Commentary

The power of sport

Updated: June 8, 2012, 1:29 PM ET
By Amanda Duckworth | Special to ESPN.com

Writer's edit: The following column was written prior to I'll Have Another being scratched from the Belmont Stakes, but the overall point about the power of sports remains true. And if my grandpa were here, I am sure he would say something like, "Well, that is disappointing. But life will go on."

Officially, I'll Have Another will carry 126 pounds in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. However, in his bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, the reality is he will carry a far heavier burden.

There is no way to know for sure when organized sport first became part of society, but it has been around a long time. For instance, more than 3,500 years ago, ancient Mexico was home to a ballgame played on special courts. Even then, long before the modern conveniences we take for granted could even be imagined, people gathered to watch feats of athletic prowess.

Why?

There is no way to measure how much the past five weeks have impacted Hope or her family, but I would wager 'greatly' is a safe bet.

For one thing, I think there is something deeply fascinating about watching someone who is the best at something, no matter what that something is. It is hard to look away when someone is on the cusp of greatness.

But perhaps more than that, sports bring people together. They give us someone to cheer for, an enemy to loathe, a reason to throw a party, an avenue for traditions, a chance to win some money (or at least bragging rights) and a way to make new friends while keeping the old.

Through his success this spring, I'll Have Another has made people care. As such, when he steps onto the track at Belmont Park, he will be carrying with him the hopes, wishes and expectations of countless people. No matter the outcome, the impact of those hopes, wishes and expectations will last far longer than the race itself.

A classic example of this is Hope Hudson, a girl battling a rare disease who got to attend the Kentucky Derby through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Her wish to go to the Kentucky Derby turned into so much more, and the connections of I'll Have Another invited her to attend the rest of the Triple Crown as part of their team.

There is no way to measure how much the past five weeks have impacted Hope or her family, but I would wager "greatly" is a safe bet.

But many of these lingering impacts are made quietly, far away from the eyes of the press and far away from those actively involved with I'll Have Another. Some are happy, some are sad, but all exist because the sport of horse racing existed first.

The story I would like to share with you is one of those.

One of the questions I get most often is "How did you become a turf writer?" It is a fair question. After all, no one else in my family works with horses. I always joke that it is in my blood, and a lot of that is courtesy of my grandfather, George Duckworth.

Grandpaduck was born in 1919, just a few months after Sir Barton (unknowingly) became horse racing's first Triple Crown winner. As a teenager, my grandpa sneaked into the Kentucky Derby. The year was 1937 and the victor that day was War Admiral, who would go on to become the sport's fourth Triple Crown winner.

After serving in World War II, my grandpa put himself through law school, and one of the ways he paid for it was by being a mutuel clerk at Centennial Race Track in Colorado. Decades later, he would take me to my first racetrack, Arapahoe Park, just outside of Denver. When I graduated from the University of Kentucky, the day before they watched me cross the stage, my family went to the Kentucky Derby, including my then-86-year-old grandpa.

There aren't enough words to explain how influential my grandfather was to almost everyone fortunate enough to know him. A wise man, his philosophies were often simple but deeply rooted in truth. One of them was to live life to its fullest and enjoy every second of it that you can.

As such, when I announced that I was going to write about horses for a living, he became one of my biggest supporters. Instead of being dubious like some, he was proud I was going to do something exciting, something for which I had a passion.

Last month, his unwavering support in my career choice led me to a very difficult crossroads in the days leading up to the Preakness Stakes.

While I was making final preparations to head to Baltimore, I received the phone call you never want to get. Grandpaduck, who just last year danced with me at my brother's wedding, was in poor health. At 92, his mind was willing but it was becoming clear his body no longer was.

My immediate reaction was to cancel my trip and head to his bedside. Every single member of my family told me not to, including my grandfather. When I spoke to him, he made it clear that he wanted me in Baltimore, doing what I love to do. He also wanted me to pick him a winner.

I never disobeyed my Grandpaduck, so I wasn't about to start. I went to Baltimore, I covered the Preakness and I bet on I'll Have Another. When the chestnut colt came barreling down the stretch, part of me just knew he would get to the wire in time. He had to. I had promised my grandpa he would.

Courtesy of technology, minutes after I'll Have Another won the Preakness, Grandpaduck was able to see a photo of me standing by the track, winning tickets in hand.

Courtesy of technology, minutes after I'll Have Another won the Preakness, Grandpaduck was able to see a photo of me standing by the track, winning tickets in hand. I was instructed to make sure I cashed them because he wanted his money.

My grandfather had a stroke the next day, before I could make it to his bedside. He left us for good two days after that.

Some of you reading this will undoubtedly think I made the wrong decision, and I don't necessarily disagree. But, at the same time, I am at peace with the choices I made. My grandfather was a proud man, and seeing me do my job and do it well always brought him pleasure. By going to Pimlico, I made him proud one final time.

My grandfather, a Purple Heart recipient, instructed that the money he won in the Preakness be donated to the Disabled American Veterans. I also bet I'll Have Another in the Derby and will be sending all of the profits I have made/will make off the colt to the charity.

Needless to say, my family has become a bit biased when it comes to I'll Have Another. His grit and determination brought my grandpa joy in his final days, and that is a gift that can never be repaid.

Rationally, I know a number of factors will dictate who will win Saturday, and I can debate them with you if you wish.

But the little girl inside of me -- the one whose grandpa showed her around Arapahoe Park because she loved horses so much -- can't help believing that if Grandpaduck can somehow wrangle an audience with the racing gods before they vote on I'll Have Another's fate in the Belmont, well then, the winner is a foregone conclusion.

Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at amanda.duckworth@ymail.com.