Friday, June 6, 2008

Triple Crown excitement

Big Brown winning the Kentucky Derby
The only sport that will get me all emotional is horse racing. My mother, too. Well, really only three races a year: The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes, aka The American Triple Crown. The third jewel in the crown, the Belmont, is tomorrow (Saturday). Big Brown is going to try to be the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 30 years. I’m certainly going to be rooting for him.

I missed the Kentucky Derby this year because I had a band concert, which turned out to be fortunate for me, as I also missed seeing Eight Bells break both her front ankles during the cool down and have to be euthanized immediately after winning second place behind Big Brown. I was watching in 1975 when Ruffian broke her leg during the Battle of the Sexes match at Belmont Park against Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure. She refused to stop running because she still desperately wanted to win. Her jockey was crying as he jumped off and tried to hold her up and take some weight of the leg. The memory still gets me all choked up.

I did watch Big Brown easily win the Preakness. He just moved to the outside, and Secretariat-like, in the home stretch almost made all the other horses look as though they were standing still. The Belmont has a history of upsets (the sports term connotation of unexpected defeat coined after the 1919 Stanford Memorial Stakes when longshot Upset beat Man o’ War), though. Eleven times in the last 30 years, horses have won the Derby and the Preakness only to be foiled at the longer Belmont. Last year, another longshot – the filly, Rags to Riches, beat all the big boys and won the Belmont.

I’m actually old enough to remember seeing the last three Triple Crown winners race, although my memories of Secretariat in 1973 are mostly from replays, I think. I definitely remember the excitement of seeing Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.

Racing is coming under a lot of scrutiny with all the break downs, the most recent high profile one of which is Eight Bells. Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke his leg just out of the starting gate at the Preakness two years ago (yes, I was watching). Big Brown even has a quarter crack in his hoof wall, and is wearing special $550 glue-on shoes.

There are several reasons being put forward for these problems. One is that horses are being raced too young, before their bones are fully formed. The races in the Triple Crown are run as three year olds, but they start racing at two. Another hypothesis is that they are being bred too light-boned. Washington Post writer Sally Jenkins pointed this out when she stated that Eight Bells ran "with the heart of a locomotive on champagne glass ankles." A third is that there is just too much inbreeding. Big Brown has Northern Dancer as a great-grandsire on both sides, and it is estimated that 75% of all U.S. thoroughbreds are descended from Native Dancer, Northern Dancer's grandsire. Eight Bells had Northern Dancer as a great-grandsire on one side, and Native Dancer a great-grandsire on the other. Northern Dancer was also a grandsire of Ruffian. Some of this is likely just an artifact of Native Dancer's ubiquitousness but I'm sure genetics plays a big part.

I can guarantee I’ll be watching the Belmont tomorrow (most likely while on the phone with my mother), and I’ll be crying whether he wins or loses.
Big Brown turns his nose up at the competition. Or smells a nearby mare. Something like that.
Photos from


Christopher said...

An uncle of mine said, "I want to see Big Brown win. I probably won't live to see another Triple Crown winner." I pointed out to him that, theoretically, we could have one every year, and that we've seen so many come so close recently that it wouldn't be surprising to have a whole group together. Besides, he's not that old. Alas, though, we'll have to wait until at least next year.

Laurie said...

Christopher - I hope I live to see another winner...I'm not that old either. I think something needs to change, though. Maybe starting small with a crash course in genetics for all the breeders. I can always dream...