ELMONT, N.Y. – Standing amid the media and the mourning on a stunning Friday afternoon at Belmont Park, equine veterinarian Larry Bramlage described I'll Have Another's career-ending tendinitis as "a one-bad-step injury."
If that's the case – that it was simply one flukish twist of the tendon in the star colt's fragile front left leg – then the curse upon horse racing has reached new levels. Of the thousands of thunderous steps I'll Have Another has taken in winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and in training daily for three weeks leading up to the Belmont Saturday, he finally takes a bad one during a routine jog – and just two days before racing for Triple Crown immortality. That is thoroughly rotten karma for a sport that has had a disproportionate amount of heartbreak and disappointment in recent years.
One bad step for the horse. One giant letdown for horse racing. The 34-year Triple Crown drought goes on.
"I'm afraid history is going to have to wait for another day," I'll Have Another owner Paul Reddam said, in a shaky voice, to a throng of reporters outside the Belmont stakes barn.
If the one-bad-step story is true and the injury is what it's said to be, Reddam and O'Neill should be commended for taking the conservative approach and scratching the horse from the race. Not only was it a wise move from an investment standpoint – don't risk anything with an animal worth much more in the breeding shed than on the race track – but it was an effort to put the horse's health first. After the breakdowns of Barbaro and Eight Belles in the Triple Crown within the last six years, America would have no tolerance for another nationally televised tragedy.
That would be far worse than not getting to see I'll Have Another take a run at history.
But here is the bigger problem for racing, above and beyond the massive Belmont buzzkill: The game has taken so many credibility hits that it's hard to know who or what to believe when it comes to thoroughbred rules and regulations, injuries and infirmities, fair play or cheating.
Hang around the game for any length of time and you learn bad steps do happen. But you also learn bad steps are used as an explanation when the real reason for an injury is something else entirely.
Because the sport has had so many high-profile breakdowns and scandals involving illegal medication, no one is above suspicion and no "one bad step" explanation can be taken at face value. That suspicion extends to this case. In particular it extends to I'll Have Another trainer Doug O'Neill, who has had a checkered history when it comes to violations of racing rules and rate of injury for his horses.
The New York Times reported last month that O'Neill has received more than a dozen violations in four different states for giving his horses improper drugs. The Times also reported that O'Neill's horses break down or show signs of injury at a rate of more than twice the national average.
Since that story appeared, O'Neill was suspended 45 days by the California Horse Racing Board for excessive total carbon dioxide readings in one of his horses. Excessive TCO2 can come from a variety of sources including "milkshaking," a method of loading a horse with bicarbonate of soda, sugar and electrolytes to combat fatigue. The Board's ruling cleared O'Neill of milkshaking but nevertheless held him accountable for a TC02 level that exceeds the allowable limit.
The case was from 2010 and the suspension will not take effect until July 1, after O'Neill had his shot at just the 12th Triple Crown in history with I'll Have Another.
With that as context, the state of New York seized control of the New York Racing Association last month and placed it under the auspices of a board appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. One of the board's first actions was to order all Belmont Stakes horses into a single detention barn at the race track, where they could be under round-the-clock surveillance and security. It was an unprecedented move at Belmont.
I'll Have Another moved into the barn on Wednesday. According to Reddam and O'Neill, he injured himself Thursday. The horse was scratched on Friday. And just like that, his career is over after seven races; he will be retired to stud duty.
The conspiracy theorists will wonder whether the heightened barn security might have curtailed any illegal practices O'Neill was using to turn I'll Have Another into a burgeoning superhorse capable of winning two legs of the Triple Crown. Theorists will conclude that when forced to train without benefit of any artificial enhancements, the horse showed he wasn't up for the challenge of winning the Belmont. Thus he was scratched to avoid the embarrassment of a race-day pratfall similar to Big Brown's in 2008.
That was the last time a horse came here gunning for a Triple Crown. Trained by Richard Dutrow, a notorious violator of medication rules, Big Brown was taken off his anabolic steroid regimen – which was legal at the time in racing – in the weeks before the Belmont. He promptly bombed, being eased by jockey Kent Desormeaux and finishing last.
I'm not saying the conspiracy theory is legit. But I'm also not saying it should be dismissed out of hand.
Racing has compromised its credibility to the point where healthy skepticism is giving way to raging cynicism. We're close to the point where the game cannot be trusted. And when we reach that point, the game is dead.
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