Johnny, I Hardly Knew You, But I Wanted To

Aug. 7, 2012

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For fun someday challenge your friends to name the winners of the past 18 Triple Crown races.  You know, back to 2007.

It may be so tough that your friends can’t remember the last two years, but the fact is that not only has the Triple Crown been the most elusive prize in sports, but the horses which ran in the Triple Crown races and won are essentially gone from the arena.  I noticed the absence of my favorite racehorses as I was watching the Olympics this week.  We are seeing the return of world champions and previous Olympics champions four years later, but not so surprised by new names, since the success of previous winners have trumped much of the success of the new stars.

Of course the most obvious is Michael Phelps.  He got the conversation started about greatest Olympians of all time.  Many were in sports which didn’t lend themselves to sending the same performers.  Some, like swimming and gymnastics, gave their participants that chances to win a lot of medals.  That’s where swimming and gymnastics get it right.  Track and field is showing some of the same advantage.

There are a few competitions for horses but Olympics is not one of them.  Horse racing is a worldwide sport and in competition with itself for the best runners in the world.  Wouldn’t the Olympics be better if it added horse racing, at a few different levels, to the competitions?  Medals could go to riders, trainers and owners.  Horses could race short and long, on dirt and turf, both male and female.  I’m not sure who gets credit for coming up with the idea of Olympic games. Supposedly they began in 776 BC, but there is no one around to verify how they were organized.  It’s fascinating to read some of the legend of the Olympics and no one could have imagined that it would turn into such a money grab as it has in our time.

Ironically the first recorded Olympics winner was a sprinter named Coroebus, who allegedly ran naked through approximately 210 yards.  There’s no cable tv network with video of that one.  Olympics were on hiatus for centuries until a Frenchman, of all things, became the driving force for the return of the Olympic games.  In the late 1800s the Olympics returned and were conducted at their historic home, Athens, Greece.  Given the state of the world we live in, Greece is hardly to be considered for an Olympics renewal at any time in the foreseeable future.

But much like the ancient Olympics, racing, as meaningful sport, appears to be on something of a hiatus.  Racing does have some heroes, although they are few and far between.  In the past decade Americans have enthusiastically backed the likes of Zenyatta, Smarty Jones and Zenyatta.  The Brits are now unabashedly proud of the unbeaten Frankel and the Aussies have followed their hero worship of a great mare named Makybe Diva with one named Black Caviar.  What?  You say you don’t remember Makybe Diva, the first horse to win the Melbourne Cup three times?  Could it be you don’t remember her because she wasn’t on ESPN or didn’t race in America?  Could it be you don’t know much about Frankel or Black Caviar?  Could it be you can’t name the winner of the Triple Crown races in America over the past two years?  To help you out, this year both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness went to I’ll Have Another and the Belmont Stakes to Union Rags.  Last year the Kentucky Derby was won by Animal Kingdom, the Preakness by Shackelford and the Belmont Stakes by Ruler on Ice.

Where are they?  How did they disappear so fast?  Unlike Olympics champions, they are not in preparation for a major world-class competition sometime in the next four years.  No they are often headed to the breeders shed, where they can presumably produce another champion.  It doesn’t often work out that way, but that’s what happens.  We don’t get much chance to latch onto our stars in racing.  There is no archive of racing Olympics winners and Breeders’ Cup has little chance of being racing’s version of the Olympics.

Goldikova was the closest thing to racing producing a Michael Phelps.  She did win the Breeders’ Cup mile in 2008, 2009 and 2010.  In horse years that should make her every bit as remarkable as Michael Phelps.  But, sadly, most Americans don’t know about Goldikova, since 1) she raced here only those three times and 2) she sounds like she comes from Russia and many in our country are still battling that cold war.

But Goldikova, too, has disappeared.  We can hope that an offspring of hers will make some noise down the road, but we’d better not hold our breath.  Foal crops of racehorses may be diminishing, but no more so than the recognizable individuals at American tracks in 2012.

Just to drive the nail a bit further into the coffin, I’ll Have Another wasn’t just retired, but sent to Japan at stud.  I’m sure we’ll learn more about this deal somewhere down the line.  But the last good American horse sent to Japan in my memory was Sunday Silence.  He had really developed a good rivalry with a nice horse named Easy Goer.  Americans were not only robbed of watching that rivalry over a lengthy stretch, but Sunday Silence went on to be a champion stallion in Japan and very few of his offspring raced in the United States.

The point of all of this is that every four years I get excited to see the Olympics.  But every three or four years I have to go on a major refresher course to learn about the stars in the sport of thoroughbred racing.

We may have a lot of horses, but the heroes don’t hang around very long.  Two horses which won last weekend have inspired these thoughts.  One was Poseiden’s Warrior, winner of the Vanderbilt Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday.  I didn’t even know there was a horse named Poseiden’s Warrior until he won on Saturday.  He beat some horses I’d heard of, one being last year’s Preakness winner, Shackleford.

That was a shocker. Then there was the Whitney, another feature from Saratoga.  I wasn’t all that familiar with the winner, Fort Larned, although I had heard of him. Remember, I am a racetracker and live this stuff daily.  I hear of lots of horses.  I knew little about him except he won a race called the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows in his last start. I only knew that because the Cornhusker Handicap used to be the premier race of the year at Ak-Sar-Ben, the wonderful track in Omaha, Nebraska, which went under, thanks in large part to government management.  I worked there for 14 years and called a bunch of Cornhusker Handicaps.  It’s just another nice race now, but it was once a big deal to me.

What I have since learned about Fort Larned is that he is a grandson of a great racemare, Bayakoa.  That South American mare, trained by Ron McAnally, was a big hero in American racing.  She raced three times here at Oaklawn in the Apple Blossom Handicap, winning the 1989 renewal.  She was second the following year, then threw in a clunker when she tried for another win in 1991.  That almost makes her the equivalent of an Olympic champion.   Hurray for Fort Larned.  I am encouraged to see the name of one of our major heroes at least in the recent pedigree of one of the memorable names in our sport.

The one horse I had heard of in the past weekend was Hansen.  The grey colt was winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Stakes last fall, named the champion off that effort and was very popular because he was grey.  His color created a stir earlier this year when his owner wanted to underwrite a contest to color his tail for a major race.  Fortunately that idea fell flat on its face until this past weekend when Mountaineer Park, a poor excuse for a racetrack in West Virginia, allowed Hansen to race with his tail tipped in blue.  Named for his owner and saddled with having to play into that owner’s gigantic ego, Hansen showed his usual speed, was challenged early, then embarrassingly faded to fourth in the stretch.  The fact that this horse of quality and reputation produced some huge show payoffs did nothing but insult a hard-trying animal.  I was disappointed by that result.

I like these horses and I want them to stay around.  I don’t like them abused by egotistical owners either through over-racing or lack of respect.  When they are our heroes, they are deserving of more than that.  As for those who disappeared from site.  I’m sorry I hardly knew you.  But for those who can stick around and give us the great sporting competitions we’ve seen historically in this sport, please let’s let them heal up from wounds and come back to perform another day.

While we argue amongst ourselves about what’s wrong with the sport, let’s give these animals a chance to grow into their most competitive selves.  They don’t need to be rushed.  Zenyatta wasn’t.  When they’re ready they let us know.  But they need to do more than win a Grade 1 stakes to be great.  The great ones won multiple graded stakes and didn’t duck anyone.  I hope I live long enough to see that happening again.        


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