James Allen said he wasn’t going to let I’ll Have Another’s injury ruin his day out.
“I’m not a huge racing fan or anything,” Allen, a 32- year-old Manhattanite said in an interview yesterday at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York. He donned a straw fedora, striped bowtie and khaki shorts and went with five friends anyway. “We’re just here to enjoy the atmosphere, dress up in clothing we don’t wear all that often and have a little fun.”
I’ll Have Another, winner of the first two legs of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, was retired from racing two days ago when he was diagnosed with a leg injury. Union Rags won in a photo finish over Paynter.
A crowd of 85,811, 28 percent less than the 120,000 that the New York Racing Association had expected before I’ll Have Another’s retirement, showed up at the track yesterday for the slate of 13 races, including the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes. Union Rags, the co-favorite after I’ll Have Another was scratched, won the 1 1/2-mile event in two minutes, 30.42 seconds over Paynter to claim the $600,000 winner’s purse. The colt paid $7,50, $4.20 and $3.40.
I’ll Have Another, who last month won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was retired on June 8 after doctors found the start of tendinitis in his left front leg. The crowd, largely composed of people wearing spring sport coats and bowties or colorful hats and full-length dresses, stood and cheered as the three-year-old chestnut colt was led onto the track thirty minutes before the final race for a ceremony in the winner’s circle.
Trainer Doug O’Neill took off the horse’s saddle and patted the colt’s flanks three times.
“We felt that this would be a fitting ceremonial retirement for an incredible racehorse,” O’Neill said. “There are many fans who traveled from near and far to see I’ll Have Another today, and we wanted to give them a chance to help us send him off to retirement.”
The last horse to win the Triple Crown was Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 11 horses have won the first two legs only to lose at Belmont, most recently Big Brown in 2008.
Bob Werner made plans to attend the Belmont Stakes immediately after I’ll Have Another won the Preakness in May. A 64-year-old native of Louisville, Kentucky, and former horse owner, Werner purchased plane tickets to attend yesterday’s race with his 13-year-old son, Sam.
“We planned on it because of all the horses I’ve seen, there have been two that I really thought were going to win the Belmont, Spectacular Bid in 1979 and this one,” he said in an interview.
Werner, who has been to the Kentucky Derby 41 of the past 43 years, said I’ll Have Another’s injury revealed the truth that thoroughbred racing is a fragile and unpredictable sport. He said he never once considered not coming to the track after hearing about the colt’s retirement.
“There was no thought at all,” he said. “I’m a horse guy. It’s just another horse race.”
Attendance for yesterday’s card, while less than NYRA’s expectations, was still 72 percent higher than the 50,000-person average in the previous four times a Triple Crown was not on the line. The number was a record for a Belmont Stakes day in which a Triple Crown could not be won, NYRA said in an e-mailed release.
The last four times a Triple Crown was on the line at Belmont, the track averaged an attendance of 105,000, including a record 120,139 in 2004.
Yesterday’s on-site handle, or total wagered, was about $13.8 million, the second-largest Belmont Stakes day in history, after NYRA said yesterday that all advance bets involving I’ll Have Another would be refunded. The track took in $14.5 million in wagers in 2004, when Smarty Jones lost his bid for the Triple Crown, and a $13.3 million handle for Big Brown’s 2008 race.
J. Paul Reddam, I’ll Have Another’s owner, also took a financial hit with the injury. Aside from losing the opportunity at the winner’s purse, the retirement might cost Reddam more than $5 million in the horse’s value, according to Baden P. “Buzz” Chace, a bloodstock agent who buys and sells horses for clients.
Purchased for $35,000, I’ll Have Another might have been worth $10 million for his owners had he won yesterday, Chace said before the horse was retired. The value is now closer to $3 million to $5 million, Chace said after the injury was made public.
Stores at the track continued to sell $30 t-shirts and $25 hats in purple and black that celebrated I’ll Have Another’s success. Fans were also given free posters at the door detailing the horse’s accomplishments, and one labeling the colt a “hero.”
Ron Wasserman, who went to tracks as a child in Syracuse, New York, was at Belmont Park with 14 friends as part of his bachelor party. The 33-year-old said I’ll Have Another’s withdrawal made it easier for more friends to attend, but prevented his hopes of witnessing history on a special day.
“I was just convinced that since it was my bachelor party, we were going to see a Triple Crown,” Wasserman said. “It was a big letdown.”
-- Editor: Michael Sillup, Nancy Kercheval.
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