ELMONT, N.Y.-- Late Friday morning, a cluster of photographers was gathered inside the 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, portable lighting towers were in place to illuminate 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 a record crowd of 120,000 as I'll Have Another would attempt to become the first horse in 34 years to win the Triple Crown.
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 barn on the Belmont backstretch, but most of the owners who provided him with fast horses to race are long dead.
But 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's 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.'' And so like this the grounds were alive. Saturday would be a remarkable day, even if I'll Have Another failed.
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 Belmont, 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. A Game 7 in the NBA Playoffs, Stanley Cup Finals, French Open women's final, Manny Pacquiao fight ... none of it bigger than the history that might be made at Belmont. Instead, the event is now meaningless, except to the very small community of breeders and bettors who will still pay attention.
At a press conference on Friday afternoon, O'Neill and I'll Have Another's owner, J. Paul Reddam, said the horse showed signs of tendinitis in his left front leg following a workout on Friday morning. I'll Have Another will be given several months of rest and then will be retired. "He has done so much. It has been an incredible ride," O'Neill said. "It is a bummer. Far from tragic but it is disappointing."
People who care about horse racing for any reason at all have a list that they keep close to their soul. It is a list of the Triple Crown failures 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 a record throng of 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 building roared. Racing is gone from the stage of American sport, but at the moment in 2004 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 he finally caught him inside the 16th pole and won by a solid length.
The building slouched in disappointment, and the winning trainer (Nick Zito) apologized to the runner-up (John Servis). As a journalist, I do not care deeply about who wins and loses games, but as a writer and a human, I long to see what history looks like on a racetrack. I chased Servis through the paddock that day and then returned to the press box at a deflated crawl, hearing the crushed stone beneath feet I was barely lifting.
Eight years later, even the cynical among us hoped that this would be the year that Triple Crown ghosts were 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). 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:
"So no guarantees here. The streak lives until the streak is broken.''
Instead of a towering moment, we have the first horse in 78 years to skip the Belmont Stakes after winning the Kentucky Derby (the last, and just the second, was Bold Venture in 1936), and certainly the first since the Triple Crown became a public and industry obsession.
There will be speculation. O'Neill's record of drug-related violations has been under heavy scrutiny since I'll Have Another won the Derby. Some will wonder if 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.
In fact, it appears that O'Neill pulled I'll Have Another out of the race because he's not 100 percent healthy. If this is the case, then O'Neill deserves praise for acting in the best interests of his horse.
Yet on this day, in this place, those best interests are powerfully at cross-purposes with those of the sport of horse racing. Each of the 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, a day at Belmont not as dark as the deaths of Ruffian and Go For Wand, but dark enough to cloud the future.
At noon Friday, the public address system boomed over a cavernous and near-empty Belmont Park:
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to beautiful Belmont Park.
But it wasn't beautiful. It was quiet, sad and lonely, drained of life, drained of hope.