ELMONT, N.Y. - It is the fear of every horse owner or trainer awaiting the race of his life.
When you are on the verge of history, post time cannot come quickly enough.
It won’t come at all for Triple Crown hopeful I’ll Have Another as the Canadian-owned thoroughbred was scratched from the Belmont Stakes on the eve of his would-be coronation.
The fragility of the thoroughbred racehorse has never been more pronounced than it was Friday morning at the Long Island track when word spread that the three-year-old colt owned by Windsor, Ont., millionaire Paul Reddam was retiring due to a tendon injury in his left front leg.
“As an owner, this is what you fear the most,” Reddam told the Sun two hours after announcing the party is over at historic Belmont Park. “The horse was training fabulously. Everything seemed perfect. But in this game, these things can happen at any time.”
And in the case of the long-striding chestnut, at the worst possible time.
The injury, which began to surface Thursday afternoon, is not life-threatening and, in fact with rest, I’ll Have Another could have returned to racing as a four-year-old. Instead, Reddam opted to retire the horse that took him on such a wild ride over the past five weeks and will arrange for him to stand at stud next season.
Belmont officials were expecting 100,000-plus at the sprawling, sandy track to witness I’ll Have Another’s bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years and 12th in history.
His story had captivated three countries and attracted attention to a sport long removed from its heyday.
In the U.S., racing always gets a big boost with a legitimate Crown candidate and, after wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, a horse that Reddam bought for just $35,000 was tracking big interest.
In Mexico, the story of unheralded jockey Mario Gutierrez, who had never even been at one of the three Triple Crown tracks before he captured the Derby, was too good to be true.
And in Canada, Reddam was reaching celebrity status, a script that was only enhanced by the fact that Woodbine trainer Terry Jordan was the man who discovered Gutierrez while on vacation in Mexico City six years ago. Jordan helped Gutierrez get to Canada, where he was a top rider at Vancouver’s Hastings Park before landing the mount on I’ll Have Another this past winter.
Hours after being scratched, the New York Racing Association announced that I’ll Have Another will lead the post parade for Saturday’s race that has been sucked of its star power. Gutierrez, the 25-year-old who is seeking Canadian citizenship, will be aboard as he leads the 11 remaining Belmont contestants onto the track in what will surely be a bittersweet scene.
O’Neill said the injury was first discovered on Thursday, but it wasn’t enough to keep I’ll Have Another from a trip to the track to train at 5:30 a.m. on Friday. The first clue, the trainer said, was when the horse was uncharacteristically quiet on Thursday afternoon. Vets discovered a mild swelling that was of minimal concern. When it increased Friday morning, Reddam and O’Neill decided to have vets scan the leg and the tendon injury was diagnosed.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” said O’Neill, the California-based trainer who had never won a Triple Crown race before I’ll Have Another came under his care. “He’d been doing great, it’s a freakish thing. I think when you have a human or an equine athlete, when you give 110% every time you step on the court or the track, you’re suspect to injury. I’ve been hoping and praying he would stay injury-free and it didn’t happen.”
I’ll Have Another becomes the first horse in 76 years to win the Derby and Preakness and not contest the Belmont and retires with career earnings of $2,629,600. It’s quite a fortune, of course, but a little less fame than if he could have lasted one more day.
It was a crushing blow for Reddam, who had flown in dozens of family and friends from his hometown and across Canada.
“I really thought he was going to run off tomorrow and really show something,” Reddam said. “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.
“I’m afraid history is going to have to wait for another day.”