As sad as it is to see with a horse on the precipice of history, it was absolutely the right decision to sit I'll Have Another for today's Belmont Stakes. However, especially in the world of horse racing, it was definitely not a decision made in a vacuum.
The horse, who after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes had an opportunity to capture the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978, was reported to have tendonitis, ending his racing career. According to Belmont's track veterinarian, if the horse had run he would have run a high risk of a "bowed tendon," meaning the tendon itself actually tears.
It's a very humane decision from a sport that has been anything but, especially over the last year.
Belmont Park is one of three tracks that are part of the New York Racing Association — the other two being Saratoga Race Course and Aqueduct Racetrack in Long Island. During a year-long racing season the three tracks rotate, and during Aqueduct's portion from October through April, 19 horses broke down during races. Things have gotten so bad that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has had the state effectively take over NYRA for the next three years.
The reason for all the breakdowns? It depends who you ask. Trainers and owners will unequivocally, in lock-step, say that the incidents are total freak occurrences, no different than any athlete going down with an injury.
However, a series of reports by the New York Times and the New York Daily News indicate other reasons. In short, horse racing is big business for owners, and the pressure to race horses which may not be 100 percent physically fit is very high. The fact that Aqueduct opened a casino on the property and saw race stakes go up has exacerbated the problem.
For instance, one low-level horse, 4-year-old Coronado Heights, was known to have degenerative joint disease, yet was allowed to continue to race after receiving over a dozen different injections over the course of one week for pain, inflammation, and tissue damage. Coronado Heights broke down during a February 25 race, and had to be euthanized on the track. It should be noted that the horse's trainer, Todd Pletcher, is considered one of the most high-profile trainers in horse racing, and has previously had horses win the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
While horse racing has endured high-profile breakdowns in the past and will again in the future — Barbaro and Eight Belles immediately come to mind — it's hard not to make the inference that there was extreme pressure on the world of horse racing to be cautious with I'll Have Another. Racing has gotten some bad press lately, but having a horse who was known not to be fit break down in pursuit of a Triple Crown? That might have been a death knell for the increasingly-scrutinized "sport of kings."
So, again, it was absolutely the right call to retire I'll Have Another, but don't kid yourself that it was a decision made exclusively in the best interest of the horse. The horse's trainer, Doug O'Neill, was even once known as "Drug" O'Neill for his treatment of the animals.
This isn't an indictment of the sport as a whole, but it's something to keep in mind as an endemic problem — much like steroids in baseball. As you're watching the Belmont Stakes and its grandeur, just keep in mind Coronado Heights and the 18 other horses at Aqueduct — and countless others around the country — whose stories won't be told, and weren't lucky enough to make it to this day.