Under a cloud of confusion and conspiracy, a struggling sport has taken another blow. A large majority of today’s population knows nothing of horse racing – even at its most basic level. People don’t watch races as often as they used to, at the park or at home. Even the grand Triple Crown, the sports most recognizable series, has lost some of its luster. Perhaps because it has been 34 years since Affirmed last completed the trifecta.
It seems like year in, year out there is some type of letdown when it comes to the so-called “sport of kings.” This year was a different type of gut punch because we didn’t even get to see history play itself out. The day before the Belmont Stakes was to be run, Kentucky Derby and Preakness champion I’ll Have Another was scratched amongst a flurry of rumors and questions. Officially, a tendon issue in the horse’s front leg was the singular factor that drove eccentric trainer Doug O’Neill to pull his runner. Outside of that, many believe there were other issues that had a large role in that shocking decision. O’Neill had been probed and penalized for doping his horses in the past, and some believe that this may have had a hand in the surprising outcome.
I would rather not get into all the theories. I hope that in the end the decision was made because the horse was injured and the trainer did not want to risk any further damage. It’s sad, but if that is the case it was of course the right move. Many opponents of the sport claim that horses are driven too hard and too fast. While disappointing to many close fans, O’Neill’s decision to scratch his horse serves as an example to protestors at tracks that the real horsemen in the middle of the sport still have the animals’ wellbeing in the center of their minds.
I’ll Have Another made a brilliant run towards bringing the sport back to the spotlight in a crowded sports world filled with playoffs, boxing, and golf. Take the time to go re-watch all three races in the Triple Crown and its tough not to get taken in. When you watch NBC’s excellent coverage of the races, the various story lines and breakdowns make the sport even more enjoyable. People who bet the races also seem to come back to the race track time and time again when they have a rooting interest.
Horse racing is a unique blend of discipline, strategy, dedication and the unknown element of working with an animal. This combination of elements creates for a pageantry that is what makes this sport special. There are unbelievable stories that have come from horse racing that surround horses, trainers, jockeys, and owners alike. Some even consider the great Secretariat to be one of the greatest athletes of all time. Horses that didn’t even win the Triple Crown like Charismatic, Real Quiet, and Big Brown have captivated people with their glorious runs that fell just short.
Just like the major sports, horse racing contains all the great story lines like the underdog nobody believed in (Mine that Bird), the fall from glory (Big Brown), the comeback (Chris Antley) and the rivalries (Affirmed and Alydar). But when it comes to thoroughbreds there is an added mystique because of the unknown. Who knows how the horse and jockey are able to seemingly communicate as they barrel around the final turn at Churchill Downs.
How does a trainer have the foresight to buy a horse that’s already been auctioned once for $35,000 that ends up winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness (I’ll Have Another)?How does a girl beat all the boys (Zenyatta)? How does one horse’s struggle for survival inspire a nation (Barbaro)? –Questions that make this sport great.
Yes, America must wait another year to celebrate the triumphant return of racing greatness with a new Triple Crown winner, but when next May does roll around (or the Breeder’s Cup in November for that matter) let yourself get taken in by a sport dying for fans. A sport that deserves them.