A slow walk back to normal

ELMONT, N.Y. -- When trainer Doug O'Neill signed the orange scratch card that officially took I'll Have Another out of Saturday's Belmont Stakes, ending the dream of the Triple Crown, it seemed as if none of it had ever really happened. The mood around Barn 9 on Friday was odd, as many laughs as tears, less disappointment than a jolt back to the lives all had been leading five weeks ago.

A few camera crews leaned against the metal police barricades. O'Neill and his crew stood in the dust wearing jeans. Thursday, they'd hoped to join horses such as Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Now, because of tendinitis, they were standing around in the shade with nothing but time.

It was midafternoon. The sun hung hot over Belmont Park. The last camera left. The fans slipped away. O'Neill and his crew were, finally, alone.

"Where we gonna go drink?" he asked.

When Smarty Jones hit the last turn of the 2004 Belmont in the lead, a few furlongs between him and the Triple Crown, a hundred thousand fans stood, and the old bleachers rattled and groaned. Everyone believed. When Smarty Jones lost by a length, the crowd seemed not so much to head for the exits as to just disappear, their worthless betting slips fluttering to the ground. When the possibility of something deeply hoped for vanished, nobody could even remember how they'd felt just moments before.

Friday afternoon at Belmont was like that. A pall spread around the track. Reporters who'd collected notebooks of scenes and facts for their race day previews turned to postmortems. At a news conference, O'Neill explained what had happened. On Thursday, he'd noticed a little loss of definition in the left front leg of I'll Have Another. O'Neill wanted to believe that maybe the horse had just dinged himself, so trainers wrapped it and went back to the hotel. Friday morning, they ran him early, and when the horse got back to the barn, the swelling had returned. O'Neill went to the hotel, forced down his sausage and eggs while waiting on the doctor to tell him what he certainly already knew: It was over. Everyone went back to Barn 9. Billy Turner, who trained Seattle Slew to the Triple Crown 35 years ago, watched from the side, wearing a tweed cap and an elegant suit.

"Every single day, you worry about this," he said. "One little thing can go wrong that makes the whole thing fall apart. You're never confident, and if you are, you're a fool."

O'Neill wandered outside, wearing a blue trilby. He told everyone who'd listen that he'd be back, that the Belmont was an annual thing now. He said that he'd stick around for the race -- and to see I'll Have Another lead the post parade -- and that he looked forward to a day at the track.

"I'll be studying The [Daily Racing] Form a little differently tonight," he said.

Between the jokes and the small talk about the Stanley Cup finals, which O'Neill scored himself a ticket to, he did allow himself to consider what had almost happened. Like the fans who stood and screamed for Smarty Jones, he believed.

"I'm convinced if he'd stayed injury free, we would have won," he said. "We got awfully close."

Someday, a horse will win the Triple Crown. For a few weeks, it seemed like I'll Have Another was going to be that horse. Maybe it all was just wishful thinking. That's a lot of what being a fan is, really. You go to games, or watch them at home, because of what might happen. Usually nothing does. But every now and then, we are a witness to something extraordinary and inspiring. So we go. We hope. We imagine.

I'll Have Another is now part of that universe of anticipation. Someone asked if the horse would ever run again. O'Neill shook his head. "He'll run around in a pasture somewhere in Kentucky," he said, "with a big smile on his face."

The reason he's retiring is because he wouldn't be able to race again until next year, and if he went back into training, he'd miss two full breeding seasons. He'll never be more valuable than right now, after an undefeated 3-year-old campaign, after winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. In him is a chance to buy hope. People will write huge checks, believing that whatever genes brought him so close to greatness will take them all the way.

O'Neill walked in a pack of about a dozen, his team, the people who worked with him before he became briefly famous, with him as fame was slipping away.

"Let's go grab an old-fashioned," he said.

They moved slowly, in no hurry, passing between the barns and the track, the grandstand rising in front of them, the green and white awning of the clubhouse. A man and a woman held hands. Some guys told jokes. O'Neill borrowed a phone -- his was dead -- and checked on the logistics of shipping his horses back to California, already being pulled into whatever comes next. One of his crew laughed and said, "Know what'd be messed up? If we go in there and they already have the posters taken down."

O'Neill smiled.

"Probably won't let me in," he said.

The men and women stepped through the glass doors into the track, headed for a table on the fourth floor. O'Neill turned his attention to the Brooklyn Handicap, set to run in a few hours. His horse, Boxeur des Rues, was an 8-to-1 underdog. He believed they were going to win.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com or @wrightthompson.