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ELMONT, N.Y. – Cancel the champagne. Box up the confetti. Turn off Frank Sinatra. Instead of a Triple Crown, horse racing will have another sucker punch.
I'll Have Another will not win the Triple Crown Saturday. He isn't even going to race. Not in the Belmont Stakes. Not in September. Not ever. I'll Have Another has been retired before he made it to the Belmont starting gate.
An injury to a tendon near the bottom of I'll Have Another's left front foot, something one veterinarian compared to an Achilles' tendon problem for a basketball player, convinced owner J. Paul Reddam and trainer Doug O'Neill to scratch the horse from the final leg of the Triple Crown Friday.
Belmont on-call veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage said I'll Have Another likely took "one bad step," while on the track Thursday morning.
"If he had raced in the race, the danger would have been a bowed tendon," Bramlage said. "In all probability, he would not have won. He would not have been 100 percent."
The injury requires about six months to heal. Add six months to train the colt back to elite status, and Reddam chose retirement. The colt will likely be syndicated and sent to the breeding shed in February.
"It's a bummer, but far from tragic," said O'Neill. "It is very disappointing."
Some will argue it is more than disappointing. It is the worst possible outcome for horse racing, which has been waiting for another Triple Crown winner for 34 years -- since Affirmed outran Alydar in the 1978 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
But this isn't the 4-to-5 Belmont favorite and Mario Gutierrez, his unflappable young jockey, getting outrun. This is intrigue. I'll Have Another scratching this close to history is more unsettling than if the colt had been defeated by Dullahan, Union Rags or one of the nine other horses who will still compete over a mile-and-a-half Saturday.
Racing's critics will wonder if I'll Have Another was scratched because of the injury that O'Neill said he suffered Thursday or if the colt was primed to deliver a dull performance. I'll Have Another has been forced to train and compete with the stricter New York medication laws that have been enforced by moving every Belmont Stakes horse into a detention barn with 24-hour security.
O'Neill has multiple medication violations on his record. He is scheduled to begin a 45-day suspension in California July 1.
There have been no allegations that O'Neill violated rules with I'll Have Another while winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. But O'Neill's record has made him a target since the colt's upset Derby win May 5.
There is precedent. Four years ago, Rick Dutrow Jr., another trainer whose methods were questioned by the stewards, brought Big Brown to the Belmont in search of the Triple Crown. Dutrow said that he stopped administering steroids to Big Brown before the Belmont. Big Brown failed to finish the race. He was eased by jockey Kent Desormeaux in the final turn.
"It's too bad," said trainer Kenny McPeek, who will start two horses in the Belmont. "It's a hard game. I always say it's like boxing. You get hit in the head 10 times and then you get to hit somebody once."
O'Neill said that he noticed swelling in I'll Have Another's left front leg Thursday afternoon. The leg was iced. The swelling disappeared.
But things got strange Friday. I'll Have Another went to the track before 6 a.m., more than two hours earlier than usual. Horses crave habits. This was a new habit -- one day before the most defining race of his career. Nobody from Team O'Neill was available to speak with the media for the first time this week.
"I was watching (I'll Have Another) this morning," McPeek said. "I kept going back and forth. I wanted to see what his energy level was, what his aura was. And the screen (to his stall) was closed.
"I was like, ‘I wonder what that's about?' I kept trying to peek in, to see how he was acting, whether he was in his feed tub, didn't go to the feed tub. The screen was closed. There were people in there."
There was a reason people were in there: The swelling had returned. O'Neill summoned his vet, Dr. Jim Hunt. He ordered an ultrasound, which revealed tendinitis of his superficial digital flexor tendon.
It is not a life-threatening injury. But O'Neill said he was unwilling to exacerbate the injury by asking the colt to race a mile-and-a-half – even with a Triple Crown at stake.
"It's a one-bad-step injury," Bramlage said.
One bad step for I'll Have Another. One more awful step for horse racing.