(You want to barf? They were born in 1994 and 1995, when Go for Gin and Thunder Gulch won the Derby.)
On the radio, Fat and Skinny talked about how dispiriting the state of college basketball is, how the freshman are one-and-done, they’re gone, they don’t stick around long enough to make a lasting impact on their sport.
To that, I said, cry me a river. To that, I said, join me for a year of horse racing.
Parker, Wiggins and Randle are just the latest freakishly gifted teenagers in the 99th percentile of athletic potential who are forced to go to college (David Stern, the NBA’s Commissioner, will say they’re not forced to go to college. They can go to the D-League.). It’s a brilliant stroke by the NBA to effectively send these players to college for a year. They attend high-profile universities, get a ton of press and TV-time from October through March, then go to the NBA as a well-fermented star.
The lesson people are told is to enjoy them while they’re balling in college. Oh, but it’s hard to root for a team when the players are so transient! Mercenaries!
To that, I said, at least you get to watch these mercenaries when they graduate to the next level. Not so in horse racing, sort of.
Unless there’s full-scale legislation to keep horses in training at least through their four-year-old year, brilliant horses will continue to retire at three. See Orb (was he that brilliant?), Big Brown (truly brilliant two-surface star) and Smarty Jones. Until a horse’s stud value isn’t adversely affected by a loss, expect owners to take their ball and go home. You can’t blame them.
Newbies, and even some seasoned pros, still feel crushed when an iconic horse gets ushered off to propagate his breed. I know because I used to feel that disappointment. I remember feeling crushed when Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Hard Spun went away after a year. But I remember being buoyed by Curlin, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Shackleford sticking around.
Strangely, when a horse races longer than its four-year-old year, there’s a sense they’ve overstayed their welcome. What more can we see? What more can they do? No matter how sound they are there’s that looming specter of a fatal bad step or a fluke wall kick.
Wise Dan has given us innumerable thrills and if he runs again next year, which it appears he will, what more can he provide that we haven’t already seen? His purpose, for readers of this site, is a confident single in a multi-race ticket.
The appeal of the horse running at four is to see how he or she develops and grows as they reach their athletic prime. The appeal extends to some of the historically great races and to see them beat or become defeated by upstart three-year-olds. Maybe even a mare or two. By their five- or six-year-old year, unless they’re going for a three-peat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Breeders’ Cup Mile, it’s a gamble with life more than a gamble with stud value.
It is my feeling that if horses were mandated to run through their four-year-old year, it would satiate the flash-in-the-pan haters and those who want to capitalize while their star while still burns bright.
These are tent-pole horses, the horses that hold up the entire year and the entire sport, towering peaks with valleys of near-unbearable competition. They just do. They bring thousands of extra people to the track. Just watch what Groupie Doll will do to Cigar Mile Day.
Players like Parker, Wiggins and Randle, sure they ditch the college game, but we can enjoy their athleticism for 10 or 15 years in the NBA. In horse racing, the best we can hope for is to root for our heroes’ progeny. Not quite as fulfilling.
So haters of the one-and-doners in college hoops, cry me a river and come over to horse racing where you’ll need a dam to hold back the flood.