Where are the stars in this year’s crop? “Ouchouchouch” is the how bloodhorse.com’s headline writer chose to present Jack Shinar’s news item that Archarcharch won the Arkansas Derby. In holding off the fast closing Nehro, the son of Arch (duh!) won at 25-1 odds, the fourth straight first-place runner of five Grade 1 Derby preps to upset the apple cart. It would have been five for five if the odds-on Dialed In didn’t reel in the 68-1 Shackleford at the Florida Derby finishing post.
Stars rock the crowds, force hearts to beat faster, create curiosity. An American public that’s been fine-tuned to worship celebrity doesn’t care much for longshots until they win the big one. Fans couldn’t ask for a more furious end to a race than the Blue Grass Stakes’. Nineteen to one, 24-1, 13-1 and 17-1 were the odds on the first four horses. A nose, a head and a length were the margins. But, even a mere 24 hours after the action took place, it’s not easy to remember the names of the runners that made the race's end so exciting.
In other words, stars create a community of followers who come together to share knowledge and experiences with another. It’s so much easier for people to communicate when they each are familiar with the topic. When the name of the winner of a major Graded stakes prep escapes you, and you can’t recall what he accomplished in life before winning or who the people are behind him, you retreat to the isolated existence of a niche.
More than anything, horse racing needs people to notice it. The idea that the big horse can be a savior is often ridiculed, but the concept in context to the mean is defensible. Most citizens of many major cities, including Chicago, Boston, Detroit, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle and Houston, where there is no first class horse racing, couldn’t name a Kentucky Derby contender, let alone Super Saver, last year’s winner. As for the country’s top handicap division horses, even the sport’s imbedded fans can’t produce the names of more than a couple.
In the last several years, at least a few outsiders, lured in by the sheer magic of her record, came to know the once-beaten Zenyatta. Charismatic champions like the mare (or Barbaro) beget widespread notice. Competent Breeders’ Cup winners like Blame disappear. One would have an impossible task to connect the 62,000 people at Oaklawn Park yesterday to the phenomenon Zenyatta caused (she raced there twice in her career). But the horse with no-name is a horse on the receiving end, and the horses that give back to the sport with their fame are the horses that contribute to its sustenance. What she gave to the sport has residual value.
A large crowd turned out in Arkansas yesterday, in large part, because The Factor – Saturday morning’s pro tem, albeit temporary, morning line favorite for the Run for the Roses, was racing. A good field, contentious and deep but lacking a well-known Derby contender (and dreadful weather), kept the crowds down at Keeneland. The publicists have a little more than a fortnight to bestow star power on Dialed In. It’s not too late for Kelly Wietsma to resurrect a buzz for Uncle Mo.
In the course of the next several weeks, the turf writers will write plenty about all the horses on the earnings-eligible list – a sorry roll call that includes the likes of Pants on Fire, Midnight Interlude, Animal Kingdom, Twice the Appeal and Decisive Moment. Where are you Jaycito when we need you? Lest you worry, however, that 2011 has failed to produce a memorable three-year-old, consider that the Derby’s outcome has celebrity-birthing abilities.
The New York-bred Funny Cide had zero notoriety before winning in 2004; then his fame exploded – to the point that he ended his career in a made-up stakes at Finger Lakes before an overflow throng. Mine That Bird didn’t become a fan favorite despite being a Canadian two-year-old champion until winning in 2009. When the bright lights of television began to focus on Chip Woolley, Jr., his motorcycle, and the slow-talking hayseeds that owned him, the diminutive gelding ascended in status. People often make the horse; that’s been proved.
Mucho Macho Man has the same mojo that Smarty Jones had – a catchy name and a key person in his entourage with an interesting health history. Bouffant Baffert and Earth-to-Nick Zito are capable of conducting crowd-pleasing interviews – one for making a joke out of everything and the other for genuflecting each time he speaks a sentence. Then, too, there is Calvin Borel. Is it possible?
If Robinson was a horse racing fan, the serious-minded managing editor would affix his imprimatur to a Kentucky Derby with only two or three well-known contenders, a Triple Crown winner every June and competition beyond adolescence for the sport’s most accomplished participants. The aggregation of knowledge around a single source promotes expansion of thought through discussion.
Having a field of many runners with a reasonable chance to prosper at Churchill Downs won’t produce the lasting bouquet that the sport needs. What the Derby needs is a crowd-pleasing favorite to win it – there have been only four in the last 31 years. Horticulturists aren’t alone in removing the perfume from roses.
Vic Zast invites you to http://www.ourlongestdrive.com. In addition, he has a facebook page and tweets daily on twittercom.