All had another day to ponder how this year's Double Crown thoroughbred champion had been so abruptly left in the figurative Belmont Stakes starting gate. And, essentially, the feeling Saturday was the same as after Friday's bombshell announcement that Kentucky Derby-Preakness champion I'll Have Another was being scratched because of tendinitis in his right front leg.
In a slightly ghostly ritual, prior to the feature event, I'll Have Another was paraded from the paddock onto the track -- as if some fickle finger of fate had not ended his career a day early -- only to have trainer Doug O'Neill remove his saddle in the winner's circle.
O'Neill called the gesture "a fitting ceremonial retirement for an incredible racehorse," and an opportunity for I'll Have Another's fans "who traveled from near and far to see" him. All around the Belmont grounds, there were I'll Have Another apparitions -- his name still listed in the race's printed lineups, his image still on the cover of the day's official program.
"It's a little said," said Mario Gutierrez, I'll Have Another's 25-year-old Mexican jockey. "But you know, the trainer made the decision for the horse's good. He's the one who brought us here, so you have to take care of him. If it wasn't for him, we wouldn't be here.
"The show has to keep going. It has to continue."
The wave of some occult hand might have cost Gutierrez $60,000 -- what would have been his 10 percent share of the Belmont Stakes winnings had I'll Have Another become the 12th horse in history to complete the Triple Crown sweep. What were the odds of the Belmont favorite having to drop out after suffering the equivalent of a twisted ankle the day before his biggest race?
"This is horse racing," Gutierrez said. "It always happens, right? It's just everybody is paying so much attention to this race, but it's like an everyday thing. You have to understand: Six weeks ago none of you even knew who I was, so I'll Have Another hasn't done nothing but make my dreams come true.
"It was an unbelievable journey and nobody's going to [take] it away. I got the Kentucky Derby. I got the Preakness. Those are staying with me for the rest of my life, and it's just thanks to I'll Have Another. He made that possible in my life."
Whatever conspiracy theories are out there about I'll Have Another's sudden withdrawal, given ongoing scrutiny of O'Neill's record of drug violations; whatever second-guessing about the new detention barn ordered for all Belmont Stakes entrants by state racing officials; whatever talk of how modern breeding has made thoroughbreds more brittle; whatever arguments for a more reasonable spacing of the three Triple Crown events -- instead of crammed into five frantic weeks -- the horse that Gutierrez simply called "Boy" or "My Boy" already had left his mark on the day and the racing season.
For his pre-race appearance, I'll Have Another took 14 laps around the paddock area -- 140 paces per lap, ironically totaling roughly the mile and a half he would not be running on the track, and wearing a gray saddle blanket with the red No. 11 post position he would not be filling. Gutierrez mounted him briefly in the winner's circle before O'Neill removed the saddle, gave him three pats on the back and walked back through the tunnel away from the track.
There would be no limping, Willis Reed-like entrance. But, Gutierrez said, "Like, four months ago, they were just dreams, right? And I was wishing one day hopefully to get there. It was just one day to another, and he made all that possible. He made it all real."
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