“It’s been an incredible ride, an incredible run,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “It’s a bummer. It’s not tragic, but it’s a huge disappointment.”
I’ll Have Another, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with stirring stretch drives, was the 4-5 favorite to win the Belmont and become the 12th Triple Crown winner and first since 1978.
Instead, he becomes the 12th horse since Affirmed, the last Triple champion, to win the first two legs but not the Belmont.
The scratch marks the first time since Bold Venture in 1936 that the Derby and Preakness winner didn’t run in the Belmont. Burgoo King skipped the race in 1932.
“Could he run and compete? Yes. Would it be in his best interest? No,” O’Neill said.
He said the swollen left front tendon was the beginning of tendinitis, which could have taken six months to treat, and so the popular horse was retired.
“Yesterday he galloped great, but in the afternoon we noticed some loss of definition in his left front leg,” he said, addressing the media outside the Belmont barns while I’ll Have Another grazed nearby. “We did just an easy gallop today. I thought he looked great on the track, and then cooling out, you could tell the swelling was back.”
O’Neill said he conferred with owner J. Paul Reddam, and they contacted Dr. Jim Hunt, who examined the horse.
“Immediately, we got Dr. Hunt over here, and he scanned him and he said it was the start of tendinitis in his left front tendon and you can give him three to six months and start back with him,” O’Neill said. “It was unanimous between the Reddams and my brother and I and everyone at the barn to retire him.”
Reddam confirmed that, saying: “We’re all a bit shocked, but we have to do what’s best for the horse. And if he can’t compete at the top level, he’s done enough.”
After the news conference, O’Neill led I’ll Have Another out of the detention barn and walked him down a path toward the barn where the colt had stayed for most of the time he had been at Belmont. Starting Wednesday, all the Belmont Stakes horses were housed in the same barn.
“Some people have asked did the detention barn have anything to do with this. Absolutely not. Just a freakish thing,” O’Neill said.
His brother Dennis said: “We’re very, very bummed out, but we’ll be back next year.”
He said it was hard to tell anything was wrong just by looking at the horse.
“He looks great. He’s sound. He went great this morning. He looks super (but) you just can’t take a chance. He’s too valuable of a horse and we love him to death like all of them,” he said. “You wouldn’t run a horse if you think something might happen.”
Larry Bramlage, Belmont’s on-call veterinarian, called it a “slow-healing injury.”
Bramlage compared it to an Achilles tendon injury, which usually keeps a person off his feet for six weeks.
“This one to the horse is nowhere near that severity,” Bramlage said, “but it takes the same amount of time to rehab it.”
Bramlage said that, for this horse, it would probably take a year to recover. He said a tendon in a race horse is “more highly evolved” than anything in a human.
“It’s an early injury,” Bramlage said. “If you went on and had he raced, the danger would have been a bowed tendon, meaning a significant number of fibers injured.”
Other trainers sympathized with O’Neill’s plight.
“I feel terrible for Doug,” said D. Wayne Lukas, who trains Belmont starter Optimizer. “To come this close and have arguably the best horse, everything being equal, you have to give him the nod as being the best horse. He’s done everything he was supposed to. He had four big ones (wins) in a row. That fifth one is tough. That’s what I’ve always said: It’s not a Triple Crown, it’s a five or six race series.”
Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, said: “When you’re in a Triple Crown campaign, and believe me, I went through it with an undefeated horse, every single day, you worry about this because one little thing can go wrong that makes the whole thing fall apart. So, you are never confident in this situation. Things like this do happen. At least the horse is going to be all right. It’s not a total tragedy.”
Said Dale Romans, trainer of second favorite Dullahan: “It’s devastating. I thought this was going to be one of the greatest races in history, and I wanted the opportunity to be part of it. But this is bigger than that. This is terrible news.”