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Books, bettors make best of bad break

It was an hour before post time of the 144th running of the Belmont Stakes, and plenty of good seats – the wide ones with the comfy cushions and built-in drink holders – were still available at Sunset Station Race & Sports Book.

Nobody was standing in line for a hot dog, though they only cost a dollar, and though the hot dog girl practically was busting out of her silks.

Five minutes until post, the cushy seats remained. A small line was in front of the hot dog girl.

I’ll Have Another had been scratched.

Not the same as Elvis Has Left the Building. Same effect.

I’ll Have Another is the 3-year-old who had a date with history Saturday afternoon. At 4-5 odds, he had been expected to become the first winner of horse racing’s Triple Crown in 34 years.

Then he was diagnosed with a swollen left tendon following a routine workout Thursday.

Instead of a date with history, I’ll Have Another has an appointment with a veterinarian.

This was going to be a huge day at the race and sports books. The one at Sunset Station had purple T-shirts printed up that said “I’ll Have Another – Racing Toward the Triple Crown.” You got to take one home for making a $40 wager.

Stacks of T-shirts were draped across on the backs of the high-back chairs behind the betting counters where only once did one of the 11 lines go three-deep.

There were estimates the handle at local books would be down as much as 40 percent because I’ll Have Another was resting in a barn, chomping on an apple.

“Of course it’s a disappointment,” said my horse racing pal Tony Compiseno, who I usually see once, twice or three times a year, standing in the same spot – behind the betting lines, in front of the little cubicles where horse players do the math between the Triple Crown races and the races at other tracks, such as Arlington and Churchill Downs and Prairie Meadows and Woodbine.

“But a lot of people don’t even know he’s out.”

An hour until post, Tony said people still were trying to wager on I’ll Have Another. The guys sitting behind the betting windows informed the uninformed that Pegasus Jr. had been scratched, and they wouldn’t take their money.

And some people say Las Vegas doesn’t have a heart.

I saw my horse racing pal Tony, dressed in his alternate Secretariat uniform – blue cap and T-shirt instead of his black Secretariat cap and T-shirt – go to the window at 3:24 p.m. It was 16 minutes to post, and people still were trying to bet on I’ll Have Another.

“I think it’s ridiculous what they did,” a horse racing enthusiast named Alex Aguilar said while organizing a small pile of betting slips. “They should have allowed him to run. They say he’s hurt, but I don’t believe it.”

Aguilar, who said he has attended horse races for more than 20 years at tracks such as Belmont, Hollywood and Golden Gate, had planned to bet on I’ll Have Another as part of several trifecta wagers. And also for posterity’s sake.

A few seconds later, a bell rang, and they were off. There was only a smattering of applause from the horse players.

A Bob Baffert-trained sprinter named Paynter led almost all the way before a horse called Union Rags nipped him at the wire. It was a stirring stretch run, and the smattering of applause had turned into a roar at Sunset Station Race & Sports Book.

History would not be made. Only a photo to decide the winner.

It still was pretty exciting – way better, for instance, than watching six guys combine on a no-hitter.

“That’s why this is still the greatest sport,” my horse racing pal Tony said.

I noticed Aguilar storming off to the sports part of the race and sports book, where baseball games were being shown on big screens. Apparently, he did not have the No. 3 horse in place of the No. 11 horse – I’ll Have Another – on his small pile of betting slips.

He flipped his purple commemorative I’ll Have Another T-shirt off his shoulder, reached into his wallet and started counting his money.

A long shot named Mr. Ornery had just paid $83.40 to win the eighth race at Hollywood Park. Seven minutes still remained before the ninth race.

On my way out of the parking lot, I noticed the big letters on the marquee that said Kenny Loggins would be performing at the Sunset Amphitheater at 8 p.m. on June 23, provided he doesn’t bruise a tendon.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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