I'll Have Another's absence diminishes exciting finish to Belmont Stakes

ELMONT, N.Y. – Mario Gutierrez sat on the horse one last time, stroking his mane as the applause came down in cavernous Belmont Park. He was out of uniform, wearing a tie, dress shirt and slacks – not jockey silks. He did not smile.

Mario blinked hard, trying to keep the tears from flowing. But when he dismounted I'll Have Another, there was no holding back the emotion.

The injured colt had been ceremonially retired in the Belmont winner's circle, the final public act for this team of horse, trainer Doug O'Neill and the jockey who rocketed from obscurity to celebrity on I'll Have Another in five breathtaking weeks. This was the end of an exhilarating, exasperating, exhausting ride.

The 25-year-old who grew up dirt poor in Mexico had been stoic since hearing the devastating news Friday that the horse he rode to the brink of the Triple Crown would run no more. He had betrayed no deep feelings.

"It's a little bit sad," Mario said earlier Saturday.

But as he walked away from I'll Have Another, it became very sad. The impact of the entire experience seemed to hit at once. Mario rubbed his eyes and sobbed.

A friend draped an arm across his shoulders, trying to console him. A publicist mindlessly stuck her hands in front of cameras, as if the sight of genuine human emotion after losing the ride of a lifetime was somehow a bad thing.

[Pat Forde: I'll Have Another's scratch raises questions about horse racing's credibility]

Mario kept walking and kept crying – past reporters who had surrounded O'Neill. He went through the paddock and was gone, long before the Belmont Stakes was won by Union Rags.

And now you wonder whether we'll ever hear from Mario Gutierrez again at the highest level of thoroughbred racing.

While announcing the news Friday that I'll Have Another would be scratched from the Belmont, O'Neill made the following proclamation: "I know we are going to be back here again."

That might have been an attempt to rally his barn and put the best face on a brutal turn of events. The more accurate statement might have been what O'Neill said the day before: "We're living it like we'll never be back again."

The chances of two Triple Crown opportunities in one lifetime are rare. In the Big Tease Era since Affirmed won the last Triple in 1978, 12 horses have now failed after winning the first two legs.

In that time, only one trainer (Bob Baffert) and one jockey (Kent Desormeaux) have had multiple shots at completing one of the hardest feats in sports. Baffert won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1997, '98 and 2002. Desormeaux won the first two legs in '98 and 2008.

Most of the biggest names in horse racing have never gotten a second try at the Crown. Hall of Fame trainers D. Wayne Lukas (1999), Charlie Whittingham (1989) and Jack VanBerg (1987) got one shot. So did Hall of Fame jockeys Chris McCarron ('87), Gary Stevens ('97) and Jorge Velazquez ('81). Many others never got a single try.

Getting to within a Belmont win of immortality might not have seemed brutally difficult to I'll Have Another's connections this time. Getting back will be.

Especially for Gutierrez, a jockey with no profile until last February. That's when I'll Have Another owner Paul Reddam, riding a hunch, suggested the unproven guy take over as the new rider after two straight defeats.

What followed was a four-racing winning streak nobody saw coming. Gutierrez booted home I'll Have Another as a 43-1 long shot in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, followed that up with a narrow nose victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and then twice reeled in Bodemeister to win the Derby and Preakness.

The last two rides were especially impressive. Gutierrez calmly navigated through the notoriously congested Derby field, avoiding the trouble that annually costs several horses any chance to win. In the Preakness, Gutierrez coolly timed his move to win by a neck at the wire.

Suddenly, the world was made aware of a no-name jockey who had spent six years at obscure Hastings Park in Vancouver before trying out Southern California this past winter. His humble, gracious manner only enhanced the story.

But stardom is a fickle thing for jockeys. Stewart Elliott won two legs of the Triple Crown on Smarty Jones in 2004 and hasn't been heard of nationally since. Neither Victor Espinoza (winner of the Derby and Preakness in 2002 aboard War Emblem) nor Jeremy Rose (winner of the Preakness and Belmont in 2005 aboard Afleet Alex) has had any Triple Crown impact since.

Mario Gutierrez could follow that path, especially since he said Saturday that he plans on returning to Canada as his full-time base of operations. That's a bit like starring in the World Series one year and then voluntarily taking a demotion to Triple-A the next.

Mario was a comet streak across the spring of 2012 – and then what?

As the jockey walked away in tears, the trainer kept playing it for laughs.

Doug O'Neill bumped fists with his barn crew. Took pictures with fans. Made jokes with the media.

[Photo gallery: Union Rags win Belmont Stakes in tight finish]

When asked where he would watch the Belmont, O'Neill said, "Probably somewhere near the exit. I'm going to watch Dullahan win and get out of here."

That prediction capped off a dismal week for O'Neill. Dullahan finished a dull seventh after being sent off as the 5-2 favorite.

O'Neill escaped the paddock area well before the Belmont was run. He told several people he'd watch the race on TV from buddy Mark Hennig's Barn 9, where I'll Have Another was stabled, then hopped into a gray van.

That might have been a misdirection play. O'Neill never made it back to Barn 9, where members of his staff sat drinking Coronas and killing time before the race they were certain they'd win.

By the 6:40 post time, Team O'Neill had largely dispersed. Wherever they watched Union Rags win in the pedestrian time of 2 minutes, 30.42 seconds, it was out of public view. If they watched it at all.

I'll Have Another's time had unexpectedly come and jarringly gone. An unlikely Triple Crown bid ended in abrupt and unceremonious fashion. The race went on without the colt and his connections, a thrilling competition that was diminished by their absence.

And now we'll wonder whether they'll ever be back here again.

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