By Jason Keidel
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All men have dated or married women that have made them wince while watching sports, asking the generic, agonizing questions about the game you cherish.
“What are those yellow bars for, again?” they ask about the goal posts during an NFL contest. Or maybe they tepidly inquire, “What’s the difference between a walk and base on balls?”
So imagine my glee when my girlfriend, Nicole, showed a true, intellectual interest in sports while dating a sportswriter. She’s not necessarily a frothing freak like yours truly, but someone who actually asks questions and wants to hear the answers and really remembers them. (Her fatal flaw is rooting for the Bengals, blood rivals of my beloved black & gold. But that’s another matter.)
Team sports aside, we had a heated chat about the Belmont Stakes this weekend.
She shares the opinion that it’s entirely unfair for the horse pining for the Triple Crown — California Chrome, in this case — to race against a rested field, a group of gallant horses who haven’t had to travel from Kentucky to Maryland to New York in six weeks for three grueling gallops of a 1.25 miles to 1.15 miles to, finally, 1.5 miles.
She’s right. It is unfair. The playing field isn’t level. In a more just world, every horse in that race on Saturday should have been just as tired and traveled as California Chrome. If he were to lose, he should have been bumping shoulders with those who took the same, circuitous route to New York. It feels too clever, if not cowardly, to hate on a horse so much that you’ll devise your entire summer around thwarting the best story in sports this year. I dig it.
But she’s also wrong. The beauty of the rigors of running for the most holy horse-racing trinity is the unfairness. We’ve heard the regurgitated cliché. Only the a special, iconic, immortal horse should win all three races. But just because it’s an exhausted platitude doesn’t mean it’s misguided.
And it’s hard to pity California Chrome’s bitter boss, whose goal was glory and who guaranteed the win just a few hours earlier. And then we heard him whine from Belmont to Belfast about the inequities — if not the iniquity — of a rigged field before finally apologizing.
California Chrome was purchased for $8,000 , and made $3 million from the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness alone. That says nothing about his sale price now or stud fees or the infinite financial aortas pumping money into his checking account.
Is California Chrome any less of a horse because he fell just short a few days ago? Maybe, in a strictly historical and monetary sense. But the outhouse-to-penthouse realities and feel-good narrative is still beaming from his marquee. California Chrome became a member of America’s family for a few enchanted weeks, more than we can say about most mammals — human or not.
Someone on WFAN host Mike Francesa’s show recently said something so salient and enlightened that I won’t forget it, even if I forget the chap’s name. He said that nowhere but in America can someone buy a sports franchise for $10,000 and make it into a million-dollar enterprise. The truth is that Chrome became an entity as much as an athlete.
I understand why owners, jockeys, pundits, fans and girlfriends want to alter the rules to make it more plausible for a horse to win all three racing jewels. But it feels more reactive than proactive or productive. It has the signs of preteen impulse, shrieking our way into warped justice.
Do we want to bend the rules to appease our impatient populous? Do we care to manufacture a Triple Crown because we want to see one? Do we crown a Triple Crown because we weren’t around in 1978?
This isn’t the first decades-long drought for horse racing’s gold standard. Before Secretariat won in 1973, there hadn’t been a Triple Crown monolith since 1948, when Citation won it. Was everyone calling for the sport to mutate into something it’s not? I wasn’t around, but it’s hard to imagine our nation doing so.
When Miguel Cabrera won baseball’s triple crown two years ago, it hadn’t happened since 1967. Did we clamor for new contours to accommodate a hitter? Or was it worth the wait to see someone of Cabrera’s singular gifts finally garner the glory? Imagine if we said Cabrera need only lead the AL in home runs and RBIs? Imagine if they sat Cabrera for a month to keep his average robust enough to win the batting title?
There is no exact equivalent to Belmont because no sport is quite like it. And we aren’t even dealing with humans. But there are certain, universal verities that apply, from human to equine equality. We don’t give away the prize simply because it’s so hard to get.
We do agree that California Chrome’s owner crying like a newborn didn’t help, particularly after he guaranteed his horse would win. Indeed, Saturday was a bad day for predictions. Sergio Martinez predicted his fight with Miguel Cotto would end after nine rounds. He was correct. But it was he who got vaporized and couldn’t answer the bell for the 10th. All manner of Rangers fans called for a blowout in Game 2 after the Blueshirts jumped out to a 2-0 lead. And now our heroic hockey club is 60 minutes from getting unceremoniously swept off their home ice.
But unlike the boxer and the Blueshirts, California Chrome is a winner, just not to the extent we expected or needed to give a peripheral sport a jolt of historic juice. But it just feels like a reach to rewrite the rules because we’re so starved for immortality.
And so California Chrome leaves millions of us to wonder if we’ll ever see a Triple Crown winner again. Nicole swears we won’t. I disagree. But I won’t be too disagreeable. It’s hard enough to find a queen who watches the Sport of Kings.
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