ESPN Horse Racing

Who wants a Triple Crown winner?
By Kenny Rice
Special to

I was one of 11,000 in an arena recently watching Michelle Kwan go through a graceful four-minute routine that I imagine she's done a thousand times. Yet never did the darling of U.S. figure skating appear to go through the motions, she was performing at what was another city, on another night, of a nationwide tour.

She was flawless, even dazzling, with a triple spin that to these untrained eyes made me think some judges might be in attendance. Michelle knew she was the reason most people, including my mother Edith, were there.

She received a standing ovation, as if she had won that Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City. We appreciated her as much for what she had done in her career -- four world titles, six national championships and two Olympic medals -- as for what she gave on this night.

To see an Olympic-caliber skater in person was more than treating my mom to a belated Mother's Day. I've always enjoyed watching the best in a sport, even if it's in an exhibition. Those around me, who before the Olympics probably thought "axle" was the front man for late stadium rockers Guns 'N Roses, cheered loudly.

It's the American way of sports, vicariously experiencing the try for greatness through others. Win or lose, we want to have heroes. We want to see something rare. In what has turned out to be a most unscientific and very informal poll of friends and acquaintances, I feel most people want War Emblem to win the Triple Crown.

  • A half-dozen people asked me as I was leaving the skating show, "Will he do it?" then immediately followed that question up with "I hope so."

  • Bob Hensley, a reporter for the National Public Radio affiliate in Sacramento, Calif. doesn't cover racing, but nevertheless is still watching War Emblem. "He gets your attention because he does it the old fashion way -- just runs until someone tells him to stop. It's like that scene in 'Forrest Gump,' when the band holds up the 'Stop Forrest' sign after he runs for another touchdown. I don't pretend to know the nuances of racing, but I appreciate a fast horse."

  • Mort and Maribeth recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. As I was leaving their party, she asked if I thought War Emblem would win. I said yes, which seemed to bring more happiness to her than the gift I'd brought. "That would be nice," she sighed. "Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown the year we married. So wouldn't this be a special way of remembering our 25th with another Triple Crown winner? It could be an omen." Mort chimed in, "He looked great after the Preakness didn't he?" (I've known this couple for 20 years and this was the first conversation we've ever had about a horse.)

  • Aunt Betty in Corvallis, Ore., Cousin Marilyn in Detroit and Uncle Jerry in Kentucky all want to know if War Emblem is the chosen one. They've heard it has been 24 years since Affirmed won it all.

  • My friend Steve the computer whiz called me after the Preakness to confirm that War Emblem would win the Crown, that the circumstances surrounding him were indeed pointing him toward a successful rendezvous with destiny.

  • "The timing is key," explained Joe the state policeman (a good friend, I wasn't pulled over). "There are no living Triple Crown winners and one of the most popular (Seattle Slew) just died. With everything going on in the world, it's a nice reprieve to have a rooting interest."

    Horse racing has repeatedly provided this country with a simple hero in tedious times. Once, from the Depression through World War II, it was a sport second only to baseball as the national pastime, offering a hope that one could find a long shot -- a big payday -- for a mere $2. Or maybe just a fun, relatively inexpensive (if budgeted right) afternoon of watching some of God's most beautiful creatures doing what they do best -- run. After all, Americans love animals as John Wayne well knew. How many movies did he appear in on horseback?

    Would Secretariat in all his greatness have been as popular had he come along before we'd heard of Vietnam and Watergate? Perhaps not among the masses. He almost certainly would have been passed over for the cover of Time magazine. But with all the uncertainty and mistrust of that time, here was a magnificent horse doing something that hadn't been accomplished since Citation 25 years before. Big Red was a splendid diversion, a champion achieving the remarkable.

    Racing won't suddenly become an across-the-board sport covered daily on TV or in the papers if War Emblem wins the Belmont. It won't make us forget Sept. 11 or necessarily remember the last remnants of our innocence gone.

    However, there will be coverage coast-to-coast at least for a day. There will be talk in homes and restaurants and at the mall. And for two and a half minutes, this once oh-so-popular sport could hear a nation cheering like it did back in the good old days. What might be viewed at any other time by the average American as the simple act of a horse trying to win a race, could instead be appreciated as an extraordinary feat accomplished by an incredible athlete.

    Wouldn't we all like to see that? A show of hands, please?

  • .