They'd buried their deepest fear, only admitting hours later that, as owner J. Paul Reddam would say, "… History is going to have to wait for another day."
I'll Have Another scratched from Saturday's 144th Belmont, becoming the first horse since Bold Venture in 1936 not to go to post with a chance to win the Triple Crown.
Diagnosed with tendinitis in his front left leg, he will not only give up his chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, but has been retired from racing.
Those hoping a Triple Crown could restore some of the luster to the sport sagged at the news, their dream deferred by what, in the day-to-day reality of their game, is not abnormal.
"This is extremely tough for all of us," trainer Doug O'Neill said at a hastily called, packed press conference as I'll Have Another grazed a couple of yards behind him. "It's far from tragic — no one died or anything like that — but it's extremely disappointing and I feel so sorry for the whole team."
Though I'll Have Another could have run, O'Neill and Reddam said, it would not have been in the best interest of the horse. And though he will heal with a few months of rest, they feared he'd never return to his current form.
So I'll Have Another will lead the post parade before the Belmont on Saturday — on-call veterinarian Larry Bramlage said doing so will not endanger the horse — giving what will undoubtedly be a diminished crowd one final look at racing's latest would-be star. Dullahan is now the 9-5 favorite in the afterthought of a race.
Members of Team O'Neill — the robust group who has accompanied the colt on his cross-country journey from California to Kentucky to Maryland and then here — noticed some loss of muscle tone in the horse's left leg Thursday afternoon. There was warmth in the area, too, but it dissipated quickly. O'Neill hoped I'll Have Another had bumped the leg and developed a meddlesome but basically harmless skin irritation. The trainer's crew wrapped it with a special poultice, and took the horse to the track.
Prior to revealing the injury, O'Neill said the impetus for the early morning session had been to keep the horse relaxed. The crowded Belmont Stakes barn was too hectic around 8:30, when the track was reserved for horses in the Belmont. Nevertheless, his workout under the cover of darkness stirred rumors that the horse could be injured.
"This morning, he looked great," O'Neill said. "So I thank the racing gods there. … And then, cooling out, you could tell the swelling was back and at that point I didn't feel very good."
A track veterinarian examined the colt and gave O'Neill the diagnosis, and the decision to pull the chestnut colt and retire him was immediate and "unanimous," O'Neill said.
The charismatic trainer dominated much of the news during the Triple Crown chase, not only because of his out-sized personality but due to past struggles. A few days after winning the Preakness on May 19, O'Neill was given a 45-day suspension by California racing officials for running a horse with a high total carbon dioxide level in 2010. He'd been fined three other times for the same thing, and The New York Times also reported his horses had broken down at nearly twice the national average.
Reddam made a point of saying that O'Neill put I'll Have Another's well-being first.
"It wasn't like he had an injury and Doug took him out for a test drive this morning," he said.
Mario Gutierrez, the 25-year-old, previously unknown jockey from Mexico, heard the news from Reddam.
"I think he was sort of stunned," Reddam said, "Because he really didn't say much at first, and I wasn't sure that he really understood what I was talking about."
Maryland-based veterinarian Dr. Nick Meittinis, who regularly examined I'll Have Another while he was at Pimlico, said the colt was completely healthy coming out of the Preakness. The injury most likely would have been caused by a sudden movement or a step over uneven ground going at a fairly high rate of speed.
"Horses are very fine-tuned machines, and when one thing gets shifted the wrong way, there can be trouble," he said. "I'm not going to blame the loose horse" that nearly side-swiped I'll Have Another during training last week, "but it's that kind of movement, causing a horse to veer suddenly, that can cause that one area to be overstressed."