I’ll Have Another’s withdrawal from the Belmont Stakes is a huge blow to Thoroughbred racing, generating a deep sadness that will overshadow Saturday’s racing program.
Trainer Doug O’Neill graciously said he didn’t believe that the five-week format of the Triple Crown caused the tendonitis in the colt’s left foreleg, but try selling that to all the heartbroken fans.
The Triple Crown is perhaps the most demanding task in all of sports because the spacing between races does not fit the constitution of the modern Thoroughbred. What was once considered sensible has become out-dated, and it’s time to consider altering the schedule.
It’s a controversial topic, with compelling arguments against by traditionalists, but Thoroughbred racing would better serve its participants by adding another week between Triple Crown races, ensuring less casualties.
The current format is not written in stone; it was instituted in the 1960s when horses raced far more often. There used to be a only week between races for many years beforehand. The format changed as times changed, but that flexibility has vanished.
Being forced to string together three big efforts, with short rest between each outing, is almost too much to ask for nowadays. It’s a recipe for sending the brightest stars in the game to the sidelines. And nothing illustrates that point more than I’ll Have Another.
I’ll Have Another made only two starts this year before the Kentucky Derby, a common strategy for the connections of leading contenders presently, but that was considered a no-no as recently as the 1980s when there was an unwritten rule that horses need at least three starts to have a chance.
The last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, ran nine times as a 2-year-old. That was commonplace back in the late 1970s, but horses are no longer built to withstand such rigors. I’ll Have Another will head to stud with only seven career starts to his credit. The last horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Big Brown in 2008, raced only five times before his failed Belmont bid.
The grind of the Triple Crown exacts an extreme toll. Silver Charm and Real Quiet came very close in 1997 and 1998, winning the first two legs before finishing second in the Belmont, but both colts were knocked out for the rest of the season, unable to make it back to the races until the following winter.
Charismatic, the 1999 Derby and Preakness winner, broke down in the stretch of the Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones never raced again after coming up short in the final leg in 2004. Many less-distinguished horses are on the list.
The tremendous enthusiasm I’ll Have Another generated by virtue of his sensational wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness was lost Friday morning. It’s a terrible shame because he appeared capable of ending the 34-year Triple Crown drought.
The right horse could still the Triple Crown under the current format, but it will be a rare one indeed. The prospect remains as elusive as ever.
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