Glass half empty?

June, 8, 2011
Horse racing is graced with a unique bunch of fans and figures. Our eternal longings for unbeaten champions, a Triple Crown winner, and the second coming of Secretariat are tempered by a pessimism that knows no bounds. Expounding upon racing's glories, we eventually run out of topics. Focusing on the shortcomings, we find enough material to last for days.

In some cases, discussions over the sport's problems bring about positive change. I don't mind knocking the figures who screw things up, and I certainly don't have a problem with recognizing racing's issues as we work to fix them. But I'm not a fan of the "crop bashing" that goes on when the Triple Crown races are underway, especially when the season isn't even halfway done.

This pattern starts mid-February or early March, after the first and second rounds of Kentucky Derby prep races have been run. The 2-year-old star of the previous 12 months has usually made his first start of the new year, and whatever the result of that outing may be, it's usually not viewed in a positive light. People say the time was too slow or the company was too soft or the distance wasn't long enough or the quality of the race has diminished since "insert-name-of-great-champion-racehorse" won it when he was coming back off a season as 2-year-old champ, and even if they don't say all those things, there are plenty of detractors to temper the enthusiasms of the hopeful.

Then come the mandatory defections as promising runners hit the sidelines with injuries that will keep them out of the Triple Crown picture, and while we rearrange our Derby lists and add horses that weren't even on the radar last year, woeful predictions begin to surface that this season's group of runners will certainly not yield the type of champions we long for. (Or, to put it in terms of the average New York horseplayer, they're "alla buncha rats.") By the time the second leg of the Triple Crown is done, the stats guys are spouting their numbers and ratings to say why this horse didn't measure up or that horse should have, and then we have input from people like the moronic sports scribe who wrote so decidedly: "The last thing horse racing needed was a Triple Crown winner coming from one of this average crop of 3-year-olds." Negativity abounds.

It is human nature to find fault with the athletes we follow. Sports fans love to hate almost as much as they love to love, sometimes more. It is also part of the sporting world to seek out flaws, to expect them even as we hope they don't exist. I'm not suggesting this is wrong.

But the 3-year-olds of the current season are putting on a show that is far from dull or predictable. At the Kentucky Derby, we watched a horse make history, first to win America's greatest dirt race without having ever run on dirt before. At the Preakness, a washed-out front-runner held on to get the victory in spite of all signs pointing to the contrary, providing us with the season's second moment of "what?!" Unlike last year, when the Derby and Preakness winners didn't even make it to the Belmont, both horses will show up to compete this Saturday, and for the first time in history the top seven finishers from the Derby will run in the Belmont.

So there's no Big Brown or Smarty Jones and attempts to create one with Uncle Mo failed earlier this season. After the Belmont, a slew of high-caliber races from the Haskell and the Travers to the Jockey Club Gold Cup and the Breeders' Cup Classic remain. Horses that have taken more time to develop (like Belmont contender Mucho Macho Man, who doesn't even actually turn 3 until June 15), stand a great chance of bolstering the upcoming scene. Runners like Animal Kingdom, who ran a very respectable second in the Preakness in spite of a scenario that did not play to his favor, don't deserve to be dissed.

The horses we're criticizing today could be the big stars of tomorrow. This may not be our grandfathers' kind of racing history, but it is ours, what the sport has come to, where it stands. It's what we have to work with as things change and we adapt, so instead of viewing the glass as half empty, let's see it half full. This has been a far-from-typical Triple Crown season but it's been a safe, solid one. For that, we should be thankful.



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