Thursday, December 15, 2011

On 'Redux' and 'Records'

--Brian DiDonato

Media coverage of Rapid Redux’s win streak highlights a widespread manipulation of fact for the sake of a “good” story, and also demonstrates the necessity for the sport to better define historical periods and class levels and keep better records.

In the week or so leading up to Rapid Redux’s quest for 19 wins in a calendar year at Laurel Tuesday, it was generally accepted by the media that a victory by the 5-year-old would tie him for some sort of record with Hall of Famers Roseben and Citation. That “record” required one to ignore any horse who competed before 1900, and to rule out Camarero’s incredible feats in Puerto Rico in the 1950s because they did not occur in continental North America.

A further wrinkle was added when Doug Salvatore, a sharp horseplayer and contributor to the Erie Times-News, discovered Donald Macdonald, who won 22 races at American tracks in 1913.

We confirmed Donald Macdonald’s record with The Jockey Club, and ran a story in last Saturday’s TDN, but other media outlets ignored this new find--even after Rapid Redux won on Tuesday. A vocal minority continued to point out Donald Macdonald’s exploits, however, and eventually most stories covering Rapid Redux’s record were changed to credit him with tying a “modern era” record held by Citation alone.

From May 5, 1921 edition of Daily Racing Form - "Veteran Stars of the Turf: Groups of the 5-year-old and Over Leaders for the Last 16 Years of American Racing"
Of course, this distinction brings up an obvious question--what do we define as the "modern era" in North American horse racing?

The general definition of the term “modern era” is too vague to bring clarity to this situation, and racing itself does not have any set cut-off for what should be considered modern. There have been many benchmarks in the history of American racing--some which occurred before Donald Macdonald (i.e. the introduction of pari-mutuel wagering in 1908) and some that occurred after (i.e. the common use of starting gates around 1940)--but there is no obvious reason to choose one or another... unless you’re looking to make a story seem more interesting or important than it actually is.

It seems that if one wishes to separate Rapid Redux from Donald Macdonald, he must also separate Rapid Redux from Citation. Racing has changed drastically from 1948 to now--to lump Rapid Redux and Citation into the same era would be inaccurate or arbitrary, especially if we are unwilling to also include “The Donald.”

I’d go as far as to say that Rapid Redux holds the “modern era” record--which would probably best be marked by the introduction of the Breeders’ Cup in 1984--(for non-stakes horses) all on his own.

Horse racing is different from other sports because, despite holding races at varying class levels and implementing a grading system, we do not have a designated “major league”--at least not explicitly.

In the eyes of many racing fans and members of the media, when it comes to records involving totals or streaks, a win is a win. But to say that Rapid Redux’s victories, which came against small fields of horses who at one point were dangled by their connections for bargain basement prices, are equal to those of Citation, Cigar, Zenyatta or even Awesome Feather is absurd.

What makes a seasonal or career sports record worthy of celebration is that it is the product of extreme talent or success at the highest level over a significant period of time.

Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships was achieved by defeating the best golfers of his generation at some of the most challenging venues; Barry Bonds’s home run records (controversies surrounding them not withstanding) came against the best pitchers in the world; and, perhaps most relevant, Cal Ripken, Jr.’s record for consecutive games played was only noteworthy because of the level at which he competed 2,632 times in a row.

Someone who has played in 2,633 men’s league softball games cannot stake claim to Ripken’s record, and nobody mentions Crash Davis in the same breath as Babe Ruth when he breaks the minor league record for career home runs in the 1988 film “Bull Durham.”

Truly important records are only approachable by the absolute best competitors of a given sport. How many thousands of horses over the course of history could win each race that Rapid Redux did if given the same opportunity?

All this isn’t to say that Rapid Redux isn’t a nice enough horse or that what he has accomplished should be completely ignored. He won more times in 2011 than Tizway, Havre de Grace and Drosselmeyer started combined, and he has shipped far more than most stakes horses. Plus, the mainstream publicity he has garnered can’t be bad for racing (nor will it prove to be particularly positive--we have seen that stories of this type have no meaningful impact on the racing economy. The 2011 Breeders’ Cup, the first post-Zenyatta, showed declines in handle despite an additional race.).

But seemingly serious calls for Rapid Redux to be named Horse of the Year or to receive a special Eclipse Award are extremely misguided and overzealous. He’s a gutsy horse who has managed to buck the trend of runners making fewer and fewer starts per year, but what he has done must be viewed within its context and with a healthy dose of perspective.


Lorrie said...

In a year where there hasn't been much to celebrate, Rapid Redux has been a beacon of light to those who live for this sport.
There have been so many over hyped disappointments in this last year of racing that it's almost enough to turn lesser fans off.
So he's no Zenyatta or Uncle Mo but he goes out there week after week and runs and wins. It's a credit to his team that he has kept sound and still enjoys the work. Our top horses are so pampered it seems that they're lucky to run 3 or 4 races in a year, let alone 19.
Yes the Eclipse Awards belong to the elite horses in the industry as do most sporting awards but allow Rapid Redux his time in the light and let the light shine in this otherwise drab and dreary year.

GTK said...

Well done, Brian. I really enjoyed your insights and totally agree with you. What the horse has achieved has been admirable, but he does not deserve to be HOTY.

Mark Cramer said...

I can't find fault Brian's nuanced logic. However, as one who identifies himself as among the claimers of human competition, I feel it's time to reward an apparently lesser competitor who has done evidently greater things. I feel that this could be just the year to make a daring exception. Time Magazine names "the Protester" as person of the year, instead of choosing a celeb. As Brian writes, RR has bucked a trend. We are in a period of unpredictable transition. Let's roll with it by naming RR horse of the year, and this decision will bring something unpredictably good to horse racing. Mark