No one is loving the run-up to Saturday's Preakness Stakes more than Doug O'Neill.
The trainer of Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another has spent nearly two weeks in Baltimore, hanging with Ravens coach John Harbaugh, throwing out the first ball at an Orioles game, and hammering away at Maryland crabs for the first time.
O'Neill also huddled with Secretariat's jockey, Ron Turcotte, to discuss racing strategy, held daily news briefings at the stakes barn, and was forthcoming when asked about his history of violations for giving his horses improper drugs.
Through it all, O'Neill and his crew are enjoying the moment in their own California free-wheeling style.
"It's been a blast. Incredible. We've taken advantage of it, and done some cool things," O'Neill said Friday morning, wearing a Preakness cap signed by area school children. "They just really rolled out the red carpet for us. Obviously, it's a lot of fun when your horse is doing as good as he is."
I'll Have Another has been doing just fine since catching the speedy Bodemeister in the final 100 yards to win the Derby by 1½ lengths two weeks ago.
"He looks fantastic. Great energy," O'Neill said. "He's maintained his beautiful, long stride. We're just very happy with each day that goes by."
The forecast for Saturday's race calls for temperatures in the low 80s, with a slight chance of rain. Track conditions are expected to be fast. A crowd of more than 100,000 is expected, with the Preakness post time set for 6:18 p.m. EDT.
It's been 34 years since Affirmed swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become the 11th Triple Crown champion. Since then, 11 horses have won the first two legs, only to come up short in the Belmont. The most recent try came in 2008, when Big Brown was pulled up around the turn for home and finished last.
O'Neill isn't bothered that I'll Have Another is the 5-2 second choice behind the horse he defeated. This is his first Preakness, he said, while Bodemeister's trainer Bob Baffert has won the race five times in 11 tries.
"I totally respect that. I just hope anyone who bets Bodemeister is regretting it Saturday night," O'Neill said earlier in the week.
Baffert, meanwhile, has been singing the praises of his colt, who set a blistering pace in the Derby, but was unable to fend off I'll Have Another. After watching him gallop at Churchill Downs earlier in the week, Baffert decided to have Bodemeister shipped to Pimlico Race Course.
Friday, Baffert said his colt is coming into the race in great shape, but that he knows the Derby winner is the horse to beat.
"He's a good horse. He's won all three of his races this year against a strong group of California horses," Baffert said, referring to I'll Have Another. "I respect the Derby winner. I come here hoping I can turn the tables this time and get it done."
The Preakness is a sixteenth-of-a-mile shorter than the Derby — about equal to the distance to the finish where Bodemeister lost the lead in the Derby.
"He just has to run that Derby race back," Bodemeister's jockey Mike Smith said. "If he runs his race like that, we'll be in good shape to get the job done."
The second leg of the Triple Crown could turn into a two-horse race, with Bodemeister breaking for the lead from the No. 7 post, and I'll Have Another — in the No. 9 gate — trying to stay close until jockey Mario Gutierrez determines when to make his move.
If Bodemeister tries to open a big lead early, O'Neill says, his colt will be closer to the front than in the Derby. And if Smith tries to slow things down, O'Neill says, he has no problem with I'll Have Another setting the pace.
"The cream is starting to come to the top," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, a five-time Preakness winner who will send out 30-1 long shot Optimizer. "We should know a little bit more about them (after Saturday). You should start to get some form on these horses, if they're championship caliber. If they're Seattle Slew or Affirmed, they just keep on doing it. That's what we're looking for."
That's not to say there aren't other 3-year-olds in the field capable of pulling a surprise.
For instance, there's Went the Day Well, the bay colt owned, trained, and ridden by the same team that won last year's Kentucky Derby with Animal Kingdom. Went the Day Well had a troubled trip in the Derby under John Velazquez, but he made up 7½ lengths in the final 220 yards to finish fourth — 2½ lengths behind I'll Have Another.
Graham Motion believes the colt he trains for Barry Irwin's Team Valor International is getting better. He's the 6-1 co-third choice, along with Creative Cause.
"My horse is very adaptable. I think that's one of his biggest attributes. He can kind of do anything you want with him," Motion said. "He ended up much farther back than Johnny wanted in the Derby, and that's probably what cost him being second. Maybe cost him the win. ... If nobody goes with the speed horse (Bodemeister), he's not going to be too far off the pace, probably."
Creative Cause is not to be dismissed, either. The gray colt trained by Mike Harrington moved into a challenging position on the turn for home in the Derby, but he then flattened out and finished fifth — just three lengths behind the winner. He also has a win over both I'll Have Another (in the Best Pal Stakes) and Bodemeister (in the San Felipe).
The Preakeness also includes five new racehorses that weren't in the Derby — all at odds ranging from 15- to 30-1.
Among them are Teeth of the Dog (15-1), who was third in the Wood Memorial for trainer Michael Matz; Tiger Walk (30-1), a local favorite owned by Kevin Plank's Sagamore Farm; and Cozzetti (30-1), trained by Dale Romans, who won last year's Preakness with Shackleford.
As of Friday evening, the field includes, from the rail out: Tiger Walk (Kent Desormeaux, 30-1); Teeth of the Dog (Joe Bravo, 15-1); Pretension (Javier Santiago, 30-1); Zetterholm (Junior Alvarado, 20-1); Went the Day Well (John Velazquez, 6-1); Creative Cause (Joel Rosario, 6-1); Bodemeister (Mike Smith, 8-5); Daddy Nose Best (Julien Leparoux, 12-1); I'll Have Another (Mario Gutierrez, 5-2); Optimizer (Corey Nakatani, 30-1); and Cozzetti (Jose Lezcano, 30-1).