ELMONT, N.Y. — As I'll Have Another ambled down the Belmont Park horse path toward Barn 9 Friday afternoon, nothing seemed amiss.
Outwardly, there was nothing alarming about the way the colt was moving, no hitch in his stride, no ginger steps taken.
What gave away the story of the 2012 Triple Crown season, however, were the somber faces that greeted the chestnut colt upon his arrival at the barn — that and the fact the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner wasn't supposed to be returning to that particular shedrow until after the 144th edition of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
The breathtaking journey of I'll Have Another over the past five weeks ended with a punch to the gut Friday when trainer Doug O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam announced the colt was out of the Belmont Stakes and would be retired following the discovery of the beginning of tendinitis in his left front leg.
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Having captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in spectacular fashion, I'll Have Another was attempting to become the 12th horse in history and the first since Affirmed in 1978 to sweep the American Triple Crown.
The troubles began when O'Neill first detected "some loss of definition" in I'll Have Another's left front leg on Thursday afternoon.
O'Neill said the issue appeared to be moot when the colt's legs were cold Friday morning and he still moved well when sent out for a jog and gallop around the Belmont oval. The swelling returned when I'll Have Another was cooling out, and a subsequent ultrasound revealed the damage.
"It's subtle, but it's one of those things, if you don't do the right thing, it's gonna turn in to be a problem, so we don't wanna do that," said O'Neill, who — as he has during the entire Triple Crown run — remained upbeat despite the circumstances. "It's a roller coaster. What a ride. He's given us so much pleasure. It is a bummer, far from tragic, but very disappointing."
I'll Have Another went out at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning instead of his usual 8:30 a.m. O'Neill and Reddam said the reason for that change was to try to give their horse a quieter atmosphere, not to hide the issue.
"It wasn't like he had an injury and Doug took him for a test drive this morning," said Reddam, who added there was no stud deal yet. "He had a little heat and it was gone, probably because he was treated on Thursday.
"He could have run tomorrow. You wouldn't have known a difference had (Doug) not looked at it."
Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the American Association of Equine Practitioners, compared the injury to turning one's ankle.
"It takes a while for this injury to heal. It takes almost a year," Bramlage said. "The tendon in a racehorse is more highly evolved than anything that we have. But the closest thing that we have is an Achilles tendon injury. And if you have an Achilles tendon injury, they don't even let you walk on them for six weeks. His is nowhere near that severity. But it takes the same amount of time to rehab them."
Despite running down Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby and repeating the effort in even more remarkable fashion in the Preakness, I'll Have Another seemed to show no outward signs that the grind of the Triple Crown was taking a toll.
His Preakness victory was his fourth in as many starts this year and the fifth overall in what will be a seven-race career. His pedigree indicated the Belmont's marathon 11/2-mile distance would not be an issue and he possessed the high cruising speed that is often a hallmark for those horses who have bested the "Test of the Champion."
"He'll be my hero forever," said I'll Have Another's 25-year-old jockey, Mario Gutierrez. "He hasn't done anything but give me all this happiness and all this success. It's not disappointment; I'm just a little bit sad. I think we're doing what's right for the horse."
With I'll Have Another out, multiple Grade I winner Dullahan will inherit the role as the 9-5 morning-line favorite in what will be an 11-horse lineup.
Far from relishing the situation, Dullahan's trainer Dale Romans said the developments were "devastating."
"It's not even good for me because I am racing," Romans said when asked if I'll Have Another's defection was good for him but bad for the sport. "It'd be better for me to go out there and beat him. I don't want to win it with an asterisk by our name, I wanted to compete with him."
All of the Belmont Stakes contenders were required by the New York State Racing and Wagering Board to move into one security barn by Wednesday — a decision that drew the ire of many participants.
What role if any that shift in environment may have played in I'll Have Another's injury will never be known, but Romans expressed dismay that the racing world now has to ponder it at all.
"This detention barn is bad. I don't know if it played a role or not but we're always going to wonder," he said. "Whoever came up with this idea should resign."
In an odd twist, it was announced later Friday afternoon that I'll Have Another would lead the post parade for the Belmont Stakes with Gutierrez aboard.
"I love that idea," O'Neill said later in the afternoon. "They mentioned it and I'm all for it. I would be so proud."
Before Friday morning, O'Neill and his trainee had each seemed able to shrug off whatever hurdles they encountered.
After the Kentucky Derby, O'Neill became the subject of scrutiny, in part because four horses in his care over the years were found to have elevated levels of total carbon dioxide — something that could indicate the use of an illegal concoction used to reduce the buildup of lactic acid.
Though a California Horse Racing Board hearing officer recently determined there was no evidence of wrongdoing on O'Neill's part with regard to his most recent TCO2 positive two years ago, they still handed him a conditional 45-day ban that will begin in July.
Even as his credibility and character were questioned, O'Neill took the high road at every turn, answering every query and addressing each piece of criticism.
"Alcohol," O'Neill laughed when asked how he handled everything. "I'm every bartender's dream."
Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, O'Neill had sought out the advice of trainer Billy Turner — who conditioned 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew — leading up to the Belmont. On Friday, the only thing Turner had left to offer up was sympathy.
"When you're in a Triple Crown campaign ... every single day you worry about this because one little thing can go wrong that makes the whole thing fall apart," Turner said. "You're never confident in a situation like this. If you are, you're a fool because things like this do happen.
"It's not a total tragedy, but when you have the Triple Crown on the line and you've got your last work in your horse and he's eating up and you can't show up, that's really, really tough."