Just when you thought the adulation couldn't get any deeper, last month, with a dazzling display of skill and efficiency, LeBron James transformed his few remaining critics into courtiers and his most fervid rivals into fans. During a historic streak of six games, when he scored 30 or more points while also shooting at least 60 percent from the field, he even forced some awed commentators into trotting out the old Michael Jordan debate: Could James possibly be as good as the greatest of all time?
That's what horse racing needs, a LeBron James, a superstar dazzler who can dominate the stage, inspire debate and revive memories of greatness. Horse racing needs a superhorse, a charismatic force that seems indomitable, overwhelming, mythic. Ideally he should emerge on the road to the Triple Crown, since that's the sport's most visible stage and the only one that popular culture acknowledges, pocket some gothic jewelry and then burnish his image while extending his dominion with even more dominating accomplishments.
Of course, for years the sport has been searching, or waiting, for just such a horse. But after so many 3-year-olds have approached superhorse status, come close even, only to fall short, the search has become something of a perennial frustration.
Nevertheless, it has begun again, this search, or wait. It goes beyond the question of who's going to win the Kentucky Derby. There's that, of course; there's always that. But are there any 3-year-olds out there whose flashes of brilliance have hinted that they might, just maybe, with some time and development and abundant good luck, have superhorse potential?
Well, there are two, Verrazano and Flashback. And they both race Saturday, Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby and Flashback in the San Felipe at Santa Anita.
With everything he has done, from his wins to his workouts in the mornings, we've felt like there's plenty left. I haven't seen the bottom of him yet.
”-- Todd Pletcher, trainer of Verrazano
How good are they? Impossible to say: But that's why they're the two most intriguing horses in the country. It's what they could be that's important. They could be -- well, they could be what horse racing has been looking for.
Verrazano has won his two races like pulling taffy, by a total of 24 lengths. And yet his trainer, Todd Pletcher, said the unbeaten colt hasn't gotten close to the bottom, or approached the depth, of his talent.
"With most horses at this point, maybe it's in a gallop-out or in their workouts, you get a glimpse of the bottom," Pletcher said. "But with him, with everything he has done, from his wins to his workouts in the mornings, we've felt like there's plenty left. I haven't seen the bottom of him yet."
A big bay colt, Verrazano stands, Pletcher estimated, 16 hands and 3 inches, or about 5-foot-7 at the withers. He glistens with power. And although uncommonly large, Verrazano is also quick and athletic. In both of his races, he was able to use his natural speed to avoid any trouble and stalk a lively pace.
Minor "baby issues" delayed his getting started. Verrazano could have raced, Pletcher said, in late December, but instead focused on a New Year's Day debut, which he took by nearly 8 lengths, drawing clear with easy authority and little encouragement. A month later the big colt romped by more than 16, and afterward, his jockey, John Velazquez, said, "He felt like he wasn't doing anything."
Most impressive, Pletcher said, was the way Verrazano finished that 1-mile race, for it suggested a readiness, even an eagerness, to stretch out and race farther. At the top of the Gulfstream Park stretch, Verrazano led by a length; at midstretch, by 6½ lengths; at the wire, by 16¼ lengths. And beyond the wire, he galloped out enthusiastically, as if he had done little but was looking for more.
Pletcher said he doesn't like to burden a horse with extravagant expectations, but he conceded that with Verrazano it's impossible not to enter a race without thinking he's going to win. At the same time, it's important to respect the talent of the opposition and the difficulty of the challenge. And the Tampa Bay Derby indeed represents a challenge: It'll be Verrazano's stakes debut, his first race around two turns and his first against such proven performers as Falling Sky and Dynamic Sky.
Not since Apollo in 1882 has there been a Kentucky Derby winner who didn't race as a 2-year-old. And so a Derby horse, or so goes the assumption, must have experience that begins with a juvenile campaign. But will that become the last shibboleth to tumble? And could Verrazano have superhorse potential?
In recent years, horse racing has witnessed many flashes in the sky only to watch them disappear. But the search has to continue, if only because the sport is all about the pursuit, and soon one of them will endure.
Goldencents is a really good horse, and so we'll see how Flashback responds. The main thing is to finish one-two and keep moving forward.
”-- Bob Baffert, trainer of Flashback
Like Verrazano, Flashback has raced only twice. In December, he easily won his debut at Hollywood Park. And last month, while Verrazano was romping at Gulfstream, Flashback won the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita by more than 6 lengths.
A long, gray colt who looks like he just outran a snowstorm, Flashback has won with dominant talent and nothing more than a tap on his shoulder from jockey Julien Leparoux. He never has felt the whisper of a threat. And so although Flashback already has won a stakes and already has raced around two turns, he's still inexperienced, still "green," said his Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert.
"He's never been challenged; this will be his first test; this won't be a gimme," Baffert said, referring to Saturday's race and to the confrontation with Goldencents, a multiple-stakes winner who has been training sensationally at Santa Anita. "Goldencents is a really good horse, and so we'll see how Flashback responds. The main thing is to finish one-two and keep moving forward."
After the San Felipe, Flashback will probably get his final preparation for the Triple Crown by racing in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6. That, Baffert said, will be the proving ground, and not just for Flashback.
"That last prep before the [Kentucky] Derby, when they run a mile and an eighth, that's the big test," Baffert said. "That's where you find out."
Nearly 20 years ago, in 1994, Holy Bull seemed invincible until he wasn't, losing the Fountain of Youth by 24 lengths and the Kentucky Derby by 18. Mister Frisky, Arazi, Point Given and Bellamy Road all sent expectations soaring -- until they flopped in Kentucky. But many have come so close, such as Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex, who approached superhorse status like moths to a flame and never raced after the Belmont Stakes.
Is horse racing's LeBron James out there? Is the sport's next superhorse out there? Yes, he is, he definitely is, and if he's not racing Saturday in Florida or California, then he's racing somewhere in the future.