ELMONT, N.Y. — It wasn't the send-off anyone wanted for I'll Have Another. Led in circles around the paddock and then to the winner's circle at Belmont Park, the retired champion was cheered at every turn. This was a ceremony and one final chance to pay tribute to the horse who captured the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and was scratched from the Belmont Stakes with tendonitis in his left front leg.
Members of Team O'Neill who have been with the horse along the way walked arm in arm behind him. There were smiles but certainly plenty of mixed emotions about a bittersweet conclusion to this Triple Crown road. Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" played over the speaker as this journey was coming to an end.
Jockey Mario Gutierrez was dressed in a shirt and tie instead of the purple and white silks that became such a familiar image in recent weeks as he got aboard I'll Have Another one final time in the winner's circle. With the crowd cheering and rain lightly falling, trainer Doug O'Neill removed his saddle and gave him a few pats on the back.
"Our dream was to unsaddle him a winner in the Belmont winner's circle but that was a close second," O'Neill said. "It was great. For us, for the whole team, it was just such a special moment."
O'Neill's children still wore the buttons "We Want Another" that were meant to commemorate the colt's bid to be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. But the decision was made Friday to retire him after a tendon injury that could have been exacerbated by racing in the Belmont.
"He's had an incredible run. In any sport, you've got to stay injury-free. Unfortunately he came up with a slight injury," O'Neill said. "Could we have run him? Yes. Would that have been the right move? No. I'm just proud of the whole team was unanimous in not running him."
The original plan was to have Gutierrez and I'll Have Another lead the post parade for the Belmont Stakes, but it was nixed in favor of the more sensible retirement ceremony before the race.
What's next for I'll Have Another is plenty of recovery time and then breeding next year. But owner Paul Reddam hadn't finalized any stud plans as of Saturday.
"We're just going to breathe and see what happens," he said.
The ceremony was a chance for everyone around I'll Have Another to catch a breath after an emotional Friday. To hear the crowd applauding his horse, O'Neill again allowed himself time to appreciate the road to that point.
"It's so cool. He's a once-in-a-lifetime heroic horse," he said. "We love the horses, we love this extraordinary sport and just an honor to be part of it."
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