Not all is lost

Updated: June 9, 2012, 12:57 AM ET
By Gary West | Special to

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.