ELMONT, N.Y. - Ken McPeek knows about long shots and “mission impossible’’ situations. The 49-year-old trainer had an up-close look at the 2002 Belmont Stakes, when his horse Sarava pulled off the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history, winning at 70-1 odds to pay $143.80.
Which is why McPeek only smiled when I’ll Have Another, who is chasing history in his attempt to become the first horse since 1978 to win the Triple Crown, was established as a prohibitive 4-5 favorite at Wednesday morning’s draw for Saturday’s 144th running of the Belmont.
McPeek has two horses in the 12-horse field, a pair of 30-1 shots in Atigun and Unstoppable U. Combined, they have earned a total of slightly more than $200,000, which doesn’t come close to the more than $5 million earned by I’ll Have Another, Dullahan (5-1), and Union Rags (6-1), who were the top three in the morning line.
“Obviously, my horses are not in the class of Union Rags and I’ll Have Another,’’ said McPeek. “You look at I’ll Have Another. He’s won the Santa Anita Derby, the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness. Even if he doesn’t win on Saturday and finishes say, third, he’s still a great horse.’’
Still, McPeek watched Sarava end the Triple Crown hopes of War Emblem 10 years ago.
“It was a fun day,’’ said McPeek. “I’d like to do it again.’’
This is the Belmont - the 1 1/2-mile marathon that has knocked off all comers since Affirmed pulled off the grueling three-races-in-five-weeks trifecta of stakes races.
“Weird things happen,’’ said McPeek. “A lot can happen.’’
No one is questioning I’ll Have Another’s credentials. But McPeek sees little quirks in the way trainer Doug O’Neill is preparing his horse for the most strenuous and pressure-packed race of his short career.
“Little things raised some eyebrows,’’ said McPeek. “Like not having a workout between the Preakness and now. I never knew a horse that won this race and didn’t have a workout between the Preakness and the Belmont.’’
But that has been O’Neill’s style with many of his horses, including I’ll Have Another: rigorous gallops, but no official workouts.
McPeek knows that it will take some luck - maybe lots of it - if he is to get Atigun or Unstoppable U into the winner’s circle Saturday afternoon.
“If he’s going to win a race like this, he has to do everything just right,’’ said O’Neil when asked about Atigun, who was purchased for $42,000 at the September 2010 Keeneland yearling sale and has posted three wins in his nine lifetime starts.
But the focus is on I’ll Have Another as the horse racing world hopes for a historic day Saturday.
“There are several good horses,’’ said trainer Chad Brown of Street Life (12-1). “But he’s for real. A horse is going to have to run the race of a lifetime to beat him.’’
Favorite gets 11 post
With 12 horses in the field and a mile and a half to get things done, post position is not being regarded as a big deal. I’ll Have Another drew the No. 11 post, which was fine with O’Neill.
“Being in the 11 hole, we’re kind of able to see how the pace sets up, and if they are crawling, we’ll be leading the crawl, and if they’re flying, we’ll be sitting in there behind the horses that are flying.’’ said O’Neill.
I’ll Have Another made the trip up from Baltimore smoothly. “He’s doing great, his appetite has been strong,’’ said O’Neill. “He’s handled this whole journey as good as you could possibly ask the horse.’’
Trainer Michael Matz, who normally ships his horses in as close to race time as possible, was forced to bring in Union Rags early, and also changed jockeys from Julien Leparoux (who will ride Atigun) to veteran John Velasquez. Union Rags drew the No. 3 post . . . Dullahan, who finished third in the Derby but skipped the Preakness, looms as the most dangerous threat for I’ll Have Another, and will run out of the No. 5 post . . . Bodemeister, the Bob Baffert-trained colt who battled I’ll Have Another in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, will not be part of the Belmont field, but Paynter, another Baffert horse, will be. Bodemeister is being pointed toward the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park in August . . . Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who was kicked in the head by one of his horses Tuesday and briefly spent time in the hospital, was back at work at Wednesday’s draw, with a bruise on his forehead . . . Belmont workers struck a labor deal with the New York Racing Association to head off a possible strike, the union and state officials said Wednesday.