The Underdog

June 26, 2013

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Over the past weekend the headlines in local newsprint hailed the success of a fellow named Ken Duke, who came out of nowhere to win his first-ever professional golf tournament, called the Travelers Championship.  The tournament was played in Connecticut, a long way from central Arkansas and hardly a spot where the words “home field advantage” might be used.

It occurred to me that he earned the right to be hailed since, 1) golf has become a major sports attraction in the United State, moreso over the past decade when it is now given considerable television coverage, and 2) it showed the determination of a fellow who believed in himself and his talent enough that he could pursue the backing of a number of individuals and corporations in spite of the fact that, at 44 years old, he still had not enjoyed the major success of a title in his chosen field.

There are lots of horses which do the same thing.  They continue to work hard for us in hopes of achieving a Grade I stakes victory.  When they do it is normally an upset and, even if it’s the only one they ever win, they will forever be remembered as a Grade I winner.

Duke will, too.  Not only has he won an enormous amount of money for his athletic success, he has earned the opportunity to play in some tournaments next year where the winners achieve real, lasting, historical success.  He has that chance.  It’s the chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance.  Does that sound hauntingly like the lyrics to a song which has been exclusively dedicated to racing?  Well, it is.  And it applies here, too.

My mind harkens not that long ago to a couple of horses which achieved moments of greatness which might never again be accomplished, but it doesn’t matter to me.  On Fire Baby, winner of the Apple Blossom Handicap, and Overanalyzed, victor in the Arkansas Derby, both achieved Grade I success.  They both showed up and gave us the best of their talents.  They were upsetters, to be sure, but have earned the title Grade I winners in the one, honest way, they earned it on the racetrack.

To a lesser degree there are many upsets on the track on a regular basis and for which the honors are far less awarded.  On a daily basis there are horses which will achieve what turns out to be the only win of their careers.  Public choices win far less than their expectations.  There are dozens of ways to lose, but one way to win.  There are always plenty of excuses when a horse, or even a golfer, loses when there was an opportunity to win.  The most memorable horse taking advantage of the opportunity to win in my lifetime and recent racing history was Birdstone, who just happened to be ready to win at a mile-and-a-half in the 2004 Belmont Stakes and, in doing so, became a villain to many lifelong racetrackers.

It’s time for those who held that win by Birdstone against him to turn the page.  The horses did what was asked of him.  He had no idea (or so we suspect) that in beating Smarty Jones that day, he was taking away the moment so many had longed for, a Triple Crown winner in racing.

Similarly, when an upset occurs on the track on a daily basis at your favorite track, it is a moment to be cherished by those involved with that horse.  Horses go out and put it all on the line to earn the trip to the winner’s circle and the special treatment which follows.

I would suggest to you that you will see that most frequently happen in maiden claiming races.  It strikes me that the craziest thing I see my fellow horseplayers do is unload on an odds-on favorite in one of those races.  Favorite lose at an inordinate rate in maiden claiming races and you should not be caught up in that.  If you find a maiden claiming race in which the favorite appears unbeatable, it’s time for you to pass, go get lunch or do anything else which doesn’t involve personal risk.  If the favorite happens to win, good for him.  It will often be the last time that horse will win.  As we say in racing, when those horses lose their maiden condition, they have lost their best friend.

Upsets are fun and longshots are the goal of many handicappers and horseplayers.  But, because they are longshots and surprises, they are special to us.  They give us stories we can tell and moments we can brag of.  We tease at Oaklawn simulcasts that when a maiden claimer is an odds-on price, it must be Secretariat reborn.  Likewise, we remember that even “Big Red” was defeated during his career.  I always like to think about Man O’ War’s only defeat coming to a runner named Upset in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga.

From this corner, although I don’t know Ken Duke or whether the fellow from nearby Arkadelphia has ever been to Oaklawn, I still cheer for his win.  I love to see horses and humans break through and get a win that was somewhat unpredictable.

There is always room on the American sports scene for the Underdog.  Whether it is man or beast, I salute them all.

Here’s to the Underdog.  And Birdstone, I’ve long-since forgiven you for bursting my bubble almost a decade ago.
You are and always will be a Grade I winner.              

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