Who wants a Triple Crown winner?
By Kenny Rice
Special to ESPN.com
I was one of 11,000 in an arena recently watching Michelle Kwan go through a graceful four-minute routine that I imagine she's done a thousand times. Yet never did the darling of U.S. figure skating appear to go through the motions, she was performing at what was another city, on another night, of a nationwide tour.
She was flawless, even dazzling, with a triple spin that to these untrained eyes made me think some judges might be in attendance. Michelle knew she was the reason most people, including my mother Edith, were there.
She received a standing ovation, as if she had won that Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City. We appreciated her as much for what she had done in her career -- four world titles, six national championships and two Olympic medals -- as for what she gave on this night.
To see an Olympic-caliber skater in person was more than treating my mom to a belated Mother's Day. I've always enjoyed watching the best in a sport, even if it's in an exhibition. Those around me, who before the Olympics probably thought "axle" was the front man for late stadium rockers Guns 'N Roses, cheered loudly.
It's the American way of sports, vicariously experiencing the try for greatness through others. Win or lose, we want to have heroes. We want to see something rare. In what has turned out to be a most unscientific and very informal poll of friends and acquaintances, I feel most people want War Emblem to win the Triple Crown.
Horse racing has repeatedly provided this country with a simple hero in tedious times. Once, from the Depression through World War II, it was a sport second only to baseball as the national pastime, offering a hope that one could find a long shot -- a big payday -- for a mere $2. Or maybe just a fun, relatively inexpensive (if budgeted right) afternoon of watching some of God's most beautiful creatures doing what they do best -- run. After all, Americans love animals as John Wayne well knew. How many movies did he appear in on horseback?
Would Secretariat in all his greatness have been as popular had he come along before we'd heard of Vietnam and Watergate? Perhaps not among the masses. He almost certainly would have been passed over for the cover of Time magazine. But with all the uncertainty and mistrust of that time, here was a magnificent horse doing something that hadn't been accomplished since Citation 25 years before. Big Red was a splendid diversion, a champion achieving the remarkable.
Racing won't suddenly become an across-the-board sport covered daily on TV or in the papers if War Emblem wins the Belmont. It won't make us forget Sept. 11 or necessarily remember the last remnants of our innocence gone.
However, there will be coverage coast-to-coast at least for a day. There will be talk in homes and restaurants and at the mall. And for two and a half minutes, this once oh-so-popular sport could hear a nation cheering like it did back in the good old days. What might be viewed at any other time by the average American as the simple act of a horse trying to win a race, could instead be appreciated as an extraordinary feat accomplished by an incredible athlete.
Wouldn't we all like to see that? A show of hands, please?