Scratched

06.09.12

Scratching I’ll Have Another Lifts a Cloud of Suspicion off the Triple Crown

Scratching I’ll Have Another from the Belmont Stakes means that neither he nor his controversial trainer, Doug O’Neill, will be in the spotlight on Saturday, and that’s a good thing for the reputation of the sport of kings, writes Dan Packel.

As scratches go, it could have been worse.

Eight years ago, I was waiting in line to place a bet for the undercard of the 2004 Belmont Stakes when the PA system squawked into action.

“Ladies and gentleman, we have a very important announcement,” said the disembodied voice, silencing the crowd already packed into Belmont Park, which would reach 120,000 strong by the end of the day. We’d all come to the sprawling old racetrack on Long Island to watch the heavily favored Smarty Jones attempt to complete the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

“Smarty Jones has been scratched!” interjected a wag, breaking the hush from his spot near the betting windows.

Instead, the voice told us that former President Ronald Reagan had died, and the punters let out an audible sigh of relief. We were convinced the undefeated 3-year-old was going to make history that afternoon, and it would take more than a high-profile death to lessen the anticipation.

Instead, the deflating moment came when 36–1 long shot Birdstone chased down the frontrunning Smarty Jones on the home stretch. Thousands of $2 win tickets, purchased not to be cashed but to be kept as keepsakes, were rendered worthless.

This year, the letdown came a day early.

Friday’s stunning announcement that I’ll Have Another was sidelined with tendinitis and not only would not be running in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes but would also be retiring sent shockwaves through the racing community and the general public.

The news meant that the beleaguered sport would go at least 34 years without a Triple Crown winner. But it also freed it from a potential high-profile test of its followers’ ethical commitments.

In 2004, Smarty Jones—undefeated going into the race—had the benefit of a nice story. He’d recovered from a near-fatal brush with a starting gate when training as a 2-year-old. He’d risen from low-prestige Philadelphia Park to become the toast of the horse-racing world. And his trainer, John Servis, had never been suspended for cheating.

I’ll Have Another carried significantly more baggage into this year’s Belmont.

Granted, after a series of high-profile breakdowns and drug violations in the intervening eight years, a brighter spotlight of shame shines on horse racing in 2012. But thanks to his connections, I’ll Have Another stood right in the middle of it.

I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neill garnered much of this attention for an unseemly record of doping violations. He’s been accused of repeatedly giving his horses milkshakes. This practice would be less problematic if he was actually lavishing his charges with vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry. Instead, he was supposedly stuffing a tube down his horses’ noses before races and using this to channel a mixture of baking soda, sugar, and electrolytes, aimed at cutting fatigue.

No one directly accused O’Neill of giving I’ll Have Another milkshakes or any other illicit substances. But even before O’Neill stood in front of the barn at Belmont on Friday and told the Daily Racing Form that “he’s not 100 percent, and I ain’t taking any chances,” he’d had an eventful five weeks.

In addition to winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he was slapped with a 45-day suspension from the California Horse Racing Board for a horse that raced under his care in 2010 with an elevated level of carbon dioxide in his blood. O’Neill’s suspension isn’t due to start until July 1, so he’d been at Belmont Park for almost two weeks, overseeing I’ll Have Another’s daily gallops.

But racing authorities were not without a token response. On Wednesday, they moved the horse, along with the other 11 entrants in the race, to a “detention” barn, where they could be carefully monitored to prevent any illicit activity.

All these developments were set to turn Belmont Park on Saturday into a stew of exhilaration and ambivalence, to be consumed by an estimated crowd of 100,000 racing fans.

Some proponents of racing have long been convinced that a Triple Crown is the magic bullet for the sport’s woes. They’ve been waiting for a charismatic champion three-year-old to entrance the public and send casual viewers streaming back to racetracks.

And while I’m not entirely convinced, I suspect the right winner—like Smarty Jones—would have given the sport a much-needed bump.

But other viewers of the sport, and I put myself in this camp, were not ready for I’ll Have Another to be this champion. That’s no slight to the horse, who, with this untimely retirement, has earned himself a happy future dashing about the Kentucky bluegrass and rutting with high-profile mares.

My concern, surely shared by others, was over the message that it would send to the curious onlooker—the kind the sport needs to cultivate to survive—were I’ll Have Another to take a prize that hasn’t been claimed in 34 years, given the allegations about his trainer.

Some proponents of racing have long been convinced that a Triple Crown is the magic bullet for the sport’s woes.

Much of the online response yesterday fed on this skepticism about O’Neill, speculating that tendinitis was a smoke screen for something much fishier–an unwillingness to run the horse without his conventional milkshake regimen, say.

The degree of cynical interpretations out there confirms my suspicions that the sport needs more than the quick fix that the boosters claim a Triple Crown would provide.

And the scratch, as anti-climactic as it was, rules out the worst-case scenario: a victory that would discourage hidebound authorities from sweeping out the stables, and continuing a needed push for reform that would assure watchers that the action is on the level, and that they’re not playing a bit part in an ugly scene by spending an afternoon at the track.

So this afternoon, I’ll be jostling for space with a lot fewer people with my general-admission ticket. There’s still a typically strong undercard, and—even without I’ll Have Another—the charge of electricity when the horses bolt out of the starting gate. Plus the wagering—there’s always that. We’ve been waiting 34 years for a Triple Crown, we can wait one more for a rightful winner.