Déjà vu All Over Again

Sept. 18, 2012

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To paraphrase the Ernest Thayer’s famed poem “Casey at the Bat”, there is no joy in England, mighty Camelot has struck out.  In a scene eerily reminiscent of Smarty Jones in 2004, the hero of the public in pursuit of an elusive Triple Crown, a colt named appropriately, Camelot, finished second and broke the hearts of many a sports fan throughout the British Isles. 

To be sure the Brits have had more than their share of great racing moments this year, thanks to Frankel, Black Caviar and, of course, to Camelot, prior to Saturday’s St. Leger Stakes at Doncaster.  It brought back memories of 2004 to read a British scribe who wrote that he had never seen a crowd so totally deflated by the result of the race.

In 2004, as Birdstone gradually wore down Smarty Jones, the air went out of the sports balloon from one end of our country to the other.  Americans had identified with the great stories surrounding Smarty Jones, he had overcome the Sports Illustrated cover jinx when taking the Preakness and looked unbeatable heading into the Belmont Stakes.  He even seemed that way coming off the final turn at Belmont on that day.  Only the trained eye might have spotted jockey Edgar Prado and Birdstone picking up staggering rivals and heading towards his destiny, being the villain of the day.

Even owner Marylou Whitney apologized after the race, believing that her horse was not really racing to win.  She had seen Smarty Jones’ win as a given.  She just wanted a piece of the pie.  Those same sort of words came from trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni, who saddled the previously-unknown Encke to his improbable win in the St. Leger.

It wasn’t like either owner really needed the win.  In both of these cases the sport needed the win.  Both Marylou Whitney and Godolphin Stable, owners of the upset winners, are long-time participants in the sport and have learned to take the wins with the losses.  But they also know that you can’t win it, if you’re not in it.  So they take their chances and, in these two races, the 2004 Belmont Stakes and the 2012 St. Leger, they were rewarded for their choices.

Great Britain seems to take great joy in Futball (Soccer) and Thoroughbred racing.  The big sports stars of the country appear in those two settings.  When they enjoy success in the World Cup, the Brits are ecstatic.  But likewise, they like to feel that the best horses in the world are racing at their racetracks.  With nearly 60 tracks on the Isles, racing is deeply imbedded into the sports culture.  What the Brits call a race meet is what Americans call a racing day.  Races are not numbered at the track, but rather scheduled by an overseeing group which makes sure that each race has an unique starting time, so that they are not run over top of one another and the players have a genuine chance to wager on every race they choose.   There is a real respect for racing in the British Isles, so there is no surprise that the outcome of the St. Leger was like a punch to the gut.

Two great racehorses had surfaced in England this year, Frankel and Camelot.  Black Caviar make an excursion to England for a race she won at Royal Ascot in rather miraculous fashion.  Not unlike Smarty Jones, that may have been the last race of her career.  On a similar note, Encke’s connections have already announced that he is finished for the year and there seem to be concerns about the future of Camelot.  Does that sound like a song you’ve heard before?  Not just Smarty Jones, but Afleet Alex, Big Brown, Zenyatta and this year’s Triple Crown star, I’ll Have Another, all disappeared from the racing scene after important races – in some cases following an important loss.

Personally I hate seeing horses at that level required to leave the track after a deflating loss.  Money often dictates where they go, particularly for stallions.  Now the Brits, Camelot and Encke, will disappear for at least a while and, perhaps, forever.  One just doesn’t know yet.  In Great Britain they still have the number one rated horse in the world, Frankel, to love.  He still has another race or two, but the luster of a possible competition between him and Camelot on Champions Day in England, doesn’t appear in the cards.

Once again I think I’ve seen this before.  It was the “Race for the Ages” and would have put Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra into a contest at the neutral site of Oaklawn Park in 2010.  Credit the late Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra, for keeping that filly in training following her brilliant three-year-old season.  She never did recover the form she showed as a sophomore when she beat the best of the boys and edged Zenyatta in Horse-of-the-Year balloting.  But the public never got to see the match which would have grabbed the attention of the American sports public.

The racing gods have not looked favorably on our sport for many years.  Both Triple Crowns, in America and England, have escaped the efforts of Thoroughbreds for over 40 years.  A number of other matchups have passed by due to bad timing. 

But hope springs eternal and the words of poet Thayer may yet set up a famous last line again, only in a different way:

“Oh somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light
And somewhere men are laughing and somewhere children shout

Finally on a racetrack nearby our favorite will win out.”

A last note:  Thanks to the folks who made reading Thoroughbred Times so enjoyable for me.  The racing periodical went out of business this past week. But editor Mark Simon and his crew did all they could to boost the sport which has supported me for nearly 50 years. I hope those who need work find it and the others enjoy their time off at a racetrack near them.  It’s a family and we’re all in this together.

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