I’ll Have Another appeared poised to become just the 12th in history to achieve the feat last season. But the day before the Belmont, trainer Doug O’Neill withdrew the colt, citing tendinitis.
Asked whether I’ll Have Another could have competed with a few weeks more rest, assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said this week that there was no way of knowing.
“It’s like a professional athlete on Sunday going out and playing a football game; they can sprain an ankle at any point,” Sisterson said. I’ll Have Another “could have done that in his debut. That’s horseracing; that’s the name of the game. Fortunately he’s fit and healthy right now, enjoying life after his racing career is over.”
That said, Sisterson conceded that the Triple Crown turnaround is difficult.
“Typically you see the average thoroughbred run about four to five weeks in between races, and you’re trying to squeeze three into five weeks when they’re still babies — three-year-olds, still maturing,” he said. “Hence the Triple Crown is a very prestigious title. It really does take a champion to do it.
According to Dean W. Richardson, chief of large animal surgery at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, there is no valid, scientific evidence to suggest that modern-day thoroughbreds aren’t as able to withstand the rigor of the Triple Crown schedule as their predecessors were decades ago, as some argue.
“There is a widely held belief that horses are less sound today than they were 30 to 50 years ago because horses back then raced more frequently and more horses had longer visible careers,” said Richardson, who performed the complex surgery on Barbaro after the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner shattered his right hind leg early in the Preakness two weeks later.
“The problem I have with that interpretation is that I believe trainers actually are more tuned in to their horses’ problems today and are less inclined to race a horse with a known musculoskeletal lesion that increases risk of further injury. Better diagnostics result in our recognizing more problems sooner, and there is a strong incentive not to endanger a high- profile horse if you know there is an increased risk.”
Such caution may explain, in part, why so many of this year’s Derby runners are skipping the Preakness.
Tom Chuckas, president of the Maryland Jockey Club, isn’t convinced the schedule has anything to do with the lean field for Saturday’s race. And he, for one, has no interest in tinkering with Triple Crown tradition.
“Horses through the generations have run under this schedule,” Chuckas said. “I’m cognizant that it is an arduous and difficult task, but it was set up that way. If you’re a horseman, an owner, a trainer, and you want to compete, you craft your schedule accordingly to have the horse in the best possible condition. It separates true champions.”