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Not all is lost

6/9/2012

The announcement arrived like a brick through the window: I'll Have
Another won't race in Saturday's 144th Belmont Stakes. No Triple Crown
celebration, no shot at a series sweep and no historic run at Belmont
Park -- but in a strangely ironic way, maybe the news wasn't all bad.

The damage remains from recent weeks, but without the redemptive
potential of a Triple Crown winner. The Belmont horses remain in the
detention, or stakes, barn, where they're held like so many
suspects in a federal crime; the confusion and misunderstandings all
remain, too, aftershocks caused by media mites still too obtuse to
know their diapers stink. And so without the potential of a Triple
Crown winner -- when a sweep seemed so possible only hours ago -- the
Belmont Stakes has become an exercise in bathos, a hijacking of the
sublime by the trivial.

"It's far from tragic," O'Neill said. "Nobody died or anything like
that. ... We've had an amazing run."

-- Doug O'Neill, trainer of I'll Have Another

"History will have to wait for another day," said I'll Have Another's
owner, J. Paul Reddam, as he announced the colt's retirement early
Friday afternoon, alluding to the possibility that with a Belmont
victory, the handsome chestnut could have become the 12th Triple Crown
winner in the history of the sport and the first since Affirmed 34
years ago.

Instead, I'll Have Another has become the 12th horse since 1978 whose
attempt to sweep the series got as far as New York but then fizzled.
And he'll be the first horse since Bold Venture in 1936 to win both
the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but not run in the Belmont Stakes.

This Belmont was all about possibilities and dreams: the possibility
of a historic triumph and a great accomplishment; the dream of
finding and buying a superlative horse for what these days amounts to
a modest investment; and the pursuit of the American dream by a jockey
from the village of El Higo in the Mexican state of Veracruz, a jockey
who wasn't even born back when Affirmed collected all these famous
jewels. But all that dissolved into the shimmery afternoon heat
with the announcement that I'll Have Another won't race in Saturday's
Belmont Stakes.

The irony here is that I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, who
was greeted by some on the Triple Crown trail as if he were Tony
Montana, exercised "extreme caution," as Reddam put it, and did the
right thing. O'Neill, in fact, did the very best and right thing.

Portrayed by some as indifferent to his horses' welfare, O'Neill
throughout the series has exhibited genuine care and concern. With
I'll Have Another, he identified a possible problem, addressed it and
made the painful but necessary decision. And then he put it all in
perspective.

"It's far from tragic," O'Neill said. "Nobody died or anything like
that. … We've had an amazing run."

O'Neill explained that I'll Have Another had a "little filling," or
swelling, in his left foreleg Thursday afternoon. The colt, of course,
could have hit himself.

But, as it turned out, something more serious caused the swelling.
I'll Have Another went to the track very early Friday morning -- to avoid
the crowd and confusion caused by everybody's being in the detention
barn, O'Neill said -- and afterward, "the swelling came up" again.

A scan later revealed "the start of tendonitis," O'Neill explained.
Specifically, the problem is with the superficial digital flexor
tendon, which runs along the back of the foreleg between the knee and
ankle. Swelling and heat are the first warning signs of a possible
tendon problem.

"Could he run and compete? Yes," O'Neill said, referring to I'll Have
Another and the Belmont. "Would it have been in his best interest?
No. … He's been doing great. It's just a freakish thing."

Reddam said he had expected a romp Saturday. He said he thought I'll
Have Another would "run off and show something" in this 144th Belmont.
Instead the colt has been retired. But perhaps he indirectly showed
something after all; perhaps he showed, or allowed his connections to
show, that people in this sport sincerely attempt to do the right
thing by their horses. And maybe the sport, having been assailed by
confusion and ignorance for weeks now, needed that almost as much as a
Triple Crown winner.

Because of poor circulation in the area, tendons are notoriously slow
to heal. And after a tendon injury, horses rarely return to their prior
level of performance. So the decision to retire I'll Have Another must
have been easy. Apparently the decision to be cautious and do the
right thing was easy, too.