Doug O’Neill is nothing if not a realist. If he had his druthers, he would love it if I’ll Have Another is named 2012′s Horse of the Year.
O’Neill learn if I’ll Have Another is named Horse of the Year when the Eclipse Award winners are announced at Gulfstream Park a week from Saturday on Jan. 19.
But the 44-year-old trainer of the only winner of three Grade 1 races on dirt last year–the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes–realizes full well that voters chronically suffer from short attention span disorder, and since I’ll Have Another didn’t race the final seven months of last year, despite going unbeaten and winning all four of his starts, all stakes, he has virtually no chance to win Horse of the Year honors against the other two finalists, Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Fort Larned and favored Wise Dan.
Despite his vested interest, O’Neill can live with that.
“Obviously, we’re very close to that picture, so it’s hard to be real impartial, but he’s Horse of the Year in our minds,” O’Neill said. “He’s a once-in-a-lifetime kind of horse. Anytime you win the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, that’s quite a feat. The horse is a real champion.
“He brought Mario Gutierrez world-wide recognition, and that was huge in itself. I’ll Have Another was great to us and I think great for racing.”
No doubt about that. Now sold and retired to stud in Japan, I’ll Have Another was within a 36-hour countdown of making a bid for a Belmont Stakes victory and racing history by becoming only the 12th Triple Crown winner, when a tendon injury put an end to that quest and ultimately resulted in his retirement.
Rival Horse of the Year finalists Fort Larned and Wise Dan had their day in the sun in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on Nov. 3, Fort Larned capturing the Classic and Wise Dan setting a course record of 1:31.78 in winning the Mile. For I’ll Have Another, it was out of sight, out of mind.
“I do think if you’re not running on Breeders’ Cup day, the voters definitely look down on that,” O’Neill said. “Because I’ll Have Another didn’t compete the last half of the year, he wasn’t fresh in their minds.
“Still, it’s an honor to be nominated. We’re all going to Florida and have a fun time. Win, lose or draw, we’re going to have a great time.”
Team O’Neill will take solace with an Eclipse Award for I’ll Have Another as outstanding 3-year-old male of 2012, but O’Neill, never one to count his chickens before they hatch, was prepared in any case.
“We should be good there,” he said, “and if we’re not, that’s OK too.”
I’ll Have Another/Benoit photo