexican-born jockey who has guided I'll Have Another to a string of increasingly big victories despite having no previous experience in Triple Crown races prior to this year's Kentucky Derby. In Thursday's newspaper, Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre reported about Gutierrez's rapid rise to fame.

"Wednesday was yet another day of wonder for Mario Gutierrez," Dwyre wrote. "He had already ridden to victory in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and now he sat at a huge boardroom table at Santa Anita, surrounded by leather chairs, expensive paintings and bronze statues of horses, calmly answering questions via speakerphone from journalists all over the country.

"In that room, multimillion-dollar decisions are made and the core of horse racing has been altered hundreds of times. Had Gutierrez even tried to get into that room three months ago, somebody would have called security. His is a story for both racing lore and Ripley's Believe It or Not."

Finally, there is the horse himself. And win or lose, I'll Have Another is guaranteed to become the 12th horse in one of two very exclusive clubs. That's because, as Teresa Genaro wrote for Forbes.com, "Only 11 horses, dating back to 1919, have ever won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. No horse has done it since (1978). Since then, 11 horses have come to Belmont having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness … (and) all have walked back to the barn losers."

Theories abound about the underlying mystery of how the last 11 horses to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown could all have fallen short at the Belmont. Horse racing writer Bill Finley offered this explanation Tuesday for ESPN.com: "I believe it has everything to do with how the modern horse is handled. Three races in five weeks was no big deal for the horses of the ’30s through the ’70s, but these horses just can't handle it.

"When Affirmed won the Belmont in 1978, it was his 17th career start and his eighth race of that year. … By contrast, I'll Have Another will be making his eighth career start in the Belmont and his fifth this year."

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