ELMONT, N.Y. - The rumors began on Friday before dawn. Something was amiss in Barn 2 at Belmont Park with the most famous tenant, I’ll Have Another. The winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes had a 5:30 a.m. workout, watched closely by suddenly tight-lipped trainer Doug O’Neill.
At 11 a.m., the New York Racing Association issued a terse release. There would be a news conference with O’Neill and I’ll Have Another’s owner, J. Paul Reddam.
The speculation quickly ended when O’Neill went on “The Dan Patrick Show’’ and announced that I’ll Have Another, the 4-5 morning line favorite, had been scratched from Saturday’s Belmont because of a problem with his left front leg, and thus would miss his chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
Later, with the media seven deep outside Barn 2, O’Neill and Reddam made it official - I’ll Have Another had been scratched because of a swollen tendon.
Under normal circumstances, such an injury could sideline a horse for as long as a year. But Reddam quickly put a halt to that talk, retiring I’ll Have Another, who will be put to stud in California.
It will be the first time since Bold Venture in 1936 that the Derby and Preakness winner didn’t run in the Belmont.
“We’re all a bit shaken by this,’’ said Reddam, who over the last two months had watched his $35,000 investment turn into a multimillion-dollar commodity, “but we want to do what is best for the horse. So, I’m afraid history is going to have to wait for another day.’’
Although the public utterances that everything was fine with I’ll Have Another were given as late as Friday morning, there were signs things weren’t normal.
On Wednesday, word filtered through the stable area that I’ll Have Another’s appetite was off, perhaps a byproduct of the move from the barn he had called home at Belmont since being shipped from Pimlico after the Preakness to the security barn that was housing all 12 Belmont entries.
O’Neill’s older brother, Dennis, said they noticed something wasn’t right on Thursday afternoon, and wanted to check it out.
Doug O’Neill decided to let things quiet down for the evening, and take I’ll Have Another for a workout Friday morning.
“There was no swelling before his workout,’’ said Larry Bramlage, the Churchill Downs veterinarian who is on call during the Triple Crown. “And even afterward, there wasn’t swelling that you could really see. But trainers know how their horses should look.’’
And I’ll Have Another did look normal when O’Neill brought his horse in front of the media for pictures before the announcement he was being retired.
O’Neill, whose rise to fame had matched that of I’ll Have Another, said he was disappointed but not devastated.
“This is extremely tough for all of us, though it’s far from tragic, no one died or anything like that,’’ said O’Neill. “But it’s extremely disappointing and I feel so sorry for the whole team. We have had such an amazing run, you know, for me, taking three buses to go to Santa Anita at age 10, to be here and try to make history.’’
O’Neill conceded that things were a bit off for I’ll Have Another all week.
“He has been showing a little bit of, you know, he has been quiet the last few days of galloping, but his legs have been great,’’ said O’Neill. “[Thursday] he galloped great, but in the afternoon we noticed some loss of definition in his left front leg to which, like every other owner and trainer, we prayed he just kind of hit himself and it was just a little bit of skin irritation. We did him up in a special poultice.
“This morning, he looked great, so I thank the racing gods there. And we did just a little easy gallop with him today. I thought he looked great on the track.
“And then cooling out, you could tell that swelling was back, and at that point I didn’t feel very good. I talked to Mr. Reddam, and you know, immediately we got Dr. [Jim] Hunt over here and . . . he said it was the start of tendinitis in his left front tendon. And you know, you give him three to six months and start back with him.
“But obviously, he’s done so much that it was unanimous between the Reddams and my brother and I, and everyone at the barn, to retire him. And it is a bummer, but again, far from tragic, but it is very disappointing.’’
Included in that disappointment is jockey Mario Gutierrez, who was riding a wave of success with I’ll Have Another.
“I called Mario this morning, just after I talked to Doug, and he was, I think he was sort of stunned, because he really didn’t say much at first, and I wasn’t sure that he really understood what I was talking about,’’ said Reddam. “Then when I explained, no, no, I’ll Have Another, he’s got to be retired, his immediate reaction was, ‘Well, should I just go home today?’ ’’
“No, you’ve got to ride [in Friday’s Brooklyn Handicap]. So, he was sad for the horse, really. He has just had a tremendous bonding with I’ll Have Another, as everybody saw him on the track, and his concern was 100 percent for the welfare of the horse and he expressed in the end no disappointment for him not getting a chance to run the Belmont.
“He’s just glad that the horse is OK and, you know, his safety, along with the other riders’ safety, is paramount. So, that’s why the decision was made.’’
Shortly after Friday’s news conference, I’ll Have Another, no longer able to become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since Affirmed in 1978, was released from the security barn and went to Barn 9, where he had more room, and much more privacy, in his new role.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.