Unforgettable day at Belmont Park

Updated: June 9, 2012, 12:33 AM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to ESPN.com

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Two men stood along the rail at Belmont Park on Wednesday morning, and the red colt went galloping by, striding, reaching, eating up that sandy New York ground.

"He looks like a version of Secretariat out there," one said in a voice from the Bronx.

Spindly legs skimmed the soil, thrust off, left it. Potential hung heavy in the air.

"I think he's gonna win it this year -- I think so, maybe."

"This is extremely tough for all of us. [With] the start of tendonitis in his left front tendon, you [could] give him three to six months and then start back with him. But obviously he's done so much, that it was unanimous to retire him."

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

It trailed him, this anticipation, all the way from the Kentucky Derby winner's circle through a Preakness triumph and on to Belmont for the final jewel of the Triple Crown. The hope was magic. It took you back to a 6-year-old perched atop his father's shoulders, Affirmed and Alydar in an all-out duel; a 13-year-old posing for her picture in the paddock, Seattle Slew on his way to greatness; and how old were you with Secretariat, when he demolished them, and were you there?

Wednesday morning and two men along the Belmont rail and the red colt going on by. Those quiet hours were the last before the bubble burst, and that contender still had a chance of being everything the racing world wanted him to be. One runner winging out around the turn, and two men anticipating history, witnessing the miracle that has happened -- will happen -- for hundreds of years.

In the split seconds between movements, horse and rider took flight.

***

News broke slowly at first, murmured around the backside at Belmont Park, and shared between trainers and jockey agents, those in the know. On Friday, I'll Have Another was whisked to the track for a 5:30 a.m. outing, far before the 8:30 a.m. exercise he'd been taking leading up to the Belmont Stakes. This deviation from the usual raised eyebrows, and by 11 a.m., the press box was buzzing with rumors that were soon confirmed -- there would not be another Triple Crown, nor another start for the underdog colt who won the first two legs this year.

He is the first horse in 78 years to win the Derby and Preakness and skip the Belmont -- only two others, Burgoo King in 1932 and Bold Venture in 1936, missed the third jewel of the series. For a sport in desperate need of a hero, even the chance of the first Triple Crown since 1978 provided a booster.

No more.

"It's like completely letting the air out of a balloon," said trainer Ken McPeek, with Atigun and Unstoppable U in the race and their chances just improved at actual victory, but not victory the way he wanted, over the best 3-year-old in the nation.

At 1:10 p.m., a scrum of reporters and photographers, video crews and bystanders, crammed into a narrow gap beside Barn 2 for an impromptu news conference. Necks craned and shutters clicked as owner J. Paul Reddam stepped to a hastily erected microphone. His voice cracked when he vocalized what everyone was thinking.

"I'm afraid history is going to have to wait for another day," he said.

The facts were not tragic, certainly not the worst horse racing has ever faced. A bit of filling on a left front leg noted Thursday afternoon, cause for the easy gallop the following morning, return of the swelling and a scan and the start of tendonitis, which could have led to a bowed tendon if undetected or pushed. The horse was healthy, free of pain -- well enough, it turned out, for his connections to arrange for him to lead the post parade in the race he was supposed to have won.

"This is extremely tough for all of us," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "[With] the start of tendonitis in his left front tendon, you [could] give him three to six months and then start back with him. But obviously he's done so much, that it was unanimous to retire him."

"If he can't compete at the top level ... he's done enough," Reddam concurred.

O'Neill insisted the New York State Racing and Wagering Board's hastily mandated Belmont Stakes detention barn had nothing to do with developments regarding the colt -- that, in fact, he was withdrawing for the good of the horse -- and there is no reason not to believe him. The man who says he has learned to take more caution with his runners faced the greatest temptation for the biggest race of his career and passed with flying colors, I'll Have Another's welfare in mind. But rumors will fly regarding tight regulations and the trainer with a history of drug-related violations because perception is everything and that's just the way things are, a sport and its leading figures under heavy scrutiny and frequent attack.

***

The chestnut runner with the small white star stood quietly before the media after the announcement of his retirement. He regarded the attention with a champion's eye. Other horses would have shied away from the unfamiliar throng, but not this one. Purchased for $35,000 as a 2-year-old and undefeated this year, he seemed to understand his destiny. In every performance, including this final bow, he did not disappoint.

Photos were taken and the moment was captured and the sentiment shared across the nation was given words by a disappointed photographer: "They'll watch the race on Saturday to see who wins, but it just won't be the same."

Trainer Dale Romans shared the feeling. His third-place Derby finisher, Dullahan, inherited the favorite's role -- but Romans didn't want the race handed to him.

"This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our time," he said. "I'd rather have him in there. I think we could have competed with him, and it would have been great for the race and great for the sport. It would have been something special to beat him."

Jockey Mario Gutierrez, 25 years old and facing the biggest moment of his life, was crushed.

"In the end, everybody's trying to do what's right for the horse and nobody's trying to hurt him and I think we're doing the right thing," he said. "What I'll Have Another did for me is so amazing; he just brought happiness to my life … he'll be my hero forever."

So we wanted it, and tried to believe, but time has diminished our faith. For some, knowledge of this illusive accomplishment lies only in the annals of history, in faded photographs and the memories of those fortunate enough to witness greatness. Just 11 horses have tried to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, and 11 have failed -- and every time it comes down to this in modern racing, a single runner with the weight of the sport on his shoulders ... the burden appears too heavy to bear.

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.