Doug O’Neill moved along in the middle of the phalanx, easy to spot because of the cool porkpie hat on top of his tall frame, his bright white shirt untucked and sleeves rolled up.
Easy to spot, too, because his robustly bearded image has been everywhere for the last five weeks, since I’ll Have Another won the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness.
He had just told a mob of reporters about the Triple Crown bid that was no more, then made the grim walk from the stakes barn back to his regular barn, following his magnificent chestnut colt, who seemed only to care when the next (cooked) oat was coming.
Security yelled at the media to move to very specific spots, well out of the way, and re-assembled a straight line of steel barriers to keep us in our place as O’Neill and his crew melted away into the shade of the barn.
So along strolled Billy Turner, by himself, with all of the answers, and none of them.
I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid was unraveled by perhaps the smallest, least-threatening injury the biomechanically complex thoroughbred form can suffer, a tendon in the back of his left ankle that picked just about the worst possible time to not cooperate with the program.
Because it only takes an infinitessimal flaw or stroke of stupid luck to keep a horse out of a race, any race, I’ll Have Another’s scratch from today’s Belmont Stakes should only reinforce our appreciation for the astronomical odds overcome by the 11 horses who were able to get everything to work to Triple Crown perfection.
Among them was Seattle Slew, whom Turner trained to become what is still the only Triple Crown winner who did so undefeated.
The tall, trim Turner’s blue eyes still glitter out of a wizened 72-year-old face that has seen so much.
“Believe me, I went through it with an undefeated horse and all that, but every single day you worry about this, because the one little thing that could go wrong makes the whole thing fall apart,” Turner said.
In I’ll Have Another’s case, the one little thing was tendinitis of the superficial digital flexor tendon, the official word from Dr. Larry Bramlage, the on-call veterinarian for the Triple Crown races.
As he described it, the tendon gets just the slightest bit frayed through wear and tear, which causes the inflammation.
It’s not difficult to treat and heal, but it takes rehab and time — months of it. Horses can come back from this sort of thing, but sometimes they don’t. You don’t know.
O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam did the right thing by the horse, thus preventing a possible repeat of the Big Brown debacle in 2008.
The injury would not have produced a catastrophic breakdown because it had no effect on I’ll Have Another’s ability to bear weight, Bramlage said.
If someone had told him the horse was hurt, he said, he wouldn’t have been able to tell which leg was affected from having seen the horse move around.
“He has a few fibers that are injured now, and if he runs on it, then more fibers, it would be like unraveling a cable or a rope,” he said. “It increases the strain. He’s got to go a mile and a half, so it’s a long distance, so it’s not like he can go out and protect it. He will get tired.”
Until the news and rumors started circulating furiously through the pressbox and around the backstretch Friday morning, Team O’Neill had already endured repeated attempts by circumstance and bad fortune to waylay their horse’s shot at the Triple Crown, or at least make it a troubled trip.
O’Neill became the face of what many consider the seamy side of racing when he was suspended in California for a drug violation just before the Preakness.
A runaway horse just missed I’ll Have Another during training hours, coming close enough to brush the boot of exercise rider Jonny Garcia, who had his own problems when a visa issue forced him to miss some training days on the colt.
After the detention barn was opened for no-monkey-business on Wednesday, O’Neill was temporarily prevented from bringing the specially cooked oats that make up I’ll Have Another’s regular feed into the fortress.
Hell, even the koozies were cursed.
An I’ll Have Another giveaway was postponed because of “vendor error.”
Through it all, I’ll Have Another continued to do his job and impress observers, until a subtle shift in that straight line this week.
O’Neill said he noticed that I’ll Have Another was “a little quiet” in the last few days, although his legs showed no sign of trouble.
Until Thursday, ever so slightly, then definitively on Friday.
That’s all it took.
The 44-year-old O’Neill has comported himself with the utmost good humor and emerged as a terrific ambassador for the sport, despite the dirty side of his career that commanded some of the spotlight. He was never cocky, he made all the right moves, then made one more when all the others were canceled by one little sore spot on his horse’s ankle.
O’Neill kept his head up as his group moved back to their barn, and later he told NBC, “Thank god for alcohol.”
Turner faced the barn with his sometimes sad eyes, a few gray hairs straying from beneath his neat tweed cap, and said, “You’re never confident in a situation like this, and if you are, you’re a fool.”