I'll Have Another's handlers made agonizing call, but correct one

When Union Rags crossed the finish line first in the Belmont Stakes, I did a double-take on the final time for the 1½-mile marathon: 2 minutes, 30 2/5 seconds. It was a slow, but telling, clocking.

By comparison, Secretariat won the 1973 Belmont in a record time of 2:24. Using an industry norm of one length for each fifth of a second, hypothetically Big Red would have beaten Union Rags by about 32 lengths.

In real life, Secretariat beat Twice a Prince by 31 lengths. Thus, the distant runner-up would have been in a photo finish with the winner Union Rags and Paynter.

An old racetrack axiom is that time only counts in jail. However, 2:30 2/5 suggests that a healthy I'll Have Another would have beaten Union Rags and Paynter by daylight.

This is an agonizing hypothesis for a sport that has not had a Triple Crown winner in 34 years since Affirmed in 1978. Granted, a Triple Crown champion may offer the same influence as the Queen of England, but the ceremonial title still holds enormous marketing value.

It was a shame that the achievements of I'll Have Another were overshadowed by the polarizing figure of his trainer, Doug O'Neill. O'Neill was lambasted by the media for past drug violations in a public flogging as vicious as any in recent memory. In his defense, O'Neill showed more poise and class than most of his attackers.

I'll Have Another most likely will be cast in racing history as a very good racehorse. He had his way with Bodemeister, Union Rags, Dullahan and the rest of this generation.

He missed his chance at immortality - to be mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed - because of a tendon injury. It prevented him from adding the Belmont Stakes to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

And this is where horse racing is so different from other professional sports.

Pro athletes are deified for playing hurt, at less than 100 percent. They may take drugs and medication to mask the pain, but they play. The players choose to do so willingly.

In horse racing, the equine athletes can't talk. When they are less than 100 percent, horses give off telltale signs. In the case of I'll Have Another, he had a bump on his left front tendon. O'Neill saw that, and he and owner J. Paul Reddam did the right thing by scratching the horse.

It has been written that their altruism was only because I'll Have Another is so valuable in the breeding shed. That did factor into it.

But it's also a lesson that decisions in the sport must always put the welfare of the animals first. There are ugly consequences when racehorses play hurt and they never have a choice in the matter.

Richard Eng's horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at rich_eng@hotmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.