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Friday, December 28, 2012
Shanghai Bobby can hit a grand slam


As a new year approaches, it's an absolute no-brainer to say horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner.

After 34 years without one, and a brutal year in which there was an intense focus on breakdowns and illegal medications, the sport could use a charismatic champion more than ever to accentuate some of the sport's virtues.

It would be an even bigger boost if Shanghai Bobby turns out to be the successor to Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat.

Shanghai Bobby heads into 2013 as a mortal lock to be named this year's champion 2-year-old, and that alone puts him in select company. The aforementioned last three Triple Crown winners were also 2-year-old champions, illustrating the need of a strong foundation at two to withstand the springtime rigors of three Triple Crown races in a five-week span.

Aside from that, Shanghai Bobby also showed a remarkable amount of tenacity and heart in holding off He's Had Enough to win last month's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and seal the deal on his Eclipse Award. Races like that tend to build a fan base rather quickly.

He has the services of the sport's most successful trainer, Todd Pletcher, who racks up wins and purse money like a slot machine attracts quarters.

He's also undefeated, which has a magical ring to it.

But most of all, what can turn a gold mine into a field filled with the rarest of diamonds is Shanghai Bobby's rider, Rosie Napravnik. Just imagine that for a moment. The first Triple Crown winner in 35 years, and he's ridden by a female jockey.

A home run? A better description would be a game-winning, grand slam with two outs and your team losing by three runs in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7 of the World Series.

As much as the nation would embrace any Triple Crown champion, adding Rosie to the mix takes it to an even higher level -- as implausible as that may seem.

What's viewed in some corners as a man's game would have a moment that both sexes can revel in and that can only heighten the buzz over the achievement. Young girls in all parts of the world would have a new hero and perhaps some of the negative perceptions about the sport would be pushed into the background for awhile.

Believe it or not, coverage of a horse race might actually return to the cover of Sports Illustrated or even Newsweek, albeit an online-only edition of Newsweek.

Napravnik's popularity was first witnessed at the 2010 Kentucky Derby when her presence in the saddle turned Pants On Fire -- who should have been at least 15-1 on toteboard -- into the $8.10-to-1 second-choice.

Since then, she's continued to be a popular and highly successful jockey at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, where she is once again running away with the riding title. Earlier this year, she more than held her own against the nation's best jockeys while riding fulltime in New York.

In time, Napravnik may earn a reputation as the sport's best-ever female rider. But even before that happens, right now, she's a talented and highly popular rider who can be a tremendous goodwill ambassador and face for the industry -- especially when she's riding a horse with the upside of Shanghai Bobby.

On one level, all of this is probably tainted with greed. Considering there has not been a Triple Crown winner since 1978, any one will do for an ailing sport.

But at this moment, the stars are properly aligned. It's not a crazy dream. A champion at two simply has to remain on top of the pack for another six months.

Well, perhaps "simply" was a poor choice of words. Sadly, the odds against Shanghai Bobby pulling off a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes and a long list of Triple Crown failures say it probably will not happen. But does it ever hurt to dream?

It's surely the right time of the year to do it.