Monday, June 9, 2014

Triple Crown: Much More Than What Meets the Eye

-- Drew Rauso

   There's been plenty of talk recently about making horse racing more appealing to a younger generation--from recommendations in the McKinsey Report to the formation of the America's Best Racing bus. TDN decided to get our own take on what young people like and don't like about racing, and have engaged Drew Rauso, a recent graduate of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, to share his insights from the outside looking in. Drew will be blogging for us over the next few months, offering his opinion on a variety of matters--some trivial and not so trivial in nature. 
   Thank you, Mr. Coburn. The “cowards” comments that stole the headlines away from Tonalist at the Belmont on Saturday were much appreciated, for it opened my eyes to a conversation I had never even thought about. “It’s unfair to these horses that have been in the game since day one,” Coburn said to the media afterwards. If we are talking about unfair, maybe we should talk about it being unfair that horses get “treated” with various drugs, some of which controversially lead to more injuries and fatalities. I’ll save that conversation for a later date (please save judgment for then).
   The issue at hand is sure to be blown up in the ensuing days, but what if a topic worth discussing isn’t exactly what is being talked about? Call me crazy, naive or ignorant (but believe me when I say I try my best to be none of the above), but for all my years, I had just assumed that the Triple Crown was a joint effort, a conglomerate comprised of three races that all operated under one name, if you will. My impression was that this pinnacle of an age-old sport was that, a singular event, albeit with three legs. Over the last six weeks, well, it has been discovered that that is not the case.
   The Kentucky Derby shines bright over all else, Churchill Downs a gleaming castle reigning over the kingdom of the “royal” sport. Nineteen horses, their owners, trainers and riders all vying for a place in the record books, but in reality the book isn’t written when the race is over. The first of a trilogy, much more important than the premier book on its own, is what is on everyone’s mind.

   The Preakness is next, several weeks later in the height of May, turning the corner into summer, where countless college students and recent graduates alike flock to the infamous Pimlico infield, a setting of full-fledged debauchery long associated with the ancient ground. Even on the tails of the Derby, the biggest headline for the majority of the crowd under a certain age is which musician will be entertaining a massive pulsating herd of 20-somethings. There, the anticipation of the Triple Crown is at its turning point, where the country watches, hoping to see the familiar long face from three weeks prior come out in front.
   It is at this moment where the excitement of the Triple Crown is made or lost for another year, a moment when casual observers and investors in the sport can come together not only to witness a second step towards history, but to revel in the sport. Fate decides whether the Belmont will have significance to many more than just the bettors’ wallets, but if an entire nation will be hanging on their seat come another 3 weeks.
   And so the Belmont Stakes arrives, with summer nearing fifth gear and this year, the talk of “the one.” California Chrome, complete with two owners and over 18,000 Twitter followers (don’t be impressed yet, a soccer ball has over 160,000) enters stage left as the darling of the country. On this Saturday in June, racing is a must-watch (indeed, more people tuned in to NBC than those that watched Game 6 of the World Series last year), and California Chrome cannot escape the lips of any Saturday barbeque conversation.
   Unfortunately, as is the way with America and seemingly more and more people (personal statement), trends, fads and styles come and go faster than a plate of summer barbeque in front of me. Bandwagon sports fans, while teased relentlessly, are commonplace in all sports: some people just want to root for the favorite, just as others want to root for an underdog. This immediate jump was seen over the last several weeks, as friends and acquaintances alike were asking, “Do you think Chrome can do it?” He captivated a country in such a short amount of time unlike any human athlete could, creating a bond between both animal lovers and sports fans alike.  

   And so the Belmont was ran, Tonalist took charge and Steve Coburn made sure to speak more brashly than any underdog could. Which is why I return to my foremost statement. I want to thank him for bringing to light that these races are in fact, entirely their own. Many trainers do not consider them a whole; they just enter the ones that are optimal for their own gains. While this may be an underwhelming fact for some or many of you, I thought it was quite interesting that the structure of such a well-known event had largely gone misinterpreted for my whole life. There are more horses running in the Derby than the Preakness which had more than the Belmont. Different numbers in each as well as different horses. I had blindly thought prior to Coburn’s comments that what he wished were the case actually was.  I had no idea that horses were intentionally left out of the earlier races to be fresh in the Belmont and play spoiler.  My first reaction to what he said? I agreed with him.
   The fact that Chrome was “almost” not allowed to run in the Belmont at all because of his breathing strip, while it was not a problem at the other two tracks is another example of the odd-in-my-eyes lack of unification between the races. Granted, he was allowed to, as he should be, so the conversation is moot, but it is yet another example of what I found surprising about these famous races.
   After having yet another conversation with a friend deeply invested the sport (he has become anonymous in these posts, and will stay so), it became clear to me that while I may have initially agreed with Coburn, the idea is just too difficult to put in practice, given trainers’ agendas and different race populations. At first, I envisioned the three different lengths and short break enough of a challenge so that the same horses in every field had a chance to win one of the three, and a Triple Crown was not guaranteed. But you don’t get 36-year droughts when something is merely not guaranteed.
   The Triple Crown is damn well near impossible, and that’s the way it should be, at least according to Unnamed Friend et al. You have to qualify for the Derby, win in a big field of 20 horses, win again in a short period of time, and then win a race that you possibly have never run before, against horses trying to upset you and may very well be fresher than you. When Coburn said that Chrome had a target on his back, he was right, but isn’t that commonplace for a favorite in sports? How many times do lesser teams show up and play even harder when given the chance to ruin an opponent’s chances for glory? Can something be said of a similarity when a team’s best hitter comes to the plate with a chance to win the game, only to be intentionally walked and not given a chance?
   Unfair? Maybe. Who said sports, or life even, are completely fair? Talk about the person with the most career home runs ever, and you mention an asterisk. The most gifted player in the last twenty years of baseball is also under scrutiny for steroids and cheating. While I am not saying what Coburn’s fellow trainers and owners did was cheating, I do acknowledge that it is just a part of the sport.
   Doing some reading, I came across Bill Finley in ESPN, who admitted that Coburn was right about one thing, that he will very possibly never see another Triple Crown winner in his lifetime. Thinking about it in my own terms, I realized I have a very good chance to never see another baseball player hit .400, nor will I probably see someone break Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak. Does this mean we should move the pitcher’s mound back and make it easier to hit? Of course not. The sheer magic of winning these incredible feats is that they should be magical, something that does not come around often, like a far-off planet’s sighting that occurs once every 400 years. Maybe I’m being a narcissist, but if everyone wants rules to be changed just to see a new winner, maybe they should take a step back and stop being so selfish. Let another generation have its joy, who knows, they might deserve it more than we do.

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