Friday, June 6, 2014

On the Eve of History?

It is the night before the Belmont.

California Chrome apparently is still scheduled to run for a Triple Crown tomorrow — unlike the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, I'll Have Another, yanked at the last minute, to the frustration of horse racing fans.

I'll admit it. I would like to see a Triple Crown winner — not the way some folks do, the ones who say they want to see one more Triple Crown winner before they die, but because I think it would be good for horse racing. And I like horse racing.

Forty years ago, the great Secretariat ended a 25–year Triple Crown drought. He breathed new life into his sport, and there were two more Triple Crown winners (and nearly a third) before the decade ended. The drought is much longer this time, and California Chrome is the 13th horse to win the first two jewels of the Triple Crown since Affirmed won the last Triple Crown in 1978.

It has been noted often that attendance at America's tracks has been declining for years — and suggested that even a Triple Crown winner won't be enough to bring those patrons back. The longer fans stay away, the harder it is to bring them back. It isn't impossible, as baseball demonstrated after a strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, but it is difficult to achieve.

Maybe too much time has passed. That happens in sports — and in life. There are windows of opportunity; when they slam shut, it is awfully difficult to open them again. Baseball was fortunate to have two charismatic players, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, dueling to set a single–season home run record in 1998. Their battle brought fans back to the ballparks, but attendance had been down in the years since the strike.

I have often wondered if baseball had reached a critical point when the McGwire–Sosa home run race captured the public's imagination. If the McGwire–Sosa duel had not materialized, would baseball have remained America's pastime?

Team sports are different from individual sports, though, and a horse is, after all, an animal, not a person who may be able to use his charisma to get back in the public's good graces. Animals have no real charisma — at least none of which they are aware, just the charisma that is generated by a picture or video.

I don't know if winning a Triple Crown can reverse horse racing's fortunes. I get the feeling, though, that, with California Chrome, I have seen this before, and I really expect to see the same kind of outcome tomorrow as we have seen nearly a dozen times since 1978.

This is how it generally seems to play out. A horse wins the Kentucky Derby (OK, that happens every year; nothing special about that, right?), but there are doubts about the horse that persist until he wins the Preakness two weeks later. Most of the time, the Preakness win is convincing enough that the questions about the horse disappear, and momentum for the two–time winner starts to build.

The horse looks great in training and is greeted with lots of hesitant–yet–hopeful hype when he arrives in New York. Now, that kind of attention has been known to turn many an athlete's head. But an animal doesn't have human emotions and can't feel the pressure of high expectations. As time passes, the conventional wisdom becomes the horse is a lock to win. Confidence begets overconfidence; overconfidence begets a belief that it will be different this time.

But it never is.

There are all kinds of ways for this to happen. I thought I had seen them all — until I'll Have Another was pulled out the day before the Belmont in 2012. When that happened, I figured that I hadn't seen them all.

It could be a repeat of something we've seen before. Smarty Jones faded in the stretch in 2004. War Emblem broke badly in 2002 and never recovered. In 1998, Real Quiet looked like he would win it, then lost at the wire. Big Brown, so dominating in the first two races in 2008, was eased out of the money in the third.

Or it might be something new — or, at least, something we have not seen in a long time.

So, in spite of all the enthusiasm about California Chrome, put me down as skeptical.

Perhaps I am wrong. Frankly, I hope I am. It would be nice to see a Triple Crown winner. And I am sincere when I say it would be good for horse racing. I do believe that.

Well, we'll find out in 24 hours.

By the way, if you're looking for something to kill some time between now and post time, USA Today reprinted a Belmont Stakes horse name generator that apparently originated in the Reno Gazette–Journal.

Give it whirl. My Belmont Stakes horse's name was Reno Prince.

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