Saturday, June 7, 2008

On the Threshold of a Dream

I don't often stray from my sci-fi romance theme on this blog, but today I will. Today, history may be made in a sport that runs a close second to my love of writing--my love of the Thoroughbred and horseracing.

Big Brown is posed to become the first Triple Crown winner in thirty years. Thirty years! Let me put that in perspective. Not since the three horse run in the 1970s--Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed--has the sport seen a winner of the grueling trio of races called the Triple Crown. If Big Brown wins today, we may not see another TC champion in our lifetime. The Belmont Stakes is the great equalizer in this challenge. It's a mile-and-a-half--probably the longest race most of these horses will run in their careers. It's a tough race to ride for the jockeys--move too soon and you've lost the race, move too late and the outcome is the same. Big Brown's trainer is so confident in his horse he doesn't think it matters when Big Brown makes his move, he'll be there first at the wire. Absolute confidence in your horse is a great thing, but it takes a little more to accomplish what Big Brown is attempting today. It takes ability, heart, courage, stamina, luck--and maybe just a little magic, too.

This is horseracing, and part of the excitement of this day is that anything can happen. It isn't over until the horses hit the finish line and no inquiries are filed to affect the outcome of the race. It's not over until the horses return safe and healthy to their barns--a lesson many learned when the fabulous and ill-fated Eight Belles ran a valiant second to Big Brown, but did not return to her stall after the Kentucky Derby. :(

There have been several horses that have come ohhhh so close. Smarty Jones, who just got nipped in the final strides of the Belmont stakes by Birdstone. Smarty Jones would have become only the second undefeated Triple Crown winner (after Seattle Slew) if he had won that day. (Big Brown could receive that honor today.) Funny Cide was considered a shoe-in when he returned to his home track, where he had a huge advantage, after winning the first two legs of the Crown. It was not meant to be. Except for a bad trip in the Kentucky Derby where he still ran third, Afleet Alex might have done it. He showed the world what he was made of when he overcame being tripped by another horse who swerved into his path and nearly fell in the stretch of the Preakness only to pick himself up and win convincingly. That was a true miracle, and some believe that he had an angel on his shoulder that day in the form of a little girl named Alex who died from cancer, and who's cause the racehorse hitched his star to in promoting the Alex Lemonade Stand charity for cancer research. Risen Star, son of the immortal Secretariat, had a terrible trip in the Derby but hit the wire accelerating. Had the race been another few strides longer he would have overtaken the leader. He went on to win the Preakness, and then finished the Belmont by the second largest margin in history, second only to his sire. Many believed (and I was one of them) that Barbaro would have swept the Triple Crown in superior style. Fate had other plans for this great athlete, who may now be remembered longer and with even greater affection for his spirit and for the huge advances he brought to veterinary medicine because of his tragic battle for life after shattering his hind leg a few strides into the Preakness.

What are Big Brown's chances today? Big. Rumor has it there is a palpable feeling in the air--the atmosphere crackles with electricity around the barn where this horse is stabled. Some say he carries a presence--a command presence--that hints at his true greatness. Some believe he will be the next Secretariat, the next Seattle Slew, the next horse to become a household name and a standard by which all who come after him will be judged. In another few hours, we'll know if that feeling is fact or fantasy. Big Brown is most certainly on the threshold of a dream, but will he cross that threshold and become one of our greatest racing legends today?

The Triple Crown is not just about making history, it's also about shattered dreams. Only one horse can win, which leaves a lot of horses, owners and trainers to brood their misfortune when the race is over. I'd like to acknowledge one horse who lost that dream late in the game--Casino Drive. This wonderful competitor was possibly Big Brown's greatest rival in the Belmont. He is a half brother to Rags to Riches, the filly that beat Curlin to win the Belmont in 2007. He came all the way from Japan pointed toward and trained especially for this one race, this one moment in time. Casino Drive was scratched this morning due to a problem with one of his hind feet, a possible stone bruise. All that planning, hope and effort ended in a heartbreaking decision. Casino Drive will not have his chance to make history. The positive note--if there is one for his connections--is that his injury is not life threatening or career ending, and he will run another day. He's scheduled to return to Japan, but we may hear from him again. Perhaps in the Breeders Cup this fall? [Edited to add: Casino Drive. I love the sound of that. I think I just came up with the name of the drive system in my next novel. :) ]

So hats off and best wishes to Big Brown, his connections and his fans. Will racing history be made today? Well, this is horseracing. Though I have every confidence that "this is the horse, this is the year"--ask me again in about six hours. :)

Oh, and hats off to The Moody Blues for the use of one of their wonderful song titles as my article title today. :)

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