Once again, horse racing will have to wait for a new hero. The erstwhile Sport of Kings will not have its first Triple Crown since 1978.
Not this year.
The shocking news that I'll Have Anotherhad to be scratched from Saturday's Belmont Stakes is another huge blow to an industry desperately trying to become relevant for a new generation of sports fans. The fact that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner had to withdraw just a day before making his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed added some drama to the disappointment. A swollen tendon sucked the life out of the third jewel and left room to wonder when we'll pass this way again.
It's almost impossible to find a valid parallel to put the impact of this in proper perspective unless you get hypothetical. Michael Phelps having to pull out of his last two events at the Beijing Olympics? Tiger Woods having to withdraw with a double-digit lead in the 1997 Masters?
Of course, it could have been worse. Trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam made the gut-wrenching decision to pull out of the Belmont even though they claimed that I'll Have Another still was physically able to run the 1 ½-mile race. And it was the right thing to do, because we've all seen what can happen with a popular and inspiring horse suffers a disastrous breakdown on the track.
We saw it right here in Charm City, when Barbaro shattered a leg in the 2006 Preakness and eventually had to be euthanized. That was worse, even if that courageous horse left the gate still two wins away from the Triple Crown. That was much worse.
O'Neill knew what a Triple Crown could mean to his reputation, which was recently sullied by a 45-day suspension after one of his horses failed a blood test in California. Surely, Reddam coveted the historical significance and personal satisfaction that would have come with a victory in the Belmont. Yet they chose to withdraw I'll Have Another and retire him, protecting both the horse's well-being and his earning potential at stud.
They should be congratulated for their good judgment, because it was the right decision for the horse, its connections and — as painful as this will be for horse racing in the short term —.the sport, which could not afford another nationally televised tragedy.
It certainly is a bitter pill for those who felt that I'll Have Another was positioned perfectly to end the 34-year Triple Crown drought. When it leaked early Friday that he was suffering from tendinitis, the news left race fans to ponder an obvious question:
If not now, when?
There have been plenty of near-misses since Affirmed outlegged Alydar and became the third horse in just six years to win the Crown (Secretariat in 1973 and Seattle Slew in 1977). I'll Have Another joins a stellar group of recent two-jewel winners that includes Spectacular Bid (1979), Sunday Silence (1989), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008), among others, but this horse came from behind to upset favored Bodemeister in both the Derby and the Preakness, and did so in a way that seemed to signal that this would be the year.
There are some good reasons why there has not been a Triple Crown in such a long time. The difficulty of winning three straight races against the best horses in the world is the most obvious. The unusual length of the Belmont is also a major factor, especially when those three races are run over a five-week period.
That was also the case during the 1970s — the decade of the super horse — but the degree of difficulty is also complicated by the giant fields that now routinely start the Kentucky Derby. Affirmed ran against just 10 other horses in the Derby in '78, and the fields got smaller in each successive race. The big dogs in the 2012 Derby had to run in a stampede of 20 horses, which increases the on-track variables exponentially.
I'll Have Another was not considered by the betting public to be the best horse in either the Derby or the Preakness. He was a medium longshot in the Derby and was the second favorite in the Preakness, but he was a 4-5 favorite for the Belmont when he was scratched. He would have had to beat some quality horses that did not run in the Preakness, but he had made believers out of just about everyone with his heart-stopping victory at Pimlico.
He might have made history … or maybe not.
It would have been nice to find out.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck in his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" on baltimoresun.com and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" Fridays at noon on WBAL (1090AM) and wbal.com.Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app