Swelling in I’ll Have Another’s leg on Thursday alerted his trainer, Doug O’Neill, to a potential problem that he hoped might disappear overnight. It seemed to have done that. The horse looked sound on Friday morning, but after a short workout, the swelling was back, and O’Neill and the I’ll Have Another’s owner, Paul Reddam, had a decision to make.
“It was unanimous between the Reddams and my brother and I and everyone at the barn to retire him, and it is a bummer…far from tragic, but very disappointing,” O’Neill said at a Friday press conference.
Before that disappointment squelched the possibility that we’d have a Triple Crown winner, Bill Littlefield spoke with William Nack, the author of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the horse that won the Triple Crown in 1973. Littlefield asked Nack if I’ll Have Another might come close to duplicating Secretariat’s extraordinary performance in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by some 31 lengths.
“No, no, no,” Nack said. “This horse…he’s a nice horse, but I don’t think he’s got a 21-pound heart, which is what Secretariat had.”
There is mystique associated with the Triple Crown, and there is grandeur. Horses don’t do it very often – no horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed did so in 1978 – and even the people associated with horses who wreck a Triple Crown candidate’s chances by beating him sometimes wish they’d lost. In 2004, Smarty Jones had only to win the Belmont to complete the triple. Nack remembered that after Birdstone wrecked that possibility by winning the race, Nick Zito, the trainer of the winning horse, felt awful.
“He kind of apologized to everybody,” Nack said. “I have never in my entire life ever seen a winning trainer of a major horse race look even remotely sad, and this guy was just despondent. It was like he had come and spoiled the party.”
According to Nack, the party does not often end happily because for the past few decades, breeders have been more interested in creating fast horses than horses capable of combining speed and endurance. The latter quality is crucial for the Belmont, at one and a half miles, the longest of the Triple Crown races.
“Horses aren’t bred for stamina anymore,” he said. “People are saying, ‘Well, what they gotta do is make the Belmont a mile and a quarter.’ No! What you’ve gotta do is improve the quality of the breed again.”
In any year when a horse wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, talk about breeding and the economics of the industry is buried under speculation about that horse’s chances at Belmont. This year, the fellow responding to all the speculation up until yesterday had been the confident and microphone-friendly trainer, Doug O’Neill. He had successfully focused all his attention on preparing and promoting I’ll Have Another for the Belmont. It would have been understandable if he hadn’t been able to do that.
In three weeks he’ll begin serving a 45-day suspension in California. He’s already serving one in Illinois. He’s been fined nine times because his horses have been over-served with various controlled substances. But according to Alicia Hughes, who writes about the track for the Lexington Herald-Leader, I’ll Have Another’s trainer has been a threatened industry’s best friend and most energetic promoter.
“Doug O’Neill has been an absolute dream,” Hughes said. “He has been more open, more accommodating, more accessible with his time than he has any right to be, when he’s been in the middle of this firestorm with the Triple Crown races, and he has just been fantastic. He does a lot of things that kind of get himself, and his horse and his sport out there.”
Hughes feels that the racing industry should take greater advantage of the sport’s two-legged promoters, and maintains that O’Neill has lots of company in terms of trainers capable of keeping horse racing in the news. “D. Wayne Lucas, he’s probably changed the sport more than anybody in the last 20 to 30 years with his methods and his styles,” she said. “You’ve got a great personality in Bob Baffert, and one thing racing does need to do a better job with is promoting their human stars, their trainers and their jockeys.”
Hughes contends that the trainers and jockeys, unlike the horses themselves, are likely to stick around. The economics of the industry have encouraged breeders to run their horses young, hope for a handful of stakes wins – maybe even a Derby crown – and then set the horse to producing more horses, as I’ll Have Another will soon be doing.