If you’re practicing the art of Zen along with me for the next few weeks until May 5, you need to know that such matters don’t always unfold peacefully. Sure, you can cross yourself up into the lotus position along a babbling brook and gather the energy of the universe through each cleansing breath. For the rest of us, such quiet moments of reflection come somewhere between the second cup of coffee and the third time through the past performances.
The truth of the matter is enlightenment usually hits you between the eyes with a hypothetical hammer as your handicapping budget becomes lighter, two times over. Learning from the experience in front of us is just as important as the reflection – sometimes hundreds of times over – from a distance. The problem is sometimes it takes us far too long to learn and/or apply what has been learned. Today’s moment of Derby Zen concentrates on the most basic, yet complex feeling of love, as in loving a horse so much you’re blind to other evidence around you spelling the horse’s defeat. With 20 steeds starting from Churchill’s main gate love is probably what you don’t need clouding your wagering judgments.
While playing the ponies can and does happen every day of the week, the build up to the Kentucky Derby each year gives even casual fans the opportunity to follow, root for and bet on a small cohort of horses – a cohort that in most cases repeats itself two or three times. Considering the infrequency in which Thoroughbreds run these days, the run up to the First Saturday in May takes on even greater significance while providing greater opportunities to build strong feelings for Derby contenders.
With the promise of spring, great expectations and the hope of the first Triple Crown winner in more than 30 years, anticipation for this year’s Derby winner spans all the way back to maiden special weight affairs from June to the latest freak, first-time winner at Gulfstream Park in mid-winter. The blog, Chasing the Derby starts searching for the next Derby winner a few weeks after the first Saturday in May.
There is something to be said for those scouring entries from coast-to-coast and looking for the latest starters from both proven and untested stallions. Those at least a little in the know look for
Todd Pletcher starters at the Spa, Bob Baffert’s babies with first-time blinkers and note any two-year-old winning by open lengths. There is also something to being one of the few catching a maiden affair being switched from turf to dirt on a Monday afternoon and seeing a 17-length winner emerge. The universe certainly hears, “There’s my Derby horse,” whispered under the unwashed breathes of Derby followers nationwide.
Being first, highlighting a horse to follow and follow and follow can bring a small windfall at the windows. Your happiness is then reinforced when your brain, in turn, releases dopamine into our blood stream making you feel quite good. Your monetary reward becomes an emotional attachment, maybe even love for the four-legged creature posing for the win photo.
Back in the real world of racing the Thoroughbred’s fragility, in addition to the emphasis on breeding, not racing and overly cautious handling, has created a superstar void that other national sports leagues rely on for growth and revenue. Think “23” in the NBA, a Patriot quarterback’s long run of success or the Yankees starter at shortstop for the last 20 years. Just about anyone can give you the names of the professional athletes mentioned above. I’ve never watched an entire NASCAR race, but even I know who Tony Stewart is. Thus, our sport really has no one creature to turn our lonely eyes to…
Quick quiz: Tell me, without a Google search, which current Kentucky Derby contender has finished in the money in three grade one races? Good luck.
Thus the circumstances for us to find what we crave, a star for our adoration, are ripe for misfortune. Some of us are already there. You could’ve poured over endless charts in hopes of picking the Derby winner six weeks away. Maybe a few bucks have been won early in the horse’s career or even in the latest stakes race. The horse has moved up, stretched out and done well. The star has yet to be revealed, but you’re sure you know who it is.
Or maybe you’re still awaiting the break out performance from the three-year-old with no graded stakes earnings that’s going to make a splash in one of the final Derby preps. How about the one that always seems to find trouble and just can’t get up in time? The affable, lovable trainer; the up-and-coming jockey that has yet to shave; we seem to find all kinds of ways to cheer for a horse we love. We even make excuses for him when he loses – bad ride, wrong surface, he wants to go longer, etc. etc. etc. Such is love, isn’t it?
Beyond the speed figures, bloodlines and trainer statistics there is something that draws us all – Thoroughbred fans and players – to the majesty of the equine athlete. The horse that pulled the plow and founded towns on the frontier is culturally iconic. Now in the 21st century we mainly see this former beast of burden run around tracks in proximity to mountains, lakes, airports, highways and folks with oxygen tanks dropping dimes into slot machines. Still, the great plains call and even the Thoroughbred champions of yesteryear beckon.
And while Stewart can bristle his sponsors with his quick-tempered words or Michael Jordan can drop half a million bucks at the card tables, Thoroughbreds rarely fail their followings outside the arena. Just another reason we love them so.
Got a Derby winner in your heart, great, hold him there by rooting for him exclusively. Or separate yourself from the emotion of the day. Search yourself for why you return to the same three-year-old over and over again. Is it something you want? Something you need? If you’re going to place your bet, check your heart with your head, more than once to determine just whom your Derby winner is.
But it’s the love that may be blinding some of us. Our fascination, our want to be first on the bandwagon can lead us astray when the point is to place a winning wager. Cheering for a horse you love and then watching him come up short is one thing. Laying down money that can be spent anywhere else and watching it go up in flames on a horse you really love on paper and in person, in the parade and for the last three months, well, that’s heart breaking.