All along, they had been so relaxed.
So when it came time for Team O'Neill's horse to make his charge -- a historic one -- the colt moved forward almost nonchalantly.
I'll Have Another glided past Bodemeister to win the 137th running of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, setting up a chance at the first Triple Crown since 1978.
The California-based horse is the 12th to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown since Affirmed edged Alydar in all three races.
A rematch with Bodemeister, who also slowed late and was caught at the Kentucky Derby, won't happen in the 11/2-mile Belmont. Instead, I'll Have Another will likely have to deal with a rested Union Rags, a charging seventh at the Derby, and Dullahan, who finished third there.
I'll Have Another will be the favorite in New York for the first time in his seven-race career (he has won five times, including all four this year). He went out as a 3-1 choice – behind Bodemeister at 8-5 -- and covered the 13/16 miles in 1 minute, 55.94 seconds, winning by a neck. The winner returned $8.40, $3.80 and $2.80. Bodemeister returned $3.20 and $2.80, and Creative Cause paid $3.60 to show.
The duel between I'll Have Another and Bodemeister had been predicted all week. It exceeded expectations. I'll Have Another was forced wide early in the race, but jockey Mario Gutierrez -- who had never been in a Triple Crown race before the Derby -- showed remarkable patience and moved him into position at the top of the stretch.
Bodemeister, at first, roared as the challenge came. He had done the same in the Derby. A record 121,309 fans, responsible for a handle of $80,463,005, grew ever more fervent at gussied-up Pimlico.
"The fractions were more reasonable today, so turning for home, I really thought he was going to do it," Bodemeister's trainer, Bob Baffert, said. "He just got a little late there at the end."
Despite holding back more than he did in the crowded Derby, Bodemeister had nothing to give late. I'll Have Another caught him with yards to go. He swept past.
"It wasn't really until about 20 yards from the wire," owner J. Paul Reddam said, "that I thought we were going to win. So it was pretty exciting."
Trainer Doug O'Neill had brought I'll Have Another to Baltimore uncharacteristically early. O'Neill did a whirlwind tour of the city -- eating crabs, throwing out the first pitch at an Orioles game, visiting a hospital and a Boys & Girls Club -- but still saw his horse receive little acclaim compared with Bodemeister. O'Neill, for all his recent celebrity, was even turned back when he led a caravan of supporters toward the track. Security guards wouldn't let his vehicle pass, and he simply turned around to find another route.
Later, at the secluded Barn D that he and his team had claimed, I'll Have Another stretched out in the hay. No one seemed concerned by the lackadaisical colt. They were first onto the track for the post-position parade, and I'll Have Another appeared calm as he moved toward the gate.
At one point, O'Neill went over to where the sign showing his horse's name rose for the audience to see. He let his weight rest on the rail and looked off for a minute. He spoke with Gutierrez, telling the jockey to run the race as it unfolded.
"That's probably the quietest moment Doug's had in a while," a man said to O'Neill's wife, Linette.
And now the attention will grow on the charismatic trainer with a tarnished past.
O'Neill was asked several questions about the inevitable media crush he will face in New York. Big Brown was the last horse to head to the Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown. He pulled up late in the race.
O'Neill has said he's not concerned about answering more questions about his record. He has been charged four times with having a horse test for high total carbon dioxide, an indication of performance-enhancing chemicals. In fact, O'Neill could be told the result of a hearing on the most recent instance -- which he has been fighting since August 2010 -- next week. He could be suspended, but any penalty would not affect the Belmont.
He swore innocence at the post-race news conference.
At I'll Have Another's barn, spirits were high. Assistant trainer Jack Sisterson led a group that headed straight toward a nearby table stocked with booze. About 100 people watched I'll Have Another cool down.
Larry "Thumper" Jones, an equine chiropractor given much of the credit for how well I'll Have Another bounced from the Derby, marveled at the horse.
"He just set in and stuck right behind," Jones said. "It was comfortable, we just tucked in. It shows how deep the horse is."
The colt's connections plan to ship him to New York on Sunday morning to avoid weekday traffic. O'Neill has said all along that he thought I'll Have Another -- purchased for just $35,000 on the recommendation of his brother Dennis -- could win a Triple Crown. He said it in Kentucky, where his horse was a 15-1 long shot. He said it here. He'll likely say it again in the coming days.
"It's about this horse," O'Neill said early in the week. "I get to talk, so people pay attention to me. But we're just caring for what -- I've been telling people this -- is a really special horse. This is the sort of horse who can do it."
Finishing almost nine lengths ahead of the third-place finisher at Preakness lends credence to that. Stewards of the sport have talked longingly of what the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years would do for horse racing.
Three weeks -- and many thousands of questions, both about the horse and about the alleged transgressions -- from now, O'Neill, his team and the rest of a sagging industry could find out.
All along, they had been so relaxed.