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It's Belmont blues as I'll Have Another retired

| Friday, June 8, 2012, 9:10 p.m.

NEW YORK -- Turns out there won't be another.

One of the most exciting moments in North American sports suddenly was dashed on Friday by the equivalent of a human sprained ankle.

"I know the air went out of the balloon for everyone," said Paul Reddam, owner of Triple Crown hopeful I'll Have Another. "It's a very sad day."

I'll Have Another, looking to become horse racing's 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978, retired on the eve of today's $1 million Belmont Stakes because of tendinitis in his left front leg.

"It's just a freakish thing," trainer Doug O'Neill said at a hastily called news conference outside the Belmont Stakes barn. "This morning, he looked great."

Instead of trying to join an elite group that includes Secretariat and Seattle Slew, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner will be reduced to leading the post parade of the now 11-horse Belmont Stakes.

"This is extremely tough for all of us," O'Neill said. "It's a bummer, but it's far from tragic."

It probably didn't feel that way to a horse-racing industry in dire need of a feel-good story; the 100,000-plus fans expected to pack the Long Island track; the NBC television executives; or the 1,100 credentialed media, including publications from as far away as Europe and Japan.

Last year, 6.8 million television viewers watched Ruler On Ice win the Belmont with no Triple Crown at stake. The last time a horse went for the Triple Crown, Big Brown in 2008, about 13.1 million viewers tuned into ABC's telecast.

The call to scratch I'll Have Another, the overwhelming 4-5 post-draw favorite, wiped the luster off what promised to be one of the year's most anticipated sporting events.

"It's devastating," said trainer Dale Roman, whose third-place Derby finisher Dullahan is the new morning-line favorite at 9-5. "This was going to be a special race, one of the biggest races of our time."

O'Neill said I'll Have Another had some "loss of definition" in his left leg on Thursday and showed swelling after galloping at 5:30 a.m. An ultrasound revealed tendinitis.

Because the injury can take up to a year to fully heal, I'll Have Another was retired. The son of Flower Alley will return to California on Sunday or Monday and eventually begin a stud career.

"If you run on it, it gets worse," said Lexington-based equine veterinarian Larry Bramlage, the on-call vet for Triple Crown races. "It's like spraining your ankle. It's a slow-healing injury."

The unprecedented decision -- it marked the first time in the 144-year history of the race that a Triple Crown hopeful was scratched -- was made in a Triple Crown season in which O'Neill was suspended by the California racing board, set to begin July 1, and all of the Belmont horses were moved into a security barn to help protect the integrity of the sport.

I'll Have Another, a $35,000 purchase, captured the horse-racing world's imagination with his rise from relative obscurity. The unique story and subplots -- a rogue trainer, a rags-to-riches Mexican jockey, and even the catchy name (albeit referring to cookies) -- turned the California-based 3-year-old into a rising star.

Jockey Mario Gutierrez will be aboard I'll Have Another for the post parade in what New York Racing Association officials called a "ceremonial tribute."

"I'm sure the fans will be disappointed," My Adonis trainer Kelly Breen said. "But the Belmont's the Belmont. It's still a Triple Crown race."

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