Horse Racing no longer mainstream, but America still likes big events
by John Furgele
For youngsters, Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, but in the sport of Horse Racing, the most wonderful time of the year is now. The next five weeks not only is a time for fans of horse racing, but the only time of the year where the sport takes it place on the national landscape. When ESPN sends a crew to cover the Kentucky Derby, you know that America cares.
What will we see in the next five weeks? As is always the case, there are many that are hoping that this is the year when the Triple Crown drought of 37 years will finally end and one of these colts will be able to string victories in the Derby, the Preakness and the stumbler of recent times, Belmont Stakes.
We all know how difficult it is to do and we all know the reasons why. Horses are trained differently and because they are, they can’t withstand the grind of three races in five weeks. Horses are bred more for speed, and to ask one to win the first two legs and then go 1 ½ miles in the Belmont is far too arduous a task. The answer to this is very simple and that is the reason why the Triple Crown hasn’t been completed since Affirmed in 1978 is that there hasn’t been a good enough horse.
The chase begins at Churchill Downs when 18 horses (El Kabeir was scratched) line up for the 141st time in the Kentucky Derby. It is an American tradition, always the first Saturday in May and even people in the Northeast actually believe that spring is indeed, finally here, so in a sense, the Derby is the start of something most look forward to. The Derby is hard enough as 18 of the 19 entered have never raced more than 1 1/8 miles. As good as Dortmund, American Pharaoh and others have looked in their prep races, can they get that last eighth of a mile?
We have seen great horses come and go. In 2004, Smarty Jones looked great in the Derby, even better in the Preakness but was gunned down in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes. A year earlier, Funny Cide had good fortune in the Derby, backed that up with a 9 length victory in the Preakness before fading to third at Big Sandy (home of the Belmont). Barbaro looked like the real deal in the Derby, but never even finished the Preakness after suffering an eventual fatal leg injury.
To me, American Pharaoh has looked the best. His victory in the Arkansas Derby was breathtaking. Jockey Victor Espinoza’s biggest challenge was to stay on the horse. The colt glided down the stretch and looked like he could run forever. To me, the others have to come and get him. I would never say he is the class of the field, nor would I call it an upset if he gets beat, but to me, he is the one to catch, the clear favorite.
Dortmund is another tough horse. Like American Pharaoh, he is trained by Bob Baffert, and is perhaps a bit more tested in his races. He has been looked in the eye, but each time he’s been able to thwart all competitors. It would surprise no one if he won the race.
The Derby is so tough for these horses. The first time going 10 furlongs, the crowd, which will exceed 150,000 and 19 horses to is a lot to deal with. America loves an underdog, but it would be better suited if one of the favorites wins the Derby. If that happens, America will begin to believe that a Triple Crown is in fact a possibility. When a longshot wins, it often doesn’t translate television wise to the Preakness because Americans think that the longshot was lucky to win the Derby and they don’t believe that the luck can continue. America believed in Smarty Jones, they believed in Big Brown and those horses ate up the competition at the Preakness and by Belmont, the hype was more than on.
The Derby is the best race of the three, but the Preakness is the most important. That sets the table and that’s why it’s so vital and of utmost significance. If the Derby winner wins there, the ballyhoo to the Belmont Stakes begins; if he doesn’t, than the Belmont is just another major stakes race on a Saturday in early summer.
A Triple Crown winner will not save horse racing, it will not rekindle interest and put the sport on the front of sports pages and websites. It can be argued that the sport is better off with the near miss. The close-but-no-cigar theory works because lamenting is good for business as any Chicago Cub fan will tell you. Think about it; if the Cubs win a World Series, what will Cub fans have to be miserable about? The near miss scenario keeps people hopeless, yet interested.
I will spare you with my predictions because unlike most fans, I don’t love the sport because of the handicapping aspect. Sure, I’ll wager a few bucks on Firing Line, the Sunland Derby winner, but to me, it’s about the event, and the Kentucky Derby, is an event. There will be 150,000 at the track and another 12 million watching on television, making Derby Day very much a part of Americana. The Preakness will exceed over 100,000 when it is contested in a hopefully healing Baltimore and depending on what’s at stake, another 50,000 to 100,000 will descend upon Belmont Park on June 6.
In the 1970s, we saw three horses (Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978) win the Triple Crown. It looked so easy and when Spectacular Bid won the Derby and Preakness in 1979, most thought a threepeat was in the bag. Little did we know how good we had it. If three could win it in a five year span, then surely it would keep happening with regularity. Obviously, that has not been the case, but tomorrow is the start of another year and another attempt at glory.