Sunday, May 03, 2009

Why They Run the Race

The only thing better than seeing a 50 to 1 shot win the Kentucky Derby would be having a bet on that 50 to 1 shot. I sat stunned yesterday watching Mine the Bird take the rail and blow everyone away to win by a mile (or at least 6 and ½ lengths). The only one more shocked than me was the NBC announcer who almost forgot to mention the gelding’s name as it roared down the stretch. It should go without saying that I had not bet on the horse.


No event on sports is more exciting than a thoroughbred race, especially a Triple Crown Race, especially a Kentucky Derby. If I was not so old I know that I would find my way out to Churchill Downs some time for Derby Day, but at 56, I think the race has passed me by. It is too crowded and too expensive, so this is one event I will have to miss. Besides, they probably won’t have another 50 to 1 winner in my lifetime.


I was watching the trainer of Mine the Bird who had just driven a pickup in from Arizona to watch the race. He was walking on crutches as he had managed to shatter his foot in a motorcycle accident. To his credit, he came to see his horse and walked out with him to the field.. They asked him on television how the horse would do. I thought that  was kind of a cruel question, but he said something like “competing” was what was important, then he limped away on his crutches and I assumed that I would never see him again.


But I was wrong. This is why they actually run the race, why they play  any game. Sometimes the impossible seems to happen. If it did not, no one would ever attend a sporting event. What would be the point ? Those are the events you remember, Clay over Liston, the Jets over the Colts, Sea Biscuit over War Admiral, David over Goliath, Truman over Dewey. I don’t know if Mine the Bird will be remembered 50 years from now, but I hope so.


The truth of the matter is that no one should be a 50 to 1 shot in anything. The great writer Damon Runyon once wrote a story about the annual  Harvard/Yale boat race in which one of the crews was listed at 7 to 2. The protagonist of the story shook his head, “Nothing involving humans is 7 to 2, in fact,” he said, “the longer I live the more I realize that all of life is 6 to 5 against.” Actually, Runyon’s character was probably unduly optimistic, my experience is that it is closer to 9 to 5. But it is not 50 to 1. That’s because there are humans on both sides of the equation. No matter how smart, strong or fast a person is, he/she is still a human and human beings screw up. Horses may not, but they don’t let a horse run the race without a human riding, a human training, and a human preparing the race track.


If you ever think about it, go to YouTube and watch the two minute video of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, the greatest athletic achievement I ever saw and, I submit,  that anyone ever saw. In that race, Secretariat, the greatest horse of all time, won the final leg of his Triple Crown by 25 lengths. Here we are, more than 35 years later, and it is breathtaking to watch. You cannot believe what you are seeing, even if you know what is coming. That day was Secretariat’s day. But there is no one who can tell you for sure that the next day would have been Secretariat’s day, or the next week, the next month or the next year. That’s why they run the race. Not everything runs according to form. If it did, no one would ever  make bet in Las Vegas or bet  against the Yankees, although as my father used to say, it’s wise to bet on a winner until he loses. I’d bet Mine the Bird at the Preakness.


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