Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

The Sport of Kings

Mike Resnick


Now that you know a little something about it, let's examine a few races and see not only how they played out, but why.

The 1985 Kentucky Derby The lukewarm favorite was Chief's Crown, but five or six horses were considered to have a good chance to win. One of them was a front-runner, Spend A Buck, ridden by Angel Cordero. There was another speed horse in the race, owned by the Yankees' George Steinbrenner.

The gate opened, Cordero sent Spend A Buck to the front as expected, and Steinbrenner's horse stumbled, just as War Emblem stumbled at the start of the 2002 Belmont -- and suddenly, only a furlong into the 10-furlong race, Spend A Buck was 5 lengths in front. Each of the other jockeys had to decide whether to engage Cordero's horse in a speed duel to soften him up for the homestretch (which would soften their own mounts up as well) or wait for someone else to do it. Every jockey elected to wait. Spend A Buck entered the backstretch with an uncontested 6-length lead, and the race was over. Turning into the stretch he was every bit as fresh as the horses who were trying to catch him, and he won by 5 lengths without drawing a deep breath.

The 1955 Kentucky Derby The heavy favorite was Nashua, with Eddie Arcaro riding him. Nashua had had a pair of all-out wars with Summer Tan, ridden by Eric Guerin, and Arcaro felt that was the horse to beat.

An unknown California horse, Swaps -- who would not remain unknown for long -- got a comfortable 2-length lead going around the far turn. Nashua was laying third, a length ahead of Summer Tan, and Arcaro didn't want to use his horse up and soften him for Summer Tan's stretch run, so he kept him under light restraint. And he kept him, and he kept him -- and by the time he realized that Summer Tan was never going to pass him, and Swaps was running far too easily at the front end, it was too late and he never could catch the California colt.

The 1968 Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps Two of the great ones hooked up. Damascus, the 1967 Horse of the Year, winner of 13 of his last 15 starts, possessor of the most powerful stretch run in racing, carried 133 pounds -- far above scale -- in the Suburban Handicap. His lifelong rival, Dr. Fager, winner at the time of 15 of 17 lifetime starts, and perhaps the fastest front-runner in history, carried 132 pounds.

There were only five horses in the race. Every horse was good, though the other three weren't quite in a class with the top two -- but they didn't have to be, since this was a handicap, and they were in receipt of 15 to 20 pounds each. But the point is, none of them was willing to sacrifice himself on the alter of pacemaking to soften Dr. Fager up for Damascus. As a result, Dr. Fager broke on top, and when he had run half a mile in 47 seconds, the race was as good as over. Damascus made a run at him in the homestretch, but never seriously threatened him and came in second.

They met two weeks later in the Brooklyn Handicap. This time Dr. Fager carried 135 pounds to 131 on Damascus -- but this time, Damascus had help. His trainer also entered his stablemate Hedevar, the previous year's champion sprinter. Hedevar wasn't there to win; his trainer didn't even care if the jockey pulled him up once his job was done. And his job was to force the headstrong Dr. Fager into such rapid early fractions that Damascus would have a chance to catch a tiring horse in the stretch.

The gate opened, Dr. Fager broke on top, as usual, and Hedevar broke almost as fast. He got within a neck of Dr. Fager, who absolutely wouldn't be passed. They ran the first quarter mile in a phenomenal 21 3/5 seconds, the half in 44 seconds flat -- and even though Hedevar tossed in the towel and Dr. Fager found himself 3 lengths in front, the race was as good as over. Damascus moved up on the far turn, got the leg-weary Dr. Fager in his sights, ran him down in the homestretch, and beat him to the wire by 2 lengths.

The 1977 Belmont Stakes In the Kentucky Derby, For the Moment had pressed front- running Seattle Slew. They'd run the first 6 furlongs in 1:10, and Slew went on to win rather handily while For the Moment finished 5th.

In the Preakness, it was Comorant's turn. He was heads apart with Seattle Slew after 6 furlongs in 1:09 3/5. Slew won by a daylight margin, while Cormorant faded to 4th.

In the Belmont, having seen what happened to For the Moment and Cormorant, no one was willing to press the pace, and as a result Seattle Slew had a comfortable lead after running the first 6 furlongs in 1:14 1/5. A horse runs a length in a fifth of a second. All any fan had to do was look at the time, realize that Seattle Slew had just been allowed to run the first 6 furlongs 21 lengths slower than the Derby and 23 lengths slower than the Preakness, and you knew that no one was going to catch him on this particular day. (He won, eased up, by 4 lengths.)

The 1979 Belmont Stakes Affirmed was our last Triple Crown winner, back in 1978. But we should have had one in 1979. He was good enough, and fit enough, and no one in the field was within five lengths of him in quality. He was Spectacular Bid, coming into the race off 12 wins in a row, including the Derby and Preakness.

He had just one problem. He was ridden by a 19-year-old kid named Ronnie Franklin, a totally-inexperienced jockey who didn't have all that much talent. But when you've got a team that's won twelve in a row, even if a few of them were closer than they should have been, you don't break it up and hire a new jockey, especially for the most important race in your horse's life.

So Ronnie Franklin was aboard Spectacular Bid when the gates opened and ten horses began the grueling, 12-furlong contest. A 30-to-1 longshot who'd never won a stakes race in his life raced off to a long lead. Franklin had Spectacular Bid in second place, running easily along the rail. This in itself was unusual, because usually the Bid came from the back of the pack with a powerful late run.

There was another unusual thing. General Assembly, the horse with the most early speed in the field, the horse who had set the pace in the Derby and Preakness, was three lengths behind Spectacular Bid. His jockey, the experienced Angel Cordero, realized that the leader was setting a suicidal pace and wanted no part of it.

When they'd run almost half a mile, the leader was still 6 lengths in front, and Franklin panicked. Fearful that the longshot would get an insurmountable lead, and unaware that they'd just run the half mile in 46 seconds, a murderous pace for the shorter Derby let alone the Belmont, Franklin sent Spectacular Bid after the frontrunner. He caught him in less than a quarter mile, and the longshot threw in the towel without a fight. Suddenly Franklin found himself four lengths in front with half a mile to go, and all the sportswriters who knew nothing about racing felt the race was as good as over.

It was - but not the way they thought. The Bid was four lengths in front, true - but he'd used up too much energy catching that meaningless frontrunner, and his time for the first mile was much too fast. He turned into the stretch with a diminishing two-length lead...and then Coastal, whom he'd never met before, and General Assembly, whom he'd beaten like a drum all year long, caught and passed him. So much for the Triple Crown.

Franklin was fired the next morning - one day too late - and Bill Shoemaker was hired. Shoemaker rode Spectacular Bid for the rest of the Bid's career, losing only one more race in the next two years. But thanks to a kid who couldn't judge pace, he lost the race he had to win.

The 2002 Belmont Stakes Every now and then strategy goes right out the window. You plot and you plan for weeks, and two seconds into the race everything's changed.

It happened in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Everyone knew War Emblem was the horse to beat. He'd been a surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby (which, in retrospect, after examining his pedigree and his last couple of races, wasn't so surprising after all), and had won the Preakness just as easily. He was a front-running horse possessed of remarkable speed, and enough stamina to win the 10-furlong Derby by a large margin. Every trainer and jockey had to decide what to do: run with War Emblem and perhaps use their own horse up in the process, or let him go and hope he couldn't last for a mile and a half.

It became meaningless in less than a second. The hard ground broke under War Emblem's feet as the gate opened, and he fell to his knees. He was up and running a second later, but for all practical purposes his Belmont was over.

Not all the other jockeys saw what had happened, but they all saw that War Emblem wasn't on or close to the lead. What to do now?

If only one jock had decided to go for the lead, he could probably have set a sane, reasonable pace - but four of them went for it, and they began running too fast for such a long, grueling race. And then War Emblem sealed their fates. Left at the post, he moved up along the rail. His jockey, knowing how much ground he had lost and how much energy he had expended already, wasn't asking him for speed, but he had a champion's competitive heart, and damned if he didn't forge to the front half a mile from home.

It had taken everything he had left to get there, and he would soon fade to 8th place -- but the other jockeys didn't know that. They just knew that today the horse they had to beat had come from behind and suddenly he was in the lead, and they pushed their horses even harder -- and by the head of the homestretch, after a mile and a quarter, every horse that was on or within 6 lengths of the lead was cooked. The two trailers, longshot Sarava and second-choice Medaglia d'Oro, ridden by two jockeys who had kept their wits about them, passed all the others as if they were standing still, ran neck-and-neck to the wire, and Sarava became the longest-priced winner in Belmont history.

The 1984 Breeders Cup Classic When John Henry, one of the two contenders for Horse of the Year honors, scratched, the other contender, Slew o' Gold, was made the heavy favorite for the 10-furlong Breeders Cup Classic. He hadn't lost all year, hadn't even worked up much of a sweat. This was to be the final race of his career, at his favorite distance, and he was carrying 126 pounds, a burden he'd been winning with for two years.

But he had a physical problem: a quarter crack on his hoof. They flew his very own blacksmith out and gave him a bar shoe that would protect the tender area, but his jockey, Angel Cordero, was very aware that the horse wasn't quite 100%.

The race began, Slew o' Gold lay 5th, about 10 lengths off the pace, and then made his move turning into the stretch. By mid- stretch, with an eighth of a mile to go, he was only a length behind the two leaders, Wild Again and Gate Dancer, and gaining ground, though not as rapidly as Cordero had expected. And, because he was aware of that foot, and of the fact that Slew o' Gold, while he was running a winning race wasn't running a devastating one, Cordero chose to save ground and go _between_ Gate Dancer and Wild Again, rather than lose ground while angling to the outside in order to get a clear run to the wire...

...and as Slew o' Gold began moving up, Gate Dancer moved to his left and the hole closed. It was too late for Cordero to slow his horse down, take him outside, and put him to a drive again, so he stayed where he was, hoping Wild Again would bear in or Gate Dancer would bear out sometime in the final 70 yards so his mount could forge to the front.

It never happened, and Slew o' Gold, demonstrably the best horse in the race, lost for the only time all year -- and, it turned out, simultaneously lost Horse of the Year honors to John Henry, the horse who stayed in the barn.

The 1976 Marlboro Cup And sometimes strategy -- either right strategy or wrong strategy -- means nothing.

The great gelding Forego, seeking his third successive Horse of the Year title, was entered in the Marlboro Cup.

He was assigned 137 pounds, more weight than any horse had won with since Dr. Fager, and more weight that any horse had won with at more than a mile in close to half a century. By rights, he should scratched rather than accept that burden, but he didn't.

It rained all morning and most of the afternoon, and the track was officially labeled muddy. Forego hated the mud. He had chronically sore ankles, and a misstep in the mud could end his career. Even if he didn't take that misstep, he was probably 5 lengths better on a fast track.

He was giving 20 pounds -- 10 lengths -- to millionaire Honest Pleasure, and even more weight to other top-caliber stakes winners.

He was running without mud caulks.

Once he'd possessed some tactical early speed, but as he grew older it deserted him, and these days he came from well behind. On a muddy track, that meant he'd probably pick up 15 pounds of mud on his chest and neck -- a gift of 7 1/2 lengths to his rivals.

He drew an outside post position, and never got close to the rail. Going around the far turn, Shoemaker had to go six horses wide -- another 6-length gift to the front runners.

They straightened away in the stretch, with a quarter mile to go. Honest Pleasure had just taken the lead. Forego was eleventh, floundering in the mud, 17 lengths behind.

So much for strategy. So much for luck. This was Forego, and from somewhere deep within himself he found a way to ignore the mud striking his face, to ignore the footing, to ignore the 137- pound impost, and just run hell-for-leather down the stretch. He was 9 lengths back at the furlong pole, 4 lengths back at the sixteenth pole, 2 lengths back with 50 yards to go, and just when everyone knew that valiant effort would fall short, he found yet another gear and caught Honest Pleasure 10 yards from the wire and won by a nose.

It's performances like that, when a equine athlete is so good and so determined to win that everything you know about analyzing a race becomes meaningless, that it truly is the Sport of Kings.


[ HOME ]    [ Contents #17 ]    [ Current Issue ]    [ Archives ]

Challenger is (c) 2002 by Guy H. Lillian III.
Rights to first print and on-line publication reserved; all rights revert to contributors upon publication.