John Clay: Gray skies fit the gray mood at Belmont

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJune 9, 2012 

ELMONT, N.Y. — It started to sprinkle.

The rain had held off all day but as the official ceremony began some drops started to fall — just a few.

I'll Have Another was in the winner's circle at Belmont Park, the retiring Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion having his saddle removed on a racetrack for the final time.

The weather fit the mood.

Figurative rain had already ruined this parade. There was something deflating and almost surreal at Belmont Park on Saturday, the day after the quest for the Triple Crown stopped abruptly with the news that I'll Have Another was retiring because of tendinitis in his left front leg.

The sun did pop out a few times. And there were people at the grand old track. The announced crowd of 85,811 picnicked and drank and bet. It was not the massive throng, however, once expected to witness another shot at rewriting racing history. There wasn't the same sense of anticipation. Gray skies for a gray day.

NYRA had tried a rescue attempt Friday by announcing that I'll Have Another would lead the Belmont post parade. By Saturday morning, however, that premature plan had been scrapped. Instead, it was decided the retiring champion would visit a winner's circle one last time.

So, more than an hour before the Belmont Stakes, Team O'Neill brought I'll Have Another into the paddock where the colt walked and walked, circling in front of the stairstep stands filled with fans.

There was polite applause, a few whoops and shouts prompted by Team O'Neill members raising their arms to entice the crowd. The reaction was the same once the horse was brought to the winner's circle for the saddle ceremony.

In truth, it wasn't so much that racing wanted this particular horse to win the Triple Crown. It just wants a horse to win the Triple Crown.

This time, the void was filled by the remaining residue of Doug O'Neill's checkered past with regards to drugs and horses and the public's impression that the sport has a chemical dependency.

"It's terrible what the press did to Doug," Jack Van Berg, the trainer of 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba, said as he waited in the barn area before the Belmont. "It's a great story, the horse was bought for $11,000, and there was nothing in the papers about that."

If O'Neill held a grudge, he wasn't saying. One last time, the trainer stood among a crush of media and continued to be his gregarious self. He repeated how lucky he had been. He thanked his horse for a great ride. He thanked the fans.

As the Belmont Stakes horses were making their way to the paddock, O'Neill finally made his way through the clubhouse, accepting bear hugs and posing for pictures along his crowded path.

Then when he finally got outside into the parking lot where his family waited, he posed for one more camera phone click, then said he would probably watch the race on TV.

"Mark Hennig has one back at his barn, I think," said the trainer as he climbed into a silver Chrysler Town & Country van with Wisconsin plates. "I think we're going to watch it there."

At Hennig's barn, however, the only ones around were assistant Jack Sisterson and more Team O'Neill members, enjoying one last Corona before heading back to the grandstand to watch the featured race.

"Doug's not here," said Sisterson. "I don't know where he is."

A short time later, jockey John Velazquez squeezed past Paynter on the rail to make Union Rags the Belmont winner.

"Whether he could have done it against I'll Have Another, I don't know," said Union Rags' trainer Michael Matz. "But it sure would have been fun to see."

O'Neill had apparently seen enough. Before the race even started, the trainer had vanished somewhere into the New York night.

So, too, had another Triple Crown.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog:

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