It’s an ugly blow to what can be the most beautiful of sports.
The sudden withdrawal of Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion I’ll Have Another from Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will take a huge toll on a New York industry looking for its first good news in years. It also battered lovers of horse racing, like me, who fear the sport is dying out. We saw a chance for a Triple Crown champion as a rare opportunity for the sport to again enchant mainstream America.
The horse’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, said the thus-far durable champion showed heat in his left front leg Thursday after he worked, and after a Friday gallop at 5:30 a.m., still had inflammation. A scan by a veterinarian showed tendinitis.
Although the injury is not career-threatening, O’Neill says I’ll Have Another is done racing and will be retired to stud. This is a different, all-too-common blow in the Sport of Kings. This animal, famed and beloved, could have attracted and excited racegoing crowds for years, but his value as a breeding tool is now so high that it makes little financial sense to have him running after purses, risking life and limb.
Horse racing is, if not dying, diminishing steadily, thanks to the easy availability of other, faster forms of gambling and entertainment. This is particularly true in New York, once a capital of racing that saw large crowds for daily flats action, where even harness tracks like Yonkers could draw 30,000 or 40,000 people on a weekend night.
There has been no Triple Crown champion for 34 years. There have been 11 unsuccessful attempts to add a win in the third leg to victories in the first two since Affirmed did it in 1978. With I’ll Have Another’s stirring victories over speedster Bodemeister in the Derby and the Preakness, excitement for the Belmont was bubbling over. Enthusiasts flew in from all over the world, and the event likely would have drawn more than 100,000 spectators, plus millions more glued to their televisions, watching and partying with friends.
It didn’t happen. It is, honestly, a disaster for the New York Racing Association, to whom disaster is no stranger. But worse, it’s a lost opportunity for a once-popular pastime to show people a great afternoon, and remind them how many great afternoons it has to offer.
Each year, as my friends and family members gather around televisions for each of the Triple Crown races, they remark on the beauty of the horses. “They’re not any more beautiful than the ones that run every day,” I tell them. After the races, the crowd comments on the excitement of the finish. “It wasn’t any more heated than a normal race,” I’ll reply.
Perhaps, next year, there will be another superhorse that will inspire them enough to pay attention more than three days a year.