Trainer Doug O'Neill walks with I'll Have Another during a news… (Al Bello / Getty Images )
I'll Have Another was added to a short list and a long list Friday by bowing out of the Belmont Stakes because of a leg injury.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner is just the third horse to win the first two legs of horse racing's Triple Crown to not race in the third. But he's just the latest of many horses to have tendinitis end their career.
After I'll Have Another took a routine gallop over the Elmont, N.Y., track Thursday afternoon, trainer Doug O'Neill noticed a "loss of definition" in the thoroughbred's left leg. After an easy gallop early Friday morning, additional swelling was visible after a cooling-down period.
Larry Bramlage, Belmont's on-call veterinarian, called the tendinitis a "slow-healing injury" and said it would probably take a year to fully recover.
"If you went on and had he raced, the danger would have been a bowed tendon, meaning a significant number of fibers injured," Bramlage said.
A bowed tendon is one that has been torn and has a bowed appearance once it heals. It typically accompanies tendinitis and is one of the most common injuries among racing thoroughbreds.
Rick Arthur, equine medical director at the California Racing Board, estimated that about 25% of all racing horses retire because of tendinitis.
Maryland-based veterinarian Nick Meittinis, who regularly examined I'll Have Another while he was at Pimlico, said that the colt was completely healthy coming out of the Preakness. The injury most likely would have been caused by a sudden movement or a step over uneven ground going at a fairly high rate of speed.
Though it is unknown how I'll Have Another was injured, the horse was nearly struck by another horse that got loose during training earlier this week.
"Horses are very fine-tuned machines, and when one thing gets shifted the wrong way, there can be trouble," Meittinis told the Baltimore Sun. "I'm not going to blame the loose horse, but it's that kind of movement, causing a horse to veer suddenly, that can cause that one area to be over-stressed."
Though there is no truly analogous tendon in humans, I'll Have Another's injury is similar to an Achilles' tendon strain, Meittinis said. The colt could have raced without even noticing the pain; he also could have broken down.
Having already won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, as well as the Santa Anita Derby, I'll Have Another was too valuable to risk. Even without a win in the Belmont to its credit, the horse is already worth an estimated $10 million for breeding purposes according to some experts.
Years ago, with the sport at its height of popularity, a top racing thoroughbred wouldn't typically enter retirement until after their fourth or fifth year. But more recently, some owners have retired 3-year-olds after minor injuries. Big Brown, the Kentucky Derby winner in 2008, and Super Saver, winner of the 2010 Kentucky Derby, are two recent examples. I'll Have Another turned 3 in April.
Arthur, the California medical director, said that although about half of the thoroughbreds diagnosed with tendinitis successfully recover and race again, it is a risk many owners prefer not to take.
Instead, Arthur said, it's often much more lucrative to retire the horse and capitalize on breeding fees.
"That's a problem in horse racing," Arthur said. "Horses are worth so much more for breeding than for racing and that's why so many retire early, in the prime of their careers."