ELMONT, N.Y. -- Late Friday morning, a cluster of photographers was gathered inside the homestretch rail at Belmont Park, staking out positions for the hundreds of cameras that would be put in place to capture horse racing history a day later. In the parking lots surrounding the big racetrack in Queens, portable lighting towers were readied for use in illuminating the acres of parking lots that surround the oval. Inside, workers applied paint and polish to the grandstand and clubhouse, readying for what would surely approach the record crowd of more than 120,000, as I'll Have Another attempted to become the first horse in 34 years to win the Triple Crown. Three weeks of anticipation were nearly over.
As this happened, I stood on the apron of the track with Billy Turner, 72, the tall, slender man who trained the great Seattle Slew to the Triple Crown in 1977, a year before Affirmed became the last to take the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in the same year. Turner has lived a long, tough life. "Better since I stopped drinking," he said. "That was 20 years ago.'' He still trains a small number of horses from a barn on the Belmont backstretch, but most of the owners who provided him with fast runners to race are long dead. He wore a little Scottish flannel cap, looking as dignified as a Sunday morning outside the church.
Turner remembers the buzz from more than three decades ago and he remembers the buzz for each of the 11 horses since '78 that came to Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown and lost. Each time it is a moment when racing rises from slumber and irrelevance to take center stage. "It's the same excitement every time,'' he said. "I still remember walking over to the paddock with Slew.''
Turner paused. "Some horse is going to win the Triple Crown,'' he said. "I think this horse has a good chance. He's a good horse. I've been watching him run in the morning.'' And so like this the grounds were alive. Saturday would be a memorable day, even if I'll Have Another failed. Horse racing desires a Triple Crown, but nearly as much, it lives to witness the attempt.
Just 30 minutes later, I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, 44, went on the Dan Patrick Show and told Patrick that I'll Have Another would be scratched from the Belmont. This news spread swiftly around the track, and it was if an entire sport had been canceled. Late Friday morning the 144th running of the Belmont loomed as the most significant sporting event on one of the busiest weekends of the year. NBA Playoffs, Stanley Cup Finals, Pacquaio.... None of it was bigger than the history that might be made in Queens. Instead, the event is meaningless, except to the very small community of breeders and bettors who will now pay attention.
At 1 p.m., under a rising late spring sun, there was a press conference, of sorts, outside the notorious Belmont Stakes Barn, which for its hasty creation had caused so much angst a week earlier. Writers and photographers and video cameramen tried to squeeze into a tiny space and listen, while also retaining their dignity, yet it was almost impossible to do both. O'Neill walked from the cover of the shedrow and somberly led I'll Have Another around in a tight circle, to show the world that the chestnut, his mane braided as if he was headed for the prom later that night at the Floral Park Sheraton or somesuch. Owner J. Paul Reddam went to the microphone and announced that I'll Have Another was being scratched, due to signs of tendinitis in the superficial digital flexor tendon of his left front leg, and that he was being immediately retired. O' Neill said: "Could he run and compete? Yes. But would it be in his best interests? No.''
People who care about horse racing for any reason all have a list that they keep close to their soul. It is a list of the Triple Crown near-misses that disappointingly connect the great thoroughbreds of the 1970s -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- to the present. It is a long line of failure, for as many reasons as there are horses who have fallen short.
At the top of my list has always been 2004, the overcast afternoon when that record throng of more than 120,000 watched Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones pull away from his opponents on the far turn and run deep into the stretch with a big lead over the field. The grandstand shook. Racing is gone from the stage of American sport, but at the moment it might as well have been 1936, and that was an amazing thing to feel. But with each stride, little Birdstone cut into Smarty's lead, until finally nailing him inside the 16th pole and winning by a solid length.
The building slouched in disappointment, and the winning trainer (Nick Zito) famously apologized to the runner-up (John Servis). As a journalist, I do not care deeply about who wins and loses games from a fan's perspective. But as a writer and a human being, I long to see what history looks like on a racetrack. Or anywhere else. I cherish every world record I've seen in track and field. I won't forget watching David Tyree pluck a football from the air in Arizona and pin it to his helmet. On that day eight years ago, I chased Servis through the paddock, talked to him briefly, and then returned to the press box at a deflated crawl, head down, sweating and defeated, hearing the crushed stone beneath feet that I was barely lifting. I think of that walk every time I traverse the Belmont paddock, the last just this morning.
Eight years later, even the most cynical among us hoped that this would be the year that Triple Crown ghosts were at last sent asunder. I'll Have Another seemed to have the endurance and the pedigree to pull off the Triple Crown. He had not been heavily raced. There was no monster awaiting him in New York (like Empire Maker, who stopped Funny Cide in 2003, or Easy Goer, who had knocked off Sunday Silence 14 years earlier). Yet we who have lived through and chronicled all the near-misses have come to hold history at arm's length. This is the way I ended my column earlier this week:
More than an hour after the mass press conference, O'Neill spoke with a handful of journalists outside trainer Mark Hennig's Barn 9, where I'll Have Another had been stabled before the moving to the overcrowded, uncomfortable stakes barn three days before the Belmont. There is an odd common ground between the trainer who reaches the Belmont Stakes with a chance at history and the relatively small number of writers who follow the sport. I first met up with O'Neill on the morning of Wednesday, April 18, outside his barn at Hollywood Park, in the flight pattern for seemingly every jet at Los Angeles International Airport. It was a fact-finding mission for me, just in case O'Neill's best three-year-old in half a decade -- I'll Have Another -- won the Kentucky Derby, or something more. We went through all the usual stuff, including O'Neill's medication rap sheet. I told him his barn logo looked like it had been filched from D. Wayne Lukas and O'Neill said that Lukas had stolen it from him. A joke.
Seven weeks, about 15 interviews and probably 15,000 words of hurried prose later, O'Neill saw me and said, "Sorry, man.'' I told him, no worries; thankfully I'm not compensated by the Triple Crown.
Then he described the early morning. I'll Have Another went out for his customary morning gallop at 5:30 a.m., three hours earlier than usual. The switch was a red flag to railbirds and journos alike -- a change in routine for a creature of habit. O'Neill (and Reddam) insisted that the early workout had been planned. O'Neill would later say that I'll Have Another had shown a little swelling in this ligament (located approximately in the same place as the Achilles tendon in a human) after Thursday morning's workout, but looked good early Friday. Not so much after the gallop. O'Neill ordered an ultrasound scan for the leg by veterinarian Dr. Jim Hunt, and feared the outcome. "I left the barn at 6:15 with not the greatest feeling in the world,'' said O'Neill. "I felt like it was probably not going to be good. It wasn't until 9:15 that Dr. Hunt scanned the leg, and 9:16 was when I threw up the scrambled eggs and sausage that I ate at 8:30.''
O'Neill's publicist, Kelly Wietsma, called New York Racing Association PR chief Dan Silver, who in turn called racing secretary P.J. Campo (symmetrically, the son of trainer John Campo, who died in 2005, but in 1981 trained Pleasant Colony to victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to lose in the Belmont). Campo came to the Stakes Barn (Barn No. 2) with a scratch card, which O'Neill signed, ending the Triple Crown bid with one stroke of a pen.
It is a complex decision that promises emotion with legs. O'Neill has been grilled endlessly for his record of medication overage violations (and even Reddam for earning his money by selling loans at very high interest rates), so surely there will be suggestions that New York's tight quarantine barn system prevented O'Neill from applying some magic elixir, even though there is no evidence that this is the case. Yet the other side of the coin is that O'Neill and Reddam scratched the horse because they didn't want him to become badly injured.
They might have tried to rehab the ligament, but the injury requires three to six months, or even longer, so it's possible that I'll Have Another might not have run again for a year. That would have caused him to miss the 2013 breeding season. And from a financial perspective, future defeats would make him less valuable at stud. "It just didn't make sense,'' said O'Neill, "to try to bring him back for the 2013 Breeders Cup Classic.''
Not that O'Neill was lacking perspective. He has shown humor throughout the chase and this was no exception. "It's not like 9/11 or something,'' he said. "It's not like people are going to be like, '6/8 was horrible. Do you remember where you were on 6/8?'''
Yet, the decision rippled for miles (and dollars). Belmont's attendance will shrink my tens of thousands. NBC had prepared a long, thoughtful telecast that would have drawn a terrific rating for a sport in need of fans.
There were stories to tell. Last week I spent a day in Ocala, Florida, where I'll Have Another was brought from a yearling sale in Kentucky for a paltry $11,000 as a skinny unnamed colt out of an undistinguished mare (Arch's Gal Edith) by an unproven sire (Flower Alley). It was a 34-year-old exercise rider named Victor Davila who bought I'll Have Another. He works for pinhooker Barry Eisaman but he brought I'll Have Another back to the little training center he carved out of live oaks and tall grass with his brother. For four months, I'll Have Another lived in a stall made of water-stained plywood and sheet metal and ran around a 4 ½-furlong track dug from virgin soil. Bad News Bears meets Seabiscuit.
We stood among the weeds and rotting wood and Davila made a sweeping motion with his right hand. "I would walk him right out here,'' he said. "Then when he started to gallop, the other horses couldn't keep up.'' It seemed inconceivable that a Triple Crown winner could rise from this. And it turns out he could not.
So instead of a towering moment, we have the first horse in 78 years to skip the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby and certainly the first since the Triple became a public and industry obsession. And we wonder now if it will ever happen again. That horse, 78 years ago, was a colt named Bold Venture, who suffered a bowed tendon after the Preakness and was never entered in the Belmont. For a certain segment of the populace, Bold Venture lives on as a ghost, a central character in a story that the great W.C. Heinz wrote for the New York Sun in July of 1949. It is a newspaper column from an otherwise nondescript day at Aqueduct Racetrack, where a horse named Air Lift broke down and was euthanized on the track. It holds a firm place in sportswriting mythology, for eloquence and detail that have not just stood the test of time, but transcended it. Here is the final paragraph, with reverence:
On this day, Bold Venture lived again, and again he worked in silence. I'll Have Another's best interests were served on Belmont eve, but those best interests are powerfully at cross-purposes with those of the sport of horse racing. Each of the Belmont near-misses has been painful, but this one is much the worst. Each year racing falls a little further from relevance, but this was a precipitous drop. Belmont has seen true tragedy: Ruffian died here in 1975 and Go For Wand in 1990. This was not such a darkness as that, but darkness enough to cloud the future.
At noon Friday, the public address system boomed over a cavernous and near-empty Belmont Park:
But it wasn't beautiful. It was quiet, sad and lonely, drained of life, drained of hope.