It was a crushing blow for a sport eager to celebrate a feel-good story line it sorely needed. Hit hard by the nation’s economic downturn and struggling to compete with new forms of entertainment and more enticing options for legalized gambling, thoroughbred racing has lost much of the luster it enjoyed when Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978.
“It’s just devastating,” said Dale Romans, trainer of third-place Kentucky Derby finisher Dullahan, who took little joy in his colt being installed as the Belmont’s new favoritefollowing I’ll Have Another’s withdrawal. “It would have been a great race and great for the sport.”
With his furious kick and flair for razor-thin victory margins, I’ll Have Another had the makings of a hero for his time. In an era in which Americans are being asked to do more with less, the 3-year-old did just that, winning the Kentucky Derby with a charge past the favored Bodemeister and replicating his last-second heroics to win the Preakness Stakes by a neck, again at Bodemeister’s expense.
I’ll Have Another lacked the can’t-miss pedigree of Triple Crown champion Secretariat, the so-called Super Horse who was splashed on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated for his 1973 achievement. Just four months ago, I’ll Have Another was a lightly regarded colt who had been bought for $35,000 and deemed a 43-1 shot in his first race as a 3-year-old.
He didn’t triumph by shattering course records or crushing all comers, as Secretariat had. He won, with jockey Mario Gutierrez aboard, by summoning an extra measure of heart and will to topple one favorite after another — just barely.
All that remained was a victory in Saturday’s grueling 11
2-mile Belmont Stakes, in which the colt was installed as a favorite for the first time in his career.
But trainer Doug O’Neill said he noticed swelling in the horse’s left front leg Thursday evening. It subsided overnight but flared up again following a 5:30 a.m. workout Friday. An ultrasound confirmed the early stages of tendinitis.
Given estimates of a three- to six-month recovery, and the possibility that he would suffer flare-ups after returning to competition, O’Neill and I’ll Have Another’s owner Paul Reddam agreed to retire the horse, who will have a lucrative second career at stud. They announced the withdrawal during a news conference beside the Belmont Stakes barn, as I’ll Have Another nibbled on grass, his coat glistening in the sun.
“This is extremely tough for us all,” said O’Neill, 44, dismissing a suggestion that the rigors of the Triple Crown pursuit, which requires thoroughbreds to win three races of different lengths in five weeks, had been to blame.