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ELMONT, N.Y. – By the time jockey John Velazquez had knifed Union Rags along the rail to win the Belmont Stakes Saturday, I'll Have Another, the colt positioned perfectly to win the Triple Crown, had been tucked quietly behind the closed door to his stall in Barn 9 at Belmont Park.
His trainer, Doug O'Neill, was supposed to be there with him, watching the Belmont Stakes unfold on a television at the barn. That's where O'Neill said he was going after he walked out of the grandstand following the emotional retirement ceremony for I'll Have Another in the winner's circle before the race.
That's where O'Neill could have answered the one essential post-race question:
Won't everybody believe that I'll Have Another would have dusted this plodding field?
Only two of the last dozen Belmonts have been won in a slower time than the 2:30.42 Union Rags needed to stick his neck ahead of front-running Paynter at the wire.
Slow? It was also the fifth slowest winning time for the mile-and-a-half race in the last 42 years.
"Who knows?" trainer Kenny McPeek said.
Nobody knows. Nobody will ever know. But they'll wonder. They'll always wonder.
I'll Have Another earned his applause Saturday; he simply didn't earn it on the racetrack. The crowd of 85,811 roared as if the colt was crackling down the stretch when he was led to the winner's circle 40 minutes before the race.
Jockey Mario Gutierrez sobbed as if he was finally starting to process the news that the colt was actually skipping the Belmont to begin his retirement. O'Neill quipped that it was a great day and that he was wagering on Dullahan and Paynter in the Belmont.
"No mixed emotions," he said. "It's been great. I feel great."
Then O'Neill waved his son, Daniel, and daughter, Kayle Dixie, into a gray Dodge van with Wisconsin license plates parked in the Belmont valet lot for the short drive to Barn 9 to watch the race.
They never showed up.
Assistant trainer Jack Sisterson said he had not seen O'Neill. Nobody at the barn had.
When it comes to this colt, this trainer and this Triple Crown, we'll always have another mystery.
Was it really a tendon injury that dictated the decision by O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam to scratch the colt about 30 hours before the race?
"It seems strange to me," said Armando Lloreda, a 72-year-old racing fan who took a 5 ½ hour flight from Cali, Colombia on Friday, expecting to see history.
When Lloreda landed at Kennedy Airport, he heard the news he could not believe. I'll Have Another would not run Saturday. "I'm a polo player who is always around horses," Lloreda said. "A horse isn't going to have a tendon injury that bad from a gallop. It's all very strange."
Lloreda came to see the pursuit of a Triple Crown, but had to satisfy himself by spending $100 for a framed photograph of I'll Have Another winning the Preakness.
Or was the colt stopped by the stricter enforcement of medication rules in New York that resulted in all the Belmont Stakes horses moving to a supervised detention barn three days before the race?
"An injury like that should have been noticed at least a week before the race," said Michael Desano, a former trainer who works with the Race Track Chaplaincy of America at tracks in New York. "I just don't like the setup of the whole thing."
Horse racing always makes it easy to dial up conspiracy theories. The one I heard most frequently was that owner J. Paul Reddam and O'Neill decided to scratch the horse to protect value as a stallion. That's a tough one to sell unless you also believe they were convinced I'll Have Another could not win because if the colt became racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years his stud value would have soared.
But nobody was leaving Belmont without trying to handicap everything that occurred the last two days.
The winning time was uninspiring. I'll Have Another beat Union Rags by 7 ½ lengths in the Kentucky Derby. The colt handled Paynter by 3 ¾ lengths in the Santa Anita Derby April 7.
He wins this race. He wins it with conviction. He closes the 34-year gap between Triple Crown winners, right?
"The way they ran today it would not have surprised me if we would have had a Triple Crown winner, if he had come in here at his best," said trainer Dale Romans, whose colt (Dullahan) finished seventh.
"With that being said, that's part of the deal. You have to hit all three races healthy."
Yes, you do. I'll Have Another didn't. But we're always going to wonder.