Monday, November 08, 2010
(CHICAGO, IL – November 8, 2010) My most recent realization that horse racing means more than a sport or a chance to bet money occurred early in Breeders’ Cup week. This understanding was affirmed when Zenyatta walked under the grandstand en route to the walking ring and then again when she lost. Human athletics stir feelings in fans for reasons principally logical. The passions of horse racing transcend the sensations associated with team affinity. Once people become fans they become immersed in a culture that’s inexplicable.
Plenty was wrong with the 27th Breeders’ Cup to leave the impression that Friday and Saturday weren’t the sport’s finest moments. It was forty-five degrees colder in Louisville than in Southern California, where the Breeders’ Cup should have been held. In addition, the legendary Kentucky hospitality was lost on out-of-town guests that felt cheated by two-bit taxi cab drivers charging three times the normal fare and over-hyped restaurants serving overcooked vegetables. Beginning with the first Breeders’ Cup race, after which a flyweight bout between Calvin Pacquiao and J.J. Castellano broke out, a series of other unusual happenings took place.
Heavy favorites Midday and Blind Luck, perceived as invincible, lost on Friday. Fred Brei, the cheesy owner of Awesome Feather, pitched the sale of his champion like a snake oil salesman in a post-victory interview, dulling the rare thrill of winning by reminding the world that the sport was first and foremost a business. On Saturday morning, Sir Michael Stoute, the trainer of Workforce, declared the grass course too firm when it wasn’t and scratched the Arc winner from running. John Velazquez aboard Life At Ten informed the vets that his mount didn’t seem right in the warm-ups before the Breeders’ Cup Ladies Classic, was told to pound sand, and then sat helplessly on his horse as it ambled about in last place as if out for an aimless jog. Another horse was euthanized; another vanned off in discomfort.
On Wednesday evening at the Muhammad Ali Center, the National Turf Writers Association held its annual Awards Dinner. As these nights generally go, dinner follows a cocktail hour and a silent auction raises money for charity. There are long-winded speakers. But this wasn’t the case at this soiree as the six people who came to the podium embraced brevity – at least in the sense that they spoke so effectively that you didn’t care how long they went on.
The legendary founder of Dogwood Stable Cot Campbell introduced Michael Blowen of Old Friends Equine with his usual charm. Blowen, in turn, charmed the audience with stories of how he changed his life from being an entertainment critic for the Boston Globe into a horse rescuer. Then Arlington park operative David Zenner explained why Neil Milbert meant so much to the art of turf writing and the Chicago Tribune vet spoke of how much the sport meant to him. The evening’s last honoree, Richard Migliore, had Bo Derek to present him to the lectern. If Derek is a 10, then “the Mig” was a 10-plus. Nobody could have spoken with more heart and poignancy.
All these speakers were preceded by student Patrick Raleigh of Fordham University, the latest and last scholarship recipient chosen by the NTWA for YouBet.com. Raliegh’s impact was stunning, lending impetus to the important questions of why horse racing is such a force in the lives of the people who follow it and why its allure isn’t infectious. More turf writers should have spent the few bucks to hear Raleigh speak of how his dad got him started and how sublime he finds Saratoga. They would have been showm themselves off to be NTWA members for more than the Eclipse Award ballot and they would have left the party, after hearing the speakers, better writers. Is fraternity dead?
Regardless, the theme of horse racing’s singularity was manifested differently on Saturday. As a metaphor for Zenyatta’s dying career, the setting sun enabled thousands of fans to cause flash-operated cameras to twinkle like stars in the grandstand. The racetrack presence of the unbeaten mare, pawing her ground to applause, made Churchill Downs at dusk glow like it’s never shone before. Zenyatta’s failure to catch Blame produced a schizophrenic reaction. People situated close to the finishing post knew she fell a head short of 20 for 20. Those further away allowed hope to affect their eyesight.
Men and women wept openly, unashamed that they as adults were shedding tears because a horse lost a race. Quiet flooded the setting like fog on a golf course. Time stood still, no one moved from his spot. People wondered if what happened really happened. Then the crowd filtered out the building, uttering the murmur that Zenyatta was greater in defeat than in victory. It was a declaration that made no sense whatsoever, but a belief that they wanted to hold on to.
Now comes the invariable argument about which horse – Blame or she should be Horse of the Year. The debate trivializes history. An encounter that was greater than a characterization of worth transpired in the waning hours of Saturday’s daylight under the shadow of the famous Twin Spires, just as an idea more powerful than a student acknowledging his gratitude for the gift of money to pay for his education was spoken by Patrick Raleigh on Wednesday evening.
The Breeders’ Cup remains wonderfully unscripted. There’s only one thing that you can count on. It’s that you won’t experience a similar array of emotions elsewhere.
Vic Zast has attended every Breeders’ Cup end-of-year event since the series began. You can follow him on Facebook.com and Twitter.com.