NEW YORK (AP) — Bummer.
Belmont Park was prepping for a big ol’ party Saturday, some 100,000 people ready to roll in by the trainloads for a shot at cheering on the first Triple Crown winner since 1978. They would’ve come from the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan to the west, from the sprawling homes of Long Island to the east, from points in between and beyond.
Well, they can find something else to do now.
The party’s over – before the horses ever got to the starting gate.
About 30 hours from post time, I’ll Have Another called it a career. An injury to the tendon in his left front leg was the culprit – not that bad, from a pure medical standpoint, but an absolutely crushing blow to the Belmont Stakes and horse racing in general.
“It’s like completely letting the air out of a balloon,” said Ken McPeek, the trainer for two other Belmont horses.
The race will go on, of course, but all the joy has been snuffed out.
Who’s going to win?
“I’ll enjoy the racing,” said Dr. Larry Bramlage, veterinarian for the Belmont Stakes. Then, he added, with a deep sigh, “But it won’t be quite as exciting.”
A chestnut colt was on the cusp of completing one of the most elusive feats in sports. There hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, way back in the middle of the Carter administration. In the 34 years since then, a dozen horses have won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Eleven of them lost at the Belmont – perhaps because of a jockey’s blunder, or maybe a freak injury in the middle of the race. Sometimes, another horse was just better.
But never like this.
I’ll Have Another didn’t even make the call to the post.
“I really wanted him to compete,” said Dale Romans, the trainer for newly installed Belmont favorite Dullahan. “This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our time. It’s just devastating.”
There were losers galore on this day. There will undoubtedly be a much smaller crowd for the Belmont’s biggest event. NBC’s ratings are sure to take a huge hit after running strong through the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Horse racing missed out on a chance to boost its battered reputation and grim bottom line, which has been under siege for years from slot machines and blackjack tables.
Back in the barns, the workers carried on with their chores. There was still feed to haul, hay to shovel, horses to wash. Out at the betting windows, the railbirds scanned their tip sheets. There were still races to pick, winnings to collect, tickets to shred. The sport will go on, but this sting will last a while.
“It’s just a really sad day in our industry,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of 2006 Belmont winner Jazil.
At a concession stand, one man glanced at his cellphone and shook his head. “First time it’s ever happened,” he said to a friend. Indeed, while two other horses dropped out of the Belmont in the 1930s with injuries after winning the first two races of the Triple Crown, no one could ever remember such a scratch the day before the race.
For I’ll Have Another, the trouble started when his handlers spotted some swelling in the left leg after Thursday’s regular morning workout. They crossed their fingers and hoped it was nothing serious. They sent him out for his final training session extra early Friday, about 5:30 a.m., with hardly anyone at the track. The horse galloped as though everything was OK. But, back at the barn, the swelling returned.
An ultrasound machine was brought in.
“That’s never a good sign,” Romans said.
There was some fraying to the tendon, the telltale sign of impending tendinitis. While Bramlage said the injury was unlikely to cause a catastrophic breakdown in the race, there was little chance of I’ll Have Another coming up with the kick he would need to beat the rest of the field over the grueling 1 1/2-mile event, the longest test in the Triple Crown.
The horse was barely into his retirement when the conspiracy theories began to swirl on the Internet – I’ll Have Another had been pulled from the race because of a doping violation, a graceful way to bow out instead of being humiliated by a failed drug test. After all, this was a colt trained by someone dubiously nicknamed “Drug” O’Neill.
The actual name is Doug O’Neill, and his horses have been nailed four times for elevated levels of total carbon dioxide, which is supposed to reduce fatigue and is usually associated with a banned mixture known as “milkshaking.” I’ll Have Another never failed a test, but his trainer will begin serving a 45-day suspension for his latest violation in a few weeks.
O’Neill’s questionable tactics were supposedly among the reasons New York racing officials set up a separate barn for the Belmont Stakes. A dozen of them were herded into a single building, which led to crowded conditions, some uneasy animals, and plenty of grumbling from the trainers – Romans and D. Wayne Lukas being the most vocal.
Romans didn’t let up after I’ll Have Another was scratched, wondering if the draconian attempts to ensure clean racing was what led to the career-ending injury.
“This detention barn is bad,” he said. “I don’t know if it played a role in this, but we’re always going to wonder. Whoever came up with this idea should resign.”
For the record, all the horses in the barn, including I’ll Have Another, have tested clean. So maybe we should at least put the drug theory to rest.
I’ll Have Another will make one final trip to the track on Saturday, leading the post parade with his jockey, Mario Gutierrez, in the saddle. It will be a sad occasion on so many levels, a solemn reminder of yet another missed opportunity in a sport that just can’t seem to catch a break.
Back in the barn area, a black cat slinked by.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963