Damn you Touch Gold, Victory Gallop and Empire Maker. And Birdstone, freaking Birdstone. That horse’s ass, or rather his ass plus three quarters of the rest of his frame, cost me two bucks and the chance to get the monkey off my back.
Every one of those horses – oh, by the way, those are horses – cost me a chance at witnessing one of the most obscure and difficult feats in all of sport, the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing.
The Crown is a grueling, five-week gauntlet that begins with the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, before moving on to the Preakness in Baltimore and concluding with the Belmont Stakes in Elmont, N.Y. Since 1919, eleven horses have managed to win all three races in the same year, but none have accomplished the feat since 1978. I was born in 1984.
I’m not sure what drew me to the Sport of Kings. Could have been Jack Klugman, as I was terribly obsessed with Odd Couple re-runs at the time (still am). Could have been the pageantry, as you’ll witness before next week’s Preakness when the Marines’ glee club strikes up a rendition of “Maryland, My Maryland” that’ll make you wish you hailed from Reisterstown. Could have been that folks were calling horse racing “the Sport of Kings” – what part of “Sport of Kings” doesn’t appeal to you?
These days, however, I’m drawn out. Finished. Done with the king’s pastime. A lot of people are. In fact, many are wondering if horse racing has gone the way of boxing in America. Simply put, is the Sport of Kings dead? And if so, what killed it.
For some, death killed horse racing. Death of the horses, that is.
Today’s society is hypersensitive when it comes to animal cruelty and the prevention thereof. The recent unpleasantness surrounding former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick and his illicit dog fighting operation underscores that point. The question of whether or not racing is humane has been volleyed back and forth for years now. Certainly it’s not natural for these animals to be running so hard over such distance within such a short frame of time.
There’s no question that the sport carries great risks to the horse’s health. Take Barbaro for example. The horse won the 2006 Derby by an astounding six and a half lengths and was primed to make a run for the elusive Crown. Two weeks later at Pimlico he shattered his right hind leg in more than 20 places while rounding the first turn and later died of his injuries.
Two years later, a filly named Eight Belles tripped after finishing second at the Derby and broke both front ankles. She was euthanized while still on the track.
The problem is in the breeding of these horses, which emphasizes bulk and speed over durability. Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins wrote in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy: “Thoroughbred racing is in a moral crisis, and everyone now knows it.”
Of course, after two unseemly events in three years, horsemen are now overreacting to threat of injury and quick to scratch an at-risk animal. That’s great for the horses, but terrible for the competitive nature of the sport. This year’s derby saw four horses, including the overall favorite, scratched before post. If the field is constantly in flux and good horses keep getting pulled, there’s less a chance one will catch lightning in a bottle and make a run at the Crown.
But the question of cruelty vs. humanity is only part of the reason horse racing is dead. The Crown, specifically the elusive nature of it all, is the real problem.
By far, the reason I watched and obsessed over every matter of these races year after year was my own selfish ambition to see one of these beasts earn that Crown. I regarded witnessing said feat as a watershed moment for a well-rounded sports fan such as myself; it was something I wanted to cross off my sports bucket list.
The problem, of course, is that the horse racing gods have conspired against me in this effort for 25 years now, cursing us with the longest drought between winners since Sir Barton took the first Crown back in 1919. They’ve also strung me along seven times since 1997, allowing a horse to win the first two races and then lose the Belmont.
I lost my racing virginity in 1997 after Silver Charm wiped out the fields in Louisville and Baltimore. On the far turn at the Belmont, he broke ahead of Wild Rush and Touch Gold and charged into the lead at the top of the backstretch. But Touch Gold reeled him in on the outside, took the lead late and held off his rival by a half-length.
I wasn’t happy, but I was hooked.
In 1998, I gave my heart away to Real Quiet, who plowed through the first two races and was clearing the field by four lengths with a furlong to run. Then Victory Gallop, who had been running 10 lengths behind the pack along the backstretch, shot out behind the leader and ran him neck-and-neck to the pole. A photo finish revealed Victory Gallop had won by a nose. Literally by a stinkin’ nose.
I was devastated, but still hooked.
In 1999, Charismatic was next in line with a shot at immortality. I remember watching him run the final leg of the Crown in the lobby of a cheap motel in Alexander City. He was running well down the stretch at Belmont, but slowly fell away late and finished third. It was soon revealed that he had broken his leg in two places during the race, but the injury was not life threatening.
Jilted and saddened, I waited three years for another contender to come around before finally taking the plunge with War Emblem in 2002. I was a cart charger and club polisher at the Riverchase Country Club at the time, watching the race on a 13-inch black-and-white TV in the club storage room. No drama here, though. He stumbled out the gate and never regained his stride, finishing eighth.
Disappointed and mad, I put racing on the shelf for another season.
The next two years were enough to turn me off the sport for good. Two fairy tale horses, (Funny Cide in 2003 and Smarty Jones in 2004), mowed down the big boys (Empire Maker and Rock Hard Ten, respectively) in the first two races, just as my prior hopefuls had done four times over the last six years. In the 2003 Belmont, Funny Cide led from the gate to the top of the stretch, before succumbing to his rival Empire Maker within the last quarter mile. In 2004, Smarty Jones took the lead out of the gate and held it with less than a furlong to go. But then Birdstone, a 36-1 shot, edged ahead and held on through the wire.
After Smarty, I was done.
You can break my heart once or twice, maybe even three, four or five times. But I’ll be damned if you’re going to get me more than six times. Sports fans willingly accept the fact that, at times, the object of our affections will tease us and break our hearts. But for 31 straight years?
Just like eight out of ten NASCAR fans watch the races for wrecks, most people watch horse racing for the Triple Crown storyline. If you devoted your time to an event every year for 31 years and each time was left unsatisfied, how much longer would you watch? For me, no longer. For many people, no longer.
Let’s be real here and admit that the sport is simply not fair, and not just because it consistently hurts our feelings. Any sport where the venue plays a bigger role than the athlete in every single competition is patently unfair. The horse that won the Derby two weeks ago, Mine that Bird, was a 50-1 longshot. Did he win because he was a better horse than the other 18 in the field? No. He won because the track was muddy and he likes a muddy track. If Pimlico is high and dry next weekend, he’ll lose. But if Belmont is wet, he’ll probably win! That’s ridiculous! The conditions do more than affect the outcome – they dictate the outcome.
So no more…no more racing for me. I’m through with it. Smarty Jones prompted my Howard Beale moment with the sport. I literally stuck my head out the window of my car and announced that I wasn’t going to take it anymore. Many of you have joined me since then – like those of you who mourned Barbaro like he was John Paul II – you’re done too. The whole damn sport is done. Us kings will have to find something else to do with our leisure time.