ELMONT, N.Y. — And on the eighth day of June in the 34th year without the distinction of a Triple Crown winner, the drought officially became a curse.
How else to describe what happened on Friday when a beautiful sunny morning at Belmont Park was interrupted by the stunning news that tendinitis in the left leg would keep Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another from running in the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown.
The sport that chanted, "Go, Baby, Go" sighed "Oh, no, not again."
After all, it's hard enough to win the three classic races in a row, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since a then 18-year-old Steve Cauthen showed Affirmed the way to the triple play back in 1978. Cauthen is 52 now. That's right, 52.
I'll Have Another was to be the 12th post-Affirmed dual winner to make the triple try, but this time the would-be prince could not even make it to the coronation.
I'll Have Another had looked so strong in chasing down front-running Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the logical line of reasoning figured he would have little problem handling the taxing mile-and-a-half distance of the third and final jewel. Turned out, he didn't even make it to the first furlong.
Trainer Doug O'Neill found a "lack of definition" in the colt's left front leg on Thursday. Though the connections insist their reasons were innocent, they executed a near-clandestine 5:30 a.m. workout on Friday morning, three hours before his usual on-track appearance.
Swelling returned after I'll Have Another's gallop. An ultrasound was ordered. Frowns greeted its reading. And the colt was unceremoniously pointed from the stakes barn toward the breeding shed.
"He is being retired," said owner Paul Reddam.
"It is a bummer," O'Neill said, "but far from tragic."
It's a major bummer for NBC, which had added an extra half-hour of televised pre-race coverage to prepare the public for this date with destiny. It wasn't great news for the embattled New York Racing Association, its hopes for a mammoth crowd and a historic day pin-popped by bad racing luck.
Then again, some would say NYRA got what it deserved after a controversial week in which the association established a controversial Belmont Stakes Barn, complete with a security tent and logbook for those entering and leaving the barn as if they were handling plutonium.
The arrangement appeared directed at O'Neill, his past punishments plus an upcoming 45-day suspension for a horse's drug violation, the subject of scrutiny throughout the Triple Crown run. Other trainers were upset with the equine dormitory, however.
"Whoever at NYRA came up with this idea should resign," said Dullahan's trainer Dale Romans on Friday.
O'Neill even threatened to pull I'll Have Another from the race when NYRA said he could not feed cooked oats to the Derby winner. O'Neill insisted the custom dish was to fight colic and the ban was lifted. NYRA did not relent, however, on its rule that I'll Have Another could not wear the nasal strips he used at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.
A few even speculated Friday that the stress of a new barn and routine contributed to the colt's injury. Just as, on the flip side, conspiracy theorists will focus on the fact that after being under 24-hour surveillance, the horse could not make it to the track for the post parade.
Actually, I'll Have Another will be there Saturday leading the post parade, with jockey Mario Gutierrez aboard. It will be ceremonial duty, however, a far sadder occasion than the joyous triumph the sport was hoping for on Saturday.
"It's a very minor injury in the spectrum of tendon injuries," Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian, was explaining outside the Stakes Barn after the chaotic news conference. "But in the spectrum of this horse, it's big."
In the spectrum of the Triple Crown and the sagging sport, it's huge.
When someone mentioned to Romans that the scratch of the favorite was good for him, but bad for racing, the trainer of the new race favorite said, "It's not even good for me, because I am racing."
And racing will go yet another year without a Triple Crown winner.
Maybe in this age of cutbacks, the Triple Crown should be reduced to the Double Crown.
After all, we can no longer classify this as a drought.
It has to be a curse.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com