By Steve Ginsburg
BALTIMORE (Reuters) - Kentucky Derby champion I'll Have Another won the $1 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday to remain on course for the Triple Crown, the greatest prize in U.S. thoroughbred horse racing.
It has been 34 years since the last horse, Affirmed, swept the three classic races, but I'll Have Another has the chance to join the sport's elite if he can win the Belmont Stakes in New York on June 9.
Patiently ridden by Mexican jockey Mario Gutierrez, I'll Have Another completed the second leg when he wore down Bodemeister in the shadows of the post to win by a neck.
"It's just kind of surreal," said I'll Have Another's jubilant trainer Doug O'Neill. "Going into today, I thought this horse was a really, really good horse.
"And after today, he's proven this is a great horse. He's really a great horse."
Guiterrez stalked the front-running Bodemeister the entire race, galloping comfortably in fourth place along the backstretch.
The Kentucky-bred chestnut son of Flower Alley inched up to third while leaving the far turn before finding another gear with a furlong left to challenge Bodemeister.
Gutierrez, 25, a top rider for six years at tiny Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, British Columbia, pumped his fist after I'll Have Another crossed the finish line, a neck ahead of Bodemeister.
"The horse deserves the credit," he said. "He earned it. He never got a lucky trip. He has proven himself in the run. I just want to prepare. I want to be on the same level as him.
"He's an amazing horse, and I'm happy to be riding him."
Bodemeister set a suicidal pace at the Derby two weeks ago and weakened to finish behind the fast-finishing I'll Have Another by one and a half.
On Saturday, Smith said he thought Bodemeister was headed to the winner's circle until he saw I'll Have Another exploding up the middle of the track.
"I thought I put him away but he reached up and got us with three strides," he said. "Two great horses and I give them all the credit for what they did."
Bodemeister's Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, looking for his sixth Preakness triumph, conceded I'll Have Another's bid for the Triple Crown "is good for the sport, it's good for the Belmont" but he added the heartbreaking loss was "tough."
"The winner's a good horse," said Baffert. "It was a good horse race. I really can't complain. We didn't win it but my horse ran his race."
Creative Cause, second for much of the race, finished third in front of a record crowd of 121,309 at Pimlico Race Course. Trainer Mike Harrington said he believes his colt's pushing Bodemeister influenced the outcome.
"He just got outrun," Harrington said of his Kentucky-bred grey. "He always brings his best race. He just couldn't outrun those horses today. What can you do? You've got to try to win the race.
"(Jockey) Joel Rosario tried to win the race. I have no regrets. He probably won it for I'll Have Another."
A three-year-old chestnut colt, I'll Have Another paid $8.40 for a $2 win ticket. He started second favorite behind Bodemeister over the mile and three-sixteenths trip on dirt.
I'll Have Another became the 22nd horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes.
Only half of those have gone on to win the Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three races. The last horse to win to win the first two legs but not the last was Big Brown in 2008.
"The way this horse runs, they're going to have a hard time catching him," said O'Neill, whose colt is unbeaten from four starts in 2012.
"I don't think anybody doubts he'll get the mile and a half. So we're excited. I can't wait to get to New York."
(Editing by Julian Linden)