Hopes for a Triple Crown winner at this weekend's Belmont Stakes have been dashed as Southern California trainer Doug O'Neill has just announced that his thoroughbred, I'll Have Another, has been scratched from the race. I'll Have Another, favorite to win on Saturday, was diagnosed with a tendon injury in his front left leg after O'Neill noticed some swelling Thursday afternoon.
"[Swelling] is not unusual. Horses are athletes, sometimes they get banged around and you get a little bit of swelling, and it goes down the next day," said Brad Free, columnist for The Daily Racing Forum. He added that O'Neill suspected something more, and a Friday stable doctor's analysis precluded the horse from competing.
"When a horse sustains an injury of this magnitude, there's no decision really to be made. It would be like going out and running in a race on three legs, and no horseman would subject a horse to that type of punishment," Free explained. "I'll Have Another would not be able to compete. He would not be able to keep up with the field."
It's a big loss for the sport, but also for O'Neill, who was looking forward to the first Triple Crown win since 1978, especially after winning The Kentucky Derby at the age of 44.
"He brought I'll Have Another from a $35,000 purchase to win the most prestigious race on the North American landscape, came back two weeks later and won the Preakness Stakes, and was poised to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in racing history, so what I'll Have Another has done of Doug O'Neill's career is put him right on the upward trajectory as one of the elite trainers in the country," Free said.
But according to Free, the biggest blow will come to the New York Racing Association, which was expecting a crowd of 100,000 to 120,000 people "trying to witness history."
"I was at Belmont Park in 2004, when Smarty Jones had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and was heavily favored to win the Belmont Stakes, and the electricity in the air was unbelievable; you could just feel the tension. Everybody was jazz and pumped and wanted to see this happen," he recalled.
With I'll Have Another out of the running, Free says interest in the Belmont Stakes will wane considerably.
"[The New York Racing Association] can probably start calling some of their staff members and ask them not to come in on Saturday, because the crowd size will be diminished. The relevant of the race has taken a huge hit."
Free anticipates that Dullahan, Union Rags and Paynter are the new top contenders to win this Saturday.
Brad Free is a columnist for The Daily Racing Forum.