Flatter: Perfectionists cannot be happy with Rich Strike

Flatter: Perfectionists cannot be happy with Rich Strike
Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire

Horse racing has an impossible dream. Knowing there is a public that drives by to glance at it only a few times every spring, the sport’s self-anointed guardians have set an even higher bar. It is a greedy quest for perfection that permeates everything this side of Man of La Mancha.

(Editor’s note: Man of La Mancha is another one of Ron’s geezerly references that may be dismissed breezily with “Google it, kids,” when, in fact, the kids know he was the inspiration for, “OK, boomer.”)

When owner Rick Dawson and trainer Eric Reed decided they were not going to send their unlikely Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike to the Preakness Stakes, there was the attendant hue and cry that this was bad for horse racing.

See early preview of Belmont Stakes on HorseCenter.

This came from the same populous who declared that an 80-1 long shot who came from the claiming ranks to win America’s biggest race was the greatest thing that could happen to horse racing.

A perfectly good story on its own merit, right? But then came the decision to eschew the Preakness, and the pitchforks and torches outlined a phalanx of ill will. They were wielded by a rabble who decided that team Rich Strike was selfish. That it did not care about racing.

It was like seeing a cactus flower that blooms only one day a year. Why enjoy the flower when the cactus is there to gripe about the other 364 days?

Of course, this caterwauling had to be stretched beyond the time it takes the earth to run a route race once around the sun. Since this was the second time in four years that the Derby winner was not given the chance to see the sites of Baltimore, now the whole schedule for the American classics has to be changed.

Let’s remember what brought us to this Triple Crown drought, the one that goes all the way back to 2018. (Golly, grandpa, what was it like back in 2018?)

Justify won the Triple Crown and never raced again. Then Country House was awarded the Kentucky Derby and never raced again. Then COVID came along, and it was decided to run the classics four months apart for horses as old as 3 1/2. Then came Medinagate.

Sure, this was a typical quadrennium. Let’s rewrite 103 years of Triple Crown tradition based on the only race-day disqualification in the history of a race that nearly dates to the Civil War. And a once-in-a-century pandemic. And a drug dispute that ultimately will be decided not by horsemen but by men and women who wear robes in public.

If the object is to extend the amount of time the masses remain interested in horse racing, that will be like trying to convince a dog to keep chasing the same ball for more than a few minutes. Even a cat gets sick of staring at the same shiny object. Our own species has an even shorter attention span.

The proposal has been proffered repeatedly that the Derby should stay put in early May, the Preakness should be run in June and the Belmont around the Fourth of July.

Just how is that supposed to keep the public focused?

First, if the Preakness were to be pushed back, the Maryland Jockey Club would lose all the money spent by thousands of well-oiled students who use the infield at Pimlico for their end-of-the-school year bacchanal. The only horse most of those scholars saw last Saturday was ridden by a police officer. It is unlikely that a few more four-legged creatures would lure them all the way back to town two or three weeks later.

And if the Belmont were pushed into July, explain how it would work if a Triple Crown were not on the line. The afterglow of the Kentucky Derby would be a foggy memory by then.

Too often we hear the mainstream public say, “Oh, I didn’t realize the Preakness was today,” or, “I forgot they were running the Belmont.” Stretching the races eight or nine weeks apart simply would feed the attention-deficit beast that is the 21st-century public.

But back to Rich Strike. He is coming back for the Belmont Stakes. Can we not be grateful for that? Frankly, some might make the argument that if he were to win it, then it might make his once-in-a-lifetime Derby victory a little less special.

Remember Temperence Hill? In June 1980 he crashed the classics and, at 53-1, he won the Belmont Stakes. A once-in-a-lifetime triumph, right? Except this out-of-nowhere horse was brought back for five more Grade 1 races that year. And what do you know? He won two of them – and the Eclipse Award as the top 3-year-old.

Somewhere out there, I suspect there was a public outcry about Temperence Hill spoiling the Genuine Risk vs. Codex showdown in the Belmont. Why ruin a perfectly dark cloud with a festive parade?

God forbid, what if Rich Strike never raced again? He could be horse racing’s answer to Margaret Mitchell and Boris Pasternak and Harper Lee. (I am going to wear out your Google machine, kids.) Would that be so awful?

All this reminds me of when I lived in Las Vegas in the early days of the pandemic. You know. Back when we used the term “novel coronavirus” and spelled COVID with a “19.”

There are not many Nevada bookmakers who are into horse racing, but I think I know all of them. They have colleagues and peers who would not know if a horse ate hay or filet. Yet they were grateful. When there was no baseball or basketball or hockey, at least those otherwise dark Mondays and Tuesdays were salvaged when betting was available at Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs.

As baseball and basketball and hockey came back that summer, horse racing receded to its all too familiar place in their shadows. You know. With tennis and golf and soccer. And the bookies who could not care less about horse racing just plain forgot about it.

That led one of the oddsmakers who did and continues to care about our sport to snarl whenever we spoke that summer on a Zoom call or that old contraption called a telephone. He would repeat his new mantra.

“Horse racing blew it.”

Come again?

“Horse racing blew it,” he said. “If there was one, single commissioner instead of 38 different states going 38 different directions, racing could have made a big comeback.”

Yeah. Just like American Pharoah was going to save the game. How did that work out?

It was not enough that the racing got a ton of attention on those Mondays and Tuesdays when sports gamblers were funneled into watching horses running in central Nebraska and northeastern Oklahoma.

This goes back to having your cake and eating it, too. Actually, the original line was, “Would ye both eat your cake and have your cake?” John Heywood asked that in 1546.

As I was researching that in my old copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (kids?), I would come to find out this Heywood bloke worked for and survived King Henry VIII. Turns out the guy was an epigram machine.

“Beggars should be no choosers.”

“I know on which side my bread is buttered.”

“Rome was not built in one day.”

This guy was a regular Dr. Phil, wasn’t he? Heywood also uncorked this one. “A man may well bring a horse to the water, but he cannot make him drink without he will.”

Aside from the clunky old grammar, John Heywood could have written that while scolding greedy, 21st-century racing types, the whole time shaking his ink-tipped quill at all of us who want to milk the Rich Strike story absolutely dry.

But, hey. Who needs Don Quixote, anyway? (Kids?)

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