INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another paraded between races at Betfair Hollywood Park on Saturday, giving fans at the colt's home track a chance to cheer him one last time before he heads off to stud duty in Japan.
I'll Have Another made his way from the paddock, where jockey Mario Gutierrez got on wearing purple-and-white silks, through the tunnel and onto the track as fans applauded and waved signs. He walked briefly on the track before entering the winner's circle for the last time.
"He is the local boy made good," track announcer Vic Stauffer said as I'll Have Another bucked.
"Thinks he's running again. He's all pumped up," a male fan said.
I'll Have Another's bid to become racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years ended with his sudden retirement on the eve of the June 9 Belmont Stakes because of tendinitis in his left front leg.
"I think he would have won the Belmont if he had the chance," said Gina Romero, a 45-year-old fan from Porter Ranch. "I'm glad they put his safety first, that's the most important thing."
Last month, owner J. Paul Reddam of Windsor, Ont., sold the colt to Japanese breeders. I'll Have Another will enter quarantine on Sunday for 30 days before going to his new home at Big Red Farm on the island of Hokkaido.
"It's sad," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "We all wanted so badly for him to stay in the United States. I was actually pushing for him to stay in California, but there was just very little interest."
O'Neill plans to take his family to visit the colt in Japan next spring.
"He's going to a first-class place," he said. "He's going to get the best mares, he's going to be super well taken care of. We're going to stay on top of everything and make sure if they have any hiccups or any questions, we'll be there to support them."
Before the races began, fans carrying I'll Have Another posters, hats, magazines and Kentucky Derby glasses waited in a long line near the paddock for O'Neill and Gutierrez to sign their souvenirs.
"It just tells you how many people really love this horse and how horse racing is still alive," O'Neill said. "I know a lot of people want to throw dirt on the sport and through this I've learned that horse racing is still alive. This is an amazing horse that people fell in love with, including us of course. This is a very special moment for all of us."
Gutierrez smiled under a giveaway black fedora hat, still happy about the attention and travel opportunities that I'll Have Another's success created for him.
"He absolutely took me to places and make my dreams come real. For that I will be grateful my whole life," the jockey said. "He's going for his second career, he's not hurt, he's happy and healthy. Now we hopefully can see in the future one of his babies running and competing in the big races too."
Gutierrez' business hasn't picked up as the result of his Triple Crown exposure. He had just two mounts on Saturday's 10-race card, and won the $150,000 Royal Heroine Mile in a photo finish aboard Quiet Oasis for Reddam. He recently returned to ride in a stakes race at Hastings Race Course in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he first found success. He remains uncertain about riding at the upcoming Del Mar meet.
"I wanted to be here, but we'll see," he said.
Romero excitedly clutched her newly autographed items after chatting with O'Neill, who has yet to begin a 45-day suspension handed down by the California Horse Racing Board after one of his horses tested positive for excess total carbon dioxide in a race last year.
At the Belmont, O'Neill had said he would appeal his punishment. However, on Saturday he said he was "still on the fence on that."
"I'm trying to not put much energy into fighting stuff," he said. "I may spend more energy into giving back instead of fighting."
On his home turf, O'Neill was a popular draw with the fans, several hailing him by his nickname "Wheels." He responded by greeting some of them by name and bestowing hugs on others.
"I know sometimes he doesn't get good press," said Romero, who described herself as a longtime fan of O'Neill. "I don't know all the facts. I just know that here at the track he's always very kind. If you want to have an autograph he makes the time to do it. He's always so polite. You can just see the warmth of him coming through."
O'Neill was under intense scrutiny throughout the Triple Crown series because of his history of medication violations, although none of them involved I'll Have Another.
"You win the Derby, you should be held to a higher standard," he said. "I know now because I'd never had it before, but having a horse like I'll Have Another you are going to get pecked at a little bit. Though it was a little bit uncomfortable at times, it was something that I've learned a lot from. I love the animals and I love the sport and I want to do whatever I can to give back and help out."
Nearly a month from the disappointment of the Belmont, O'Neill said he's excited about a future that includes such promising two-year-olds as Cinco de Mario (named for Gutierrez), Know More and He's Had Enough.
"Looking back at the great year he gave us, it's really a time for all of us to celebrate just a wonderful horse and what he did for all of us," he said about I'll Have Another. "It's been nothing but joy."
O'Neill finally got around to cashing the 200-1 Kentucky Derby future book ticket he held on I'll Have Another late last month. He bought it for US$100 on the day before the colt won the Robert Lewis Stakes in February. The wager paid $20,000.