This was never going to be a fairy tale, not completely. There was too much smoke around the trainer, who had been fined or suspended for drug violations on 14 occasions and whose horses broke down twice as often as the national average.
There was too much suspicion about the owner, who has made a fortune with his high-interest, high-risk loan business that has come under fire from regulators in three states.
Even 90-year-old Penny Chenery, the owner of Secretariat and among the most respected voices in the sport, had questioned the way all of this looked.
But everybody rooted for the horse. Nothing shoves skepticism aside like a great, regal, historic horse running one lap around Belmont Park for the Triple Crown.
Now, we don’t even have that. Now, after Friday’s revelation that I’ll Have Another has been scratched from the Belmont Stakes and retired, what we’ve got is a sport already hanging by a thread, left to drown in a cocktail of all the cynical stuff that has dragged this once-prominent game to the point of barely mattering at all.
Yes, they’ll run the Belmont on Saturday anyway, because the show must go on. But it won’t include Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another, who, according to trainer Doug O’Neill, first showed signs of an injury Thursday afternoon and was officially diagnosed with tendinitis after his gallop Friday.
And just like that, in the span of a couple of hours on the Belmont backstretch, I’ll Have Another went from the cusp of history to the breeding shed, never to race again, while the maddening Triple Crown drought stretches to 34 years.
“It’s far from tragic, but it’s very disappointing,” O’Neill said. “It’s just a freakish thing.”
“It’s a one-bad-step injury,” the on-call veterinarian, Dr. Larry Bramlage, said.
These are fragile animals and bad steps happen all the time, though rarely in such high-profile moments with so much at stake. Among the 12 ill-fated Triple Crown hopefuls that have followed Affirmed in 1978, this is a new standard for misfortune.
But even the bad luck here comes with a hint of skepticism, which isn’t totally unwarranted given both the state of the sport and the history of O’Neill’s barn.
Look, the likely explanation is the simple one: The horse suffered a fairly common injury, and though Bramlage said he could race without significant risks, he probably couldn’t compete at a high level.
Given that I’ll Have Another’s stud value is as high as it will be, there’s no point to putting his reputation on the line if he’s not 100 percent and ready to win. Moreover, an abundance of caution is far more preferable than what we saw in 2008, when Big Brown couldn’t even finish the race, or 1999, when Charismatic broke down at the finish line.
“We have to do what’s best for the horse,” I’ll Have Another’s owner Paul Reddam said.
But unfortunately, horse racing has been victimized so often by its own incompetence that news of I’ll Have Another’s retirement was met with some skepticism from the common fan about whether he really was injured or just on the verge of getting caught.
It’s easy enough to connect the dots. Here was a horse being trained by an alleged drug cheat, whose record had become the flashpoint of the entire Triple Crown, even though I’ll Have Another had tested clean after the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
In response, a state-run racing board — which recently seized control over the New York Racing Association over allegations of totally unrelated improprieties — required every Belmont horse be moved to a quarantine barn with lockdown security. It vowed that drug testing procedures would be as stringent as any in the history of the Triple Crown, even outlawing the equine version of “Breathe Right” strips, which I’ll Have Another had worn across his nose in the first two races.
Things were so tight around the backstretch, there even was a brief kerfuffle Thursday over whether O’Neill could cook the oats for I’ll Have Another’s feed, before authorities finally relented.
Though nobody said it explicitly, it sure felt like someone in New York was trying to send a message to the California-based O’Neill: If you’re going to win the Triple Crown on our turf, we’re going to make damn sure you do it on the level.
All week, O’Neill kept his cool and played along, even as he understood none of this would have happened if his record wasn’t such a focal point. But it had to be a focal point, given the inherent mistrust of horse racing. There are too many forms of gambling now, too many things to occupy our time, to pay attention to a sport without a strong, consistent regulating industry and with trainers who avoid the rules without consequence at the bettor’s expense.
Even the 45-day suspension O’Neill received recently in California was handed down for excessive carbon dioxide levels in horses that ran two years ago. It took that long to adjudicate the case, and in the end, the suspension doesn’t start until July 1 and hardly matters since it doesn’t apply in every state.
Had I’ll Have Another won the Triple Crown, the euphoria would have been accompanied by a nationwide debate over whether having a suspended O’Neill as a spokesman is good for the sport.
Somehow, this is worse. Too many injuries, too many great horses rushing to the breeding shed and too many suspicions over illegal drugs have contributed significantly to horse racing’s decline. In the end, the I’ll Have Another story had them all. Cynicism is your Triple Crown champion once again.