The history of sports is the history of difficulty, and we value those things highest we think hardest. Which is why we're suckers, every one of us, for a run at the Triple Crown.
I'll Have Another wasn't supposed to win Saturday.
For the past two weeks at this site and thousands like it, and in bars and on buses and on talk shows, the experts and railbirds and touts and oddsmakers told us it would not and could not happen, that this wasn't the horse and this wasn't his time. Sure, he won the Derby, but Bodemeister is what you want, got him right here at 8-to-5, now 3-to-2, now 2-to-1, last chance before the window closes, mister, there'll be no Triple Crown this year.
Only 11 winners in history, and none since 1978. Scores of horses win the Kentucky Derby but falter at the Preakness. Only 21 have ever won both. Now 22. It is a rare thing and one of the finest pursuits in sports, to chase these handsome ghosts.
None of which matters, because horse racing is dead.
The history of horse racing is the history of boxing, and nothing in our history has ever been dirtier or more beautiful. The sport of kings is an inventory of our corruptions and disappointments, our greed and ambitions and our ruthlessness. How many horses have we killed and maimed and lost already in this horseless century?
How perfect a thing, then, might it be if our passions were rekindled and our faith restored, however briefly, however falsely, by the very corruptions and questions pulling the sport apart. Can this (fragile) horse and his (novice) jock and this (perhaps-soon-to-be-suspended) trainer save racing?
In and out of the Pimlico shadows they ran, a small field on a slow track.
The stars come and they go -- Silver Charm, Barbaro, Smarty Jones, Big Brown, Zenyatta. They get close to something great and fail, and people hear the names and watch a Saturday or two, and interest flickers and then goes cold. Forgetting takes a day.
Set aside athletics or aesthetics and take racing as just a gambling apparatus, and even then there are other more efficient, less expensive random numbers generators upon which to bet. Slot machines and lotteries and college football. There is nothing of horse racing a 21st century society needs.
In and out of the shadows they ran, and at the last, by a neck, it was I'll Have Another.
Lots of historical forces at work in that 1:55.94. From the caves at Lascaux and Chauvet to Genghis Khan to the conquistadors, from Dan Patch to Man O' War to Secretariat, we're all helpless against the power of a great horse, or at least a great horse story. So when the gate crashed open Saturday afternoon, we rooted for an incandescent moment we might not even want and certainly don't deserve.
Good or bad, we can't help ourselves. There is beauty beyond money and a passion beyond corruption, and if I'll Have Another runs the Belmont on June 9, he'll run not against the odds or even logic, but against himself and history, and to redeem, however briefly, our own bad practices. A 2012 Triple Crown will be to thoroughbred racing what Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao will be to boxing: a brilliant, purifying moment that cannot slow the sport's unstoppable descent into irrelevance.
Our antique love of muscle and flesh now comes at too dear a cost, but it is no coincidence that the earliest human art depicts running horses. For 30,000 years, we've chased them just to see them. We race them only to watch them run.
It is much too late for a Triple Crown winner to save horse racing. The price of its waste and cruelty is at last too high, even for us.
But what a fire in all that darkness it would be.