Thursday, June 7, 2012

My Triple Crown Dichotomy

Since Silver Charm lost the Belmont to Touch Gold in 1997, I have made it my life goal to see a Triple Crown victory. Even if it means having my head cryogenically preserved and saved till there’s a real chance in 200 years, I vowed to see this happen. 

The nose heard 'round the world.
The Triple Crown bug first bit me when I was 14; the last near-miss had come when I was 6 and too young to understand the gravity of the event. I kind of blame Bob Baffert for hooking me, because his horse lost the Crown by ¾ of a length in 1997, and then by a nose in 1998. I was so crazy about Real Quiet, I resorted to bad poetry when the unlucky Fish lost. It taught me to want something with every fiber of my being, to dare to hope the seemingly impossible could happen. One. Freaking. Nostril. Yeah, I cried, I hated Victory Gallop with the wrath of a thousand burning suns. To this day, I sneer when I see a progeny of that horse in the winner’s circle. That legendary photo finish and its heart-shattering result will be ingrained in me forever.

Chris Antley saves Charismatic.
In 1999, I drew elaborate pictures of Charismatic in my sketchbook with his granddaddy, Secretariat, looking down at him from the heavens. He would win and carry on the legacy of the greatest race horse who ever lived. Plus, his name just rang like it belonged in the sacred hall of Triple Crown winners. Count Fleet. Whirlaway. Assault. Citation. Charismatic. Then something went wrong in the stretch, and that golden horse’s life was suddenly hanging by a thread, saved by the heart of his jockey, Chris Antley.

Perhaps it was the frailty of that moment that sucked the excitement from the next two Triple Crown hopefuls. They didn’t have that special something the horses of the 90s had. Something deep down just told me War Emblem and Funny Cide wouldn’t do it. Both faltered in the Belmont, and I wasn’t surprised.

And then came Smarty Jones, and the clouds parted again. This was a horse with that something. This was a storybook ending waiting to happen. When Smarty made his bid for the Crown, I postponed my vacation. I wanted to be at Belmont Park so badly, I was practically hyperventilating. Undefeated, a dominating winner with a great underdog story, and a fantastic name, I was SURE he was going to be The One. It ended up being a good thing I didn’t make that trip to Belmont. I probably would’ve ended up in a strait jacket after his jockey made Smarty move too early, serving him a 2nd-place finish. I went even more berserk when his owners made the decision to retire him after his only loss.

Big Brown is eased in the Belmont Stakes.
Oh, Big Brown. You were Smarty Part II. Undefeated, winning by explosive margins, the classic name. The whole package. I had to work on Belmont day, shooting a wedding, and I convinced them to schedule my arrival time so that I could be home before post time. I must’ve driven 80 mph to get home to see the post parade and hear the crowd lose their minds as the Call to the Post was sounded and the horses were leaving the paddock. I was so convinced Big Brown would win, I made him a cake. Yes, a cake. With a crown on it. Because my Triple Crown sickness makes me a crazy person. I knew something was wrong as the horses went into the first turn. And when Kent Desormeaux began to pull him up, Big Brown fighting against the bit, tossing his head because he was so prepared to run, it was disbelief. A nightmare. That damn twisted shoe. Another lesson in how the stars have to literally align, and how one speck of dirt cannot be out of place in order for this miracle of sporting victories to coalesce. Big Brown should’ve won, but he was eased to last.

Now, in 2012, there’s another chance for history to be made, and I haven’t been able to make up my mind about how I stand on it. I know more about horse racing now than I ever have, and that bug has yet to go away, but this year, my desire is so much more lacking. It’s depressing. I’ve never met anyone who wants to see a Triple Crown more in their lifetime, and yet this year, I don’t really think I’m prepared for it. At least not this Saturday, on this year. Maybe it's because I'm distracted with a move to a new town, or because I know I have to work on Belmont Saturday (again), but it's true. Whether it's just me or not, I can't help but feel something is off.
Iha didn't want to have another go with the Smashing Pumpkins.
What’s sad is that I’ll Have Another has all the credentials to make a serious run at this miracle accomplishment. His running style and his record this year are all good signs. But there are a few reasons I’m having a hard time getting behind him. I picked him in my top three choices to win the Kentucky Derby, because I thought he was good enough to win. So it’s not a lack of faith. Honestly? I think most of my reluctance lies in that stupid name. It’s not a describing word or phrase like Gallant Fox or Affirmed, it’s not a real name like Sir Barton or Seattle Slew, it has no power or legendary sound to it like Secretariat or War Admiral. It’s a dumb frat boy saying, cookie origin or not. I’ll Have Another. You can’t even make a nickname out of it. Unless you go with IHA, as in James Iha, former guitarist of the Smashing Pumpkins. Okay, I guess that works… but not really.

And, of course, there’s the sad fact that his trainer has the nickname “Drug” O’Neill. People want a Triple Crown to save racing, but if that winner is handled by someone with a record of suspensions and breakdowns like this guy, he’s not going to convince any newcomers this sport is worth saving. It doesn’t matter how clean this one horse is. If I’ll Have Another wins, people will uncover all the dirt on O’Neill and fling it directly at that triangle-shaped trophy. Because that’s what people do to those on top. The New York Times is already all over that story. And more are salivating on the sidelines for their chance to chip in their dirt. You can hear the murmuring. After all the confetti and trumpets and cheers have fallen, this is the reality that awaits a 2012 Triple Crown winner.

I'll Have Another is led to the Kentucky Derby winner's circle.
And I don’t want something I’ve been dying to witness for the past 13 years to be marred with disrespect. If I didn’t know so much, maybe it would be different. Maybe I could get past it and just root for the horse, like I did with Big Brown. I was able to overlook “The Babe,” so I should be able to overlook camp IHA, right? But I can’t. And I’m afraid that because of this, this is the year I will get my wish. Maybe I should be careful what I wish for.

Through my growth in knowledge of all things horse racing, I have gained one very important angle I never used to have. When I was a kid, I only watched the Triple Crown and big stakes races broadcast on network television. When most of those non-Triple Crown races fell off of networks like NBC, CBS, and ABC, I stopped watching them because I didn’t have cable. Now I have HRTV and TVG, as well as the Internet to follow horses from their first races at 2-year-old. I watch everything, so I know more horses than ever. And I can be happy for them if they win. I never would’ve dreamt in a million years I would be happy for a Triple Crown spoiler—the thought was plain sacrilege. But now? If Union Rags were to win the Belmont, I would probably be more happy than if I finally got to see a Triple Crown transpire. Because I want him to get his revenge and prove all his doubters wrong. And Dullahan? He wouldn’t be a surprise, either, to be honest. Look at how strongly he was coming on at the end of the Kentucky Derby. A few more yards, and what might’ve happened? We might be rooting on the Irish Headless Horseman, and anyone who knows me can tell you that’s right up my alley.  So, with growth comes a maturity that I may or may not need to handle the outcome of I’ll Have Another’s Triple Crown bid. Growing up can truly suck, but it has its advantages.

The question is, when it comes down to post time, who am I going to be rooting for? Honestly? It depends on who’s watching the race—the dewy-eyed, na├»ve kid in me, or the wizened race fan. Like race horses, I can’t be sure which one will show up on Saturday.

List of Triple Crown winners and near-misses.


  1. Brilliantly written, Jamie!

  2. Hi
    would it be possible for me to use your photos in pedigrees that I make.