In spite of the roller coaster ride he's been on with I'll Have Another over the past two months, trainer Doug O'Neill was right back to work at his Befair Hollywood Park stable office at 7 a.m. the morning after the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
“I think that’s a sign of how much we all love this game,” said the now nationally known trainer June 10. “I couldn’t wait to get back.”
O’Neill remarked that future plans are still up in the air, but immediate arrangements for I’ll Have Another have been set. The winner of the first two jewels of the American Triple Crown this year suffered a tendon injury while training for the Belmont Stakes and was withdrawn on the eve of the race.
“He’s coming back Monday (from New York),” disclosed O’Neill. “We’ll continue to wean him off his grain. It usually takes horses 10 days to two weeks to wind down. Once he’s ready to go to the ranch, he will. I’d love to keep him around forever, but he’ll stay with us until he has a final spot.
“I can’t imagine us shipping him to one farm and then sending him to another farm. Hopefully in the next few weeks, they’ll ink some type of deal.”
O’Neill discussed the affliction that forced I’ll Have Another to miss a chance at the Triple Crown.
“Tendons are funky injuries,’’ he said. “He was never sore. It really is like the rubber band analogy; once they lose natural elasticity, it takes a long time to regain it, if ever. Where we are, if we gave him the proper time, we’d miss all of the breeding season next year. And with tendon injuries, sometimes they come back 60-80 percent of what they were, and that wouldn’t be fair to the horse.”
The 44-year-old conditioner talked with gratitude about how much I’ll Have Another has meant to him. “Anyway I can show him thanks is what I’m trying to do,’’ said O’Neill. “He took us on an amazing run. My love and respect for horses and horse racing became even greater because of him.
“It’s been an incredible ride, a real blast,’’ reflected O’Neill. “Because of I’ll Have Another, we got to do things we never would have done. The whole journey that happens with the Triple Crown is amazing. I hope and pray that we’ll have the same type of run with another horse down the road. We’re taking notes and we’re going to do it again.”
O’Neill, assistant Jack Sisterson, and the rest of the I’ll Have Another crew watched the Belmont Stakes on television in the barn office of trainer Mark Hennig.
Less than an hour before the race, I’ll Have Another was given a ceremonial retirement in the paddock and winner's circle at Belmont Park.
“It was a strange feeling,” Sisterson said Sunday morning. “We finished parading him in the paddock and were coming back, and you see everybody else getting ready to go (to the track). When we were coming back, (the horse) knew that, ‘Hey, this is not right. I want to go race.’
“The guys took it really well. To get this far … going into it, if somebody said you could win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness but not run in the Belmont, I think everybody would have taken that. It’s been such a great journey. To work for somebody like Doug, who gave us all the opportunity like this, is the chance of a lifetime. It really was fantastic.”
“He looked impressive this morning, as always. He’s never once looked bad,” Sisterson said. “It’s a bit of a bummer, especially the way the race shaped up. His running style would have fit the race to a ‘T.’
"All the credit to Union Rags and Paynter, they ran a big race. The rest of them were just kind of going up and down, and this guy would have tried to take advantage of that. Mario (Gutierrez) is a great jock, and he would have judged the pace and would have been right there, ready to press the button turning for home. That’s horse racing. You’ve got to turn the page and keep moving forward.”