denis gullickson | talking titletown | june 2018
At a few ticks past 5:35 p.m. Central Time on Saturday, June 9, a tiny surge of electricity will spring open a dozen or so electric starting gates and horserace announcer, Larry Collmus, will announce, “They're off."
With that, a throng of 1200-pound thoroughbred racehorses will lunge forward and begin a mile-and-a-half trek around an oval track known as “the Big Sandy." This will be the longest race any of these horses will ever run.
Once they break, their 115-pound jockeys will head toward the inside rail and settle their respective mounts into positions advantageous to their horse's running style. Speed horses will take to the front. Stalkers will fall in behind them and Closers will set up in positions at the back of the pack.
They'll round the first of two turns in that basic configuration and it likely will not change until somewhere on the far side of the track when each jockey commences a strategy meant to get their horse to the finish line first.
A third turn and the front-runners will likely slow a tad, working to hold off the surge of the stalkers and closers while keeping their lead. The stalkers and closers will begin to move up, their jockeys making split-second decisions as holes open up in the crowd … or don't. They'll use as much energy as they think they can without spending everything their horse has. Patience and timing is everything here.
Leads — that front foot extending further than the other — will be switched to prevent the horse from tiring on one side or the other or to put into motion that horse's dominant side.
There's still a half-mile to go. A final turn and it's the home stretch — the most intense part of the race as the jockeys ask their mounts for everything they have left — hopefully at the perfect scintilla of time — now picking their way through the crowd or hanging onto a thin edge.
It's the Belmont Stakes and the last leg of the U.S. Triple Crown.
Locally, you can catch the action starting at 3 p.m. on NBC Sports, Channel 26 and WGBA.
Consider this a personal invitation to tune in and enjoy what is truly an exciting sport. Shame on the horseracing poo-bahs for not convincing you of that themselves.
If It was Easy …
Winning any of the races in the U.S. Triple Crown — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont — is a cause for celebration: A noteworthy victory in one of these premier races can turn an unheralded stallion prospect into an overnight sensation with stud fees reaching $100,000 per breeding or more.
Winning all three races is — quite probably — the most elusive feat in sports. Only 12 horses have done it in a century.
Indeed, some attribute a decline in horseracing' s popularity to the fact that — on average — a Triple Crown winner has emerged just once every eight years. As one sports fan put it, “Who'd watch the Super Bowl if it ended in a tie 90% of the time?"
Even worse, horseracing has seen long stretches without a Triple Crown winner — a 25-year drought, 1948-1973, and a more-recent 37-year-dry spell, 1978-2015.
Yet horseracing was once the most-spectated U.S. sport. Today, of course, its popularity has been dwarfed by that of the NFL. There are a lot of reasons — including a changing lifestyle in this country. But another is the striking contrast in the organizational structure of the two sports and their relative marketing.
Early on, NFL owners understood that they' d float or sink together. It' s why they agreed to revenue-sharing, salary caps and free agency. It's why they meet annually to tweak their product to maintain parity and fan interest. Heck, even the beleaguered Cleveland Browns think they have a chance to jump back into the thick of things.
Much is made of a dwindling interest in the NFL today. Ha! It still stands as the most-popular US sport with 37 percent of the population; it can afford some dwindling.
On the other hand, racehorse owners long ago formed a good old boys club, but hardly a league. Sure there are umbrella groups that govern racing, but when it comes down to it, horseracing is pretty much “every owner for him/herself." That kind of spirit spawns collegial competition, but hardly mutual cooperation or an overall marketing plan.
To that end, the NFL has entire floors of staff dedicated to the task of promoting the product; horse racing can't seem to get its act together. Case in point: In 2009, the sport had two superstar fillies — Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Let's see, horses … and girls … and girl horses. What marketing genius let that slip through their fingers? There should have been colored T-shirts hanging at every Wal-Mart in America. “Team Rachel!" No, “Team Zenyatta!" Prepubescent fingers would have been texting fire back and forth. It didn't happen.
What does this have to do with the Triple Crown and its draw? Well, that's pretty simple. There needs to be more Triple Crown winners to keep folks interested. These gorgeous, talented, high-strung horses are the stars and the drama is real.
The thought that racehorse owners would gather together and tweak the Triple Crown races in order to produce a steadier flow of Triple Crown winners — no, not every year, but at least once every few years — seems to have escaped them.
No, this isn't a call for a frame-up overhaul. However, why not spread these races out over two months or require horses to run in two of the three races? Just one slight change — limiting the number of runners in the Kentucky Derby from a crowded 20 horses to 14 — would likely have produced several more Triple Crown winners during that 37-year stretch.
So, horseracing by its very organizational structure makes winning a Triple Crown an uphill slog. Take away those extraneous factors and the feat itself is still daunting — particularly for the modern racehorse.
Races these days are typically a mile-eighty yards — a little over eight furlongs — with at least a week off between races. World-class racehorses typically run a race every month or longer. To run three of the longest races in U.S. racing in five weeks is something akin to an NFL team playing a game on Sunday, Thursday and Monday again.
Once a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, that's the only horse that can win the Triple Crown that year, obviously. The dust has barely cleared on Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May as the debate begins to rage, “Can this horse win the next two and become the next Triple Crown winner?"
“No, he doesn't have the tactical speed to work his way out of a crowd."
“Yes, he won the Derby pulling away."
“No, he always loses ground on his left lead."
“Yes, his great-grandsire on his dam' s side was a full-brother to Secretariat."
The question is even louder two weeks later if that horse wins the Preakness. So, is the hope among racing fans.
Then comes the Belmont. Nicknamed the “Test of Champions" for a good reason as a slew of horses who haven't raced in a month show up. Between 1973 and 2015, 13 horses have headed toward the Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown but were run down by bad circumstances or fresher horses.
Justify, the winner of this year's Derby and Preakness, is a beast. Close to 1,300 pounds, this guy literally tilts the racecourse with his mere presence. A rear hoof problem coming out of the derby is, well, behind him. His trainer, Bob Baffert, is the only Triple Crown-winning trainer active today as he also trained American Pharoah [sic] in 2015. Justify's jockey, Mike Smith, has seen and done it all.
Justify wasn't raced as a two-year-old. For some experts that was a knock against him. One might just as well make the case that one of the reasons he's ready to win a Triple Crown is because he didn't have the wear and tear of competing so young.
Smith rode Justify under horrid conditions in the Derby and absolutely horrible conditions in the Preakness. Accordingly, he knows his horse and should be able to position him for a sensible, strategic run in the Belmont.
My prediction? Justify becomes the 13th U.S. Triple Crown winner and — just three years after American Pharoah' s feat — helps horseracing gather a few more fans.
June 2018 finds author, historian, educator, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson set to bale some hay and begin the process of refurbishing the former Schauer and Schumacher buildings into an arts and performance complex. Watch for news on this over the next few months. Meanwhile, writing continues on a number of fronts.