Updated on 05/28/2013 2:25PM

Hovdey: Sad day for I'll Have Another, but not a tragic one

Tom Keyser
Owner Paul Reddam, I'll Have Another, and trainer Doug O'Neill at the news conference to announce the horse's retirement.

The superficial flexor tendon of the equine forelimb is about 18 inches long. It runs from just above the knee to the pastern. It is about 1.2 centimeters wide and five millimeters thick, and on Friday at Belmont Park, if you asked around, there was nothing superficial about it.

In fact, the injury sustained by I’ll Have Another, forcing his scratch from the 144th Belmont Stakes the following day, was a deep wound to the heart of the sport, poised as it was to welcome the first Triple Crown winner since 1978 to the ranks of the 11 colts who had come before.

Instead, as Paul Reddam said while addressing a restless, disappointed bank of television camera operators and milling media early Friday afternoon at Belmont’s Barn 2, where I’ll Have Another and the 11 other Belmont Stakes runners had been sequestered since Wednesday, “History will have to wait.”

The good news, at least in the case of I’ll Have Another, is that the darker corners of Triple Crown history will not be repeated. There will be no tragedy of Tim Tam, who needed only to win the 1958 Belmont to become the third Triple Crown winner for Calumet Farm, but shattered his ankle trying. There will be no heartbreak of Charismatic, who was still fighting to win the Belmont when he cracked his cannon bone in 1999.

Neither will there be the bitter second-guessing that surrounded Majestic Prince, whose ankles were feeling the effects of tough battles in the Derby and Preakness with Arts and Letters as the Belmont approached, to the point that trainer John Longden recommended to owner Frank McMahon that their grand chestnut colt not run. Longden was overruled. Majestic Prince lost without a fight and never raced again.

Hopefully, even the most uninitiated among modern fans and media appreciated the jeopardy in which I’ll Have Another could have been placed had he run with an undetected lesion on one of the major support tissues of the delicate foreleg structure. Dr. Larry Bramlage, noted surgeon and on-call veterinarian for the Triple Crown series, compared the superficial flexor tendon to the Achilles tendon in human anatomy.

“But the Achilles tendon has muscle in it,” Bramlage explained. “That gives it the ability to stretch. The superficial flexor is even more highly evolved. It is the only tendon segment in the equine that has no muscle in it at all. It’s purely an elastic band. That is why it takes so long to heal, because the mature Thoroughbred does not produce any more tendon tissue.”

Wayne Lukas was making his way down the horse path early Friday afternoon as the news about I’ll Have Another circulated, still sporting a nasty gash in his forehead and a dark purple shiner from the blow he sustained a few days earlier from the front foot of his crack sprinter, Hamazing Destiny.

“I guarantee Doug feels a lot worse than I do,” Lukas said, referring to trainer Doug O’Neill. “I told him he had the best horse in the race, and something had to happen for him not to win.”

Then something did.

“I’ve been there before,” Lukas said, harkening back to Belmont week of 1995. “I remember winning a stakes on Friday with Serena’s Song, and going back to the barn all happy. Then my assistant tells me Timber Country’s got a temperature of 105.”

Timber Country, fresh from winning the Preakness, was favored to add the Belmont the following day. Four years later Lukas found himself down on the racetrack, helping the emergency medical crew usher Charismatic into the equine ambulance.

“I told Doug what a great job he was doing, weathering all the pressure,” Lukas added. “He deserves better than this.”

So do the fans who were so excited about the prospect of a Triple Crown winner, not to mention the many racetrack vendors who were going to have a banner day on Saturday, now diluted by the loss of the marquee name. The sport itself will suffer not only from the loss of the attendant excitement of a Triple Crown winner - had I’ll Have Another come through – but also from what is sure to be an onslaught of skeptical head-scratching over the star attraction not answering the bell.

All they need to do is consider the alternative. As injuries go, the damage to I’ll Have Another is minor in dimension, though major in dreadful possibilities. This is not the same as the failure of a six-dollar ball bearing that cost Parnelli Jones the 1967 Indy 500. When the taut superficial flexor tendon of the Thoroughbred foreleg fails it can initiate terrible damage, since it plays such an important role in support of each stride taken by a Thoroughbred at racehorse speed.

As the media gathered at the Belmont Stakes barn Friday, edgy and wanting answers, trainer Bill Badgett cruised past on the way to the grandstand. To such scenes he was not a stranger, having suffered the fatal breakdown of champion filly Go for Wand in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff at Belmont Park, 22 years ago.

“It’s a shame,” Badgett said. “I feel bad for those folks. But better something like this happens in the morning than the afternoon.”