Horse Racing: Heartbeats & Hoofbeats: Another disappointing Belmont — or was it?

By Susan Johnson
Copy Editor

Depends on whom you ask.

A TV commentator said there are lots of ways to lose a Triple Crown, but this was a bit unusual. In fact, it was only the third time a Derby and Preakness winner had been pulled out of the Belmont. The last time, it was Bold Venture in 1936.

Early Friday morning, June 8, all attention had been focused on I’ll Have Another and his chance at making history. Elusive as the Triple Crown is, the hope rises again whenever a horse manages to win the first two legs. What happened this time seemed especially poignant, not only because it’s been 34 years since Affirmed did it in 1978, but because it was a Cinderella story in the making. Take a horse who was underrated from the start — sold for only $11,000 as a yearling — and a jockey almost no one had heard of — and put them together for a grab at the brass ring of horse racing.

Even as I’ll Have Another was running in the Derby, hardly anyone paid attention to him — until the final furlong. All of a sudden, it was whoa! Where did he come from? But after two wins, the “unlikely” contender was suddenly thrust into the spotlight with his humble jockey and controversial trainer.

Speculation was raised about the Detention Barn at Belmont this year. Could it possibly have anything to do with trainer Doug O’Neill’s checkered history? “I don’t think so,” he told a TV commentator. It was a precaution for all the horses entered in the Belmont, a hedge against possible tampering. Even so, O’Neill is planning to appeal his 45-day suspension from the California Horse Racing Board, to take effect July 1, on a misdemeanor charge of therapy-related medication.

But there may have been an inkling of trouble. The horse was taken out for a workout earlier than usual Friday morning. He seemed a little bit “off” somehow, nothing serious, but… After a conference with the vet after a quick scan of the leg in question, it was decided to send I’ll Have Another into early retirement for his own welfare. And that was the right, humane thing to do. Could he have run the next day? Probably — but at what cost?

There have been other horses who weren’t so fortunate — Ruffian, Barbaro, Eight Belles, to name a few. Fans who came out to see I’ll Have Another did get their wish, in a way. He was led around the paddock prior to the post parade so his fans could see him and bid him farewell.

But for trainer Michael Matz, who had always said Union Rags was a better competitor than he appeared in the Kentucky Derby, it was vindication.

We got to see the real Union Rags,” he said. Especially after the heartbreak of Barbaro, it was good to see him smile. Did the change of jockey help? Probably — John Velasquez had considerable experience at Belmont, and he made a daring move that paid off.

Union Rags’ owner, Phyllis Wyeth, was also pleased that she had made the right decision to repurchase a horse she had once sold. Sometimes, second thoughts are better.

But remember — it’s always a good day when you have a clean race, no cry of foul, and nobody gets hurt.

From the June 13-19, 2012, issue

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