ELMONT, N.Y. -- A dozen 3-year-olds have left the Triple Crown waiting in vain for a new champion in the 34 years since Affirmed swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and their defeats have taken many forms. They have been denied in white-knuckle, gut-wrenching stretch drives; undone by a stumbling start; derailed by misjudged rides, wounds inflicted by safety pins and performances so uncharacteristic that they defied explanation. But none before I'll Have Another saw the Triple Crown lost on Friday.
The seats are sold. Sorry, no refunds. Plans made three weeks ago by those intent upon witnessing history, hotel rooms reserved even as I'll Have Another bore down on Bodemeister in the shadow of the wire at Pimlico and put himself in position to win the Triple Crown, were being revised on the eve of the 144th Belmont. The anticipation of a new chapter of racing history being written, having gained momentum steadily since I'll Have Another left Baltimore, fizzled in almost audible waves as the news rippled in whispers through the Belmont Park backstretch late Friday morning and the potential Triple Crown winner became a footnote to the 93-year-old Triple Crown saga, another winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but not the Test of the Champion. Thought you'd seen it all?
Trainer Doug O'Neill sent I'll Have Another to the racetrack for a routine gallop earlier than usual on the eve of his date with destiny. He was hoping for an easy gallop in the quiet that meets dawn. By order of the head of the state regulatory agency, which imagined the need for extraordinary security measures, participants in the Belmont Stakes have been sequestered in one barn since midweek. The man who trains what would have been the odds-on favorite thought it better to avoid the commotion later the morning, when the others went out for exercise and a crush of media arrived at the barn.
When I'll Have Another returned, O'Neill, who said he noticed lack of definition in the left foreleg on Thursday, "observed the beginning of swelling around the tendon." Aside from death or a fracture, a tendon injury is the worst misfortune that a racehorse can endure. Horses can recover fully from fracture, however. A tendon injury has more lasting, usually permanent implications.
"Every time a horse steps onto the track it's liable to be injured," O'Neill said some four hours after a scan revealed the injury that had befallen I'll Have Another at the most inopportune time within the spectrum of the most vivid imagination.
Could he run and compete? Yes. Would it be in his best interest? No.
”-- Doug O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another
The announcement that I'll Have Another will not run in the Belmont Stakes was made simultaneously with the announcement that he will be retired. It is almost impossible for a horse to return from a tendon injury at the original level of ability. Owner J. Paul Reddam, a financier of dubious reputation who undoubtedly has pending offers from breeders, quickly arrived at a business decision.
"If he didn't look 100 percent I wouldn't have sent him out," O'Neill said when asked if there was even a shadow of advance warning. Injury to horses, though far more frequent, is often less foreseen than a lightning strike. "Could he run and compete? Yes." O'Neill said. "Would it be in his best interest? No."
The risk of running 12 furlongs on a compromised tendon, arguably irresponsibly reckless, was too great. Dead horses are worthless -- even winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. As it stands, the retired I'll Have Another, a $35,000 purchase at age 2 who has earned almost $2.7 million, is worth seven figures as a stallion and will be fine well before the 2013 breeding season.
I'll Have Another, the first since 2008 to arrive at Belmont in position to win the Triple Crown, is the first winner of the first two legs missing from the finale since Bold Venture in 1936. Burgoo King, in 1932, won the first two legs but did not run in the Belmont. At the time, the Preakness was run prior to the Derby with the Belmont just a week later and the Triple Crown had not yet been established. Neither horse was entered in the Belmont.
So, with a fateful stride somewhere in the vast expanse of the hallowed ground known as "Big Sandy," racing's feast turned to famine on Friday in New York. The blush is off the rose. I'll Have Another will lead the post parade, a bizarre, almost mocking turn of events, before the 11th and no longer the most interesting race on Saturday at Belmont Park.
"This is extremely tough for all of us," a crestfallen O'Neill said. "Though it's far from tragic, no one died or anything like that, it's extremely disappointing and I feel so sorry for the whole team. We have had such an amazing run, you know, for me, taking three buses to go to Santa Anita at age 10 to be here trying to make history."
History will have to wait.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.