Monday, April 12, 2010
All about the wait
By Paul Moran Special to ESPN.com
In a piece about the New Orleans Saints and their fans, Wynton Marsalis, musician and native of The Big Easy, wrote a line about waiting so long that the wait becomes the thing. The wait for a championship is over for the long-suffering citizens of the Who Dat Nation, but in the racing world, the vigil is two years into its fourth decade, and if form holds there will be no winner of the Triple Crown in 2010, or ever.
Even before it was announced last week that eight fillies, seven horses based outside the United States and 351 other 3-year-olds have been made eligible for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes of 2010, pollsters began building the lists that have become a rite of spring but that usually fail to identify the eventual Kentucky Derby winner, who will fail to win the Triple Crown, as has every Derby winner since 1979. The wait has indeed become the thing.
The perennial analytical dissection of the modern thoroughbred's shortcomings and frailties has become as boring and redundant as the Triple Crown's drought has become seemingly endless. The animal is too fragile, bred from infirm, medication-dependent parents who were themselves unable to sustain careers of meaningful duration. The series itself is unreasonably demanding; the span of five weeks between the Derby and Belmont too brief. The calls for its alteration have become as dependably perennial as they are ridiculous. We know it can be done. The sufficiently aged have actually seen it happen, probably for the last time.
Almost a quarter century ago, the late Eddie Arcaro, who rode Whirlaway (1941) and Citation ('48) to the Triple Crown and may have been the best American jockey in history, predicted over lunch at a Miami Beach country club that racing has seen its last Triple Crown champion. Too many thoroughbreds were being bred, Arcaro said, rendering unlikely the emergence of a single dominant 3-year-old from the tangle. A wealth of alpha males, while good in the competitive sense, is not conducive to producing the winner of a Triple Crown. But we keep waiting and now the wait -- not the Triple Crown -- has become the thing.
While anticipating Act I in the Rachel Alexandra-Zenyatta drama and the next appearance of the quirky, monstrous 4-year-old Quality Road, in what may well be a memorable march toward his denouement, handicappers and analysts at least have diversion from a generation of 3-year-olds that has no shape or form and has produced nothing in terms of excitement.
The examination of lapsed time between prep races run after the ball drops in Times Square and the first Saturday of May has seldom resulted in clarity. The spring will see more in the unending medication debate and the influence of such substances on the fragile beast in question. At day's end, though, the thoroughbred born in the current era is coddled to the point that this is almost a hothouse breed.
The most talented of recent years, the rare creatures who have been within 12 furlongs of immortality, have launched 3-year-old campaigns with little foundation. Big Brown raced once at age 2. Barbaro started twice. Smarty Jones ran twice before his third birthday. Funny Cide and War Emblem each had three starts. Less is more? Maybe not.
Real Quiet, who came closest to the Triple Crown while losing the Belmont by a scant nose in 1998, had nine starts at age 2 and, with the exception of Funny Cide, a gelding, is the only one of these horses to have raced at age 4.
Horses tough enough to win the Triple Crown were prepared as juveniles as though they were racehorses, fierce, highly strung, dangerous animals capable of extreme speed -- not orchids.
Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown winner, may have been a maiden when he won the 1919 Derby, but he ran six times at age 2. During the next 60 years: The 2-year-old Gallant Fox had seven starts. His son, Omaha, started nine times as a juvenile. War Admiral started in a half-dozen races before turning three. Whirlaway ran 16 times at 2, once more than Count Fleet. Assault had nine starts, as did Citation, Secretariat and Affirmed. Of the Triple Crown winners, only Seattle Slew, who raced three times, had a light juvenile campaign.
Although the horses from these different eras are anatomically and skeletally identical, and the passing years have seen no advance in the breed's relative speed, it is widely perceived that the present-day thoroughbred is incapable of withstanding a 2-year-old racing campaign as rigorous as those who have reached racing's most rarely traveled ground. The question of why is regarded, however, as no less vague than the great mysteries upon which religions are built.
This perception, embraced by most owners and trainers, has morphed into reality as generations of increasingly more-coddled and gingerly handled horses fail to withstand training and racing, then disappear after brief careers, leaving behind, among other things unrealized, the bounds of their potential.
Advances in diagnostic and surgical technology, nutrition, therapeutic medication and racetrack maintenance have done nothing to strengthen the breed. Quite the opposite. The breed has never been frailer.
Or, is the truth that the misguided perception of frailty has resulted in the under-training of horses, leaving them poorly prepared for racing schedules designed to be as brief and selective as possible -- and making career-threatening or career-ending injury a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a case in which there is an argument to be made that the brief careers of high-class modern thoroughbreds is the result of the training methods in vogue.
They do make 'em like they used to. Perhaps the difference is what is being done with them after they are made.
While the wait stretches on for another year -- and it will -- another question in the cauldron.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.