ELMONT, N.Y. -- Absent from Belmont Park on Saturday: Electricity, a sense of importance folded into the 13-race card, the 11th of which was what remained of the 144th Belmont Stakes after the untimely and shocking withdrawal of I'll Have Another, who would become the first winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness to be retired in the winner's circle shortly before the Belmont Stakes was run.
Sometimes, history in its various forms is where you find it.
"There are many fans who traveled from near and far to see I'll Have Another today," trainer Doug O'Neill said. Judging from the variety of license plates in the parking lots at the track and hotels near Belmont Park, people traveled to Long Island from all over the East, South and Canada, drawn by the opportunity to witness history that was ultimately denied when the colt, who was the toast of racing this spring, was found to have suffered a tendon injury of the left foreleg and scratched on Friday.
A plan hastily and ill-conceived for I'll Have Another to lead the Belmont post parade was shelved early Saturday
A sullen disappointment lingered where only a day before a groundswell of anticipation made this Belmont the hottest ticket in New York on a day when the Yankees and Mets played in the Bronx. Potential Triple Crown winners have been few and far between in recent years. An hour before post time, replays of the Belmont Stakes won by 25-1 Ruler on Ice, 13-1 Drosselmeyer and 12-1 Summer Bird, echoed through the cavernous racetrack, each a reminder of how hollow a Belmont Stakes day can be without the potential for a coronation. By then, the early arrivals were resigned to searching for a longshot winner among the remnants of an event that 24 hours before held such great promise. They came to see I'll Have Another, anointed in Kentucky and Maryland, claim a Triple Crown title vacant for 34 years and found themselves evaluating the chances of Guyana Star Dweej, Five Sixteen, Ravelo's Boy and My Adonis. Cashing a ticket moved ahead of witnessing history in the afternoons reorder of priorities.
There is a widely held opinion that it matters not that a horse win the Triple Crown, regardless of the draught that threatens to reach four decades, but that a horse arrive at Belmont in position to sweep the series, which at least for three weeks after the Preakness, moves racing to the front burner of the public and media consciousness. Never before, however, has a horse so positioned, one who displayed the determination and courage that endears a thoroughbred to those who have seen him race, failed to reach the starting gate, been led into the winner's enclosure not to be crowned, but to be retired.
A plan hastily and ill-conceived for I'll Have Another to lead the Belmont post parade was shelved early Saturday, finally quashed by the stewards, who envisioned the possibility of the horse, dead fit and prepared for a race and only a matter of yards from his vociferous, now disappointed fans, running off on an injured leg. The last 24 hours at Belmont have served as a reminder that anything is possible. So, a properly tranquilized Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion was led to the racetrack not to attempt another victory but to meet his public one last time before taking up residence to serve the highest bidder in the breeding shed, another heroic equine figure gone too soon, his public presence limited to pages in sales catalogs.
The ceremony that sent I'll Have Another into retirement was brief and simple. Lava Man led the sedated guest of honor into the winner's circle. Mario Gutierrez, dressed in a white shirt and tie rather than the colors of owner J. Paul Reddam, was astride. Like all those on O'Neill's staff, he wore a bright yellow cap. There was no ovation from the Belmont crowd, which stood cheek-to-jowl for almost three furlongs on the expansive apron 45 minutes before the main event, no more than polite applause from those gathered at the winner's circle rail. The disappointed do not cheer.
The 85,811 at Belmont would save the noise for Union Rags and Paynter, who as much as possible saved the day, deciding the Belmont in a heated stretch drive at the end of which they were separated by a neck at the end of the slowest 12 furlongs (2:30.42) run at the end of the Triple Crown since Commendable, the longshot winner in 2000. Still, a hotly contested battle of mortals who cling to that status at least for the foreseeable future, was not what they came to see.
Once unsaddled, I'll Have Another was led unceremoniously back to the barn where he will await transportation back to California. The story of the Triple Crown of 2012, so compelling a week ago, ended in a communal sigh.
So long, I'll Have Another. We hardly know ya.
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.