Building a sport on individual stars is as fragile thing to do. We were reminded of it again Thursday, when Rich Strike and his connections said thanks but no thanks to the Preakness in order to focus on the Belmont Stakes.
Actually, Rich Strike probably had very little to say about it. When I visited him at his farm in Lexington, Ky., this week, he did not seem very talkative. Not the way he was with that pony that startled him after he startled us by winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
This is not like football, right? If Tom Brady cannot play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 70,000 people still show up for the game, and 60 zillion more still watch on TV.
But if Novak Djokovic is kicked out of a tennis tournament, or if Tiger Woods stops being Tiger Woods, or if Lance Armstrong becomes a pariah, their sports become meaningless in the mainstream.
And if the 80-1 Kentucky Derby winner does not go to the Preakness, then it is back to the basketball and hockey playoffs.
I am not talking about us. Not you and me, together, here at Horse Racing Nation. I am talking about, well, just the plain ol’ nation. Once the Triple Crown is removed as a possibility, the general interest level in horse racing ebbs. Just look at the thousands of people who don’t show up for the Belmont Stakes when a sweep is no longer possible.
This ducking of big dates like the Preakness is not just a recent thing. And by recent I do not just mean Country House getting hurt or when Spend a Buck won the Derby and famously took a left turn to chase a $2 million bonus that Robert Brennan used as a lure to his newly rebuilt Garden State Park.
Go back to 1938, when Seabiscuit and War Admiral did a nearly year-long dance before they finally met in their match race that fall at Pimlico. They were supposed to meet that spring at Belmont Park, but then War Admiral’s team pulled the plug at the last minute. In her brilliant book Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand wrote about the two-minute cascade of booing at the track. Imagine if that happened now. Two minutes would be a bargain.
If, as the late TV impresario Don Ohlmeyer told Tony Kornheiser, “the answer to all your questions is money,” what was the point of Rich Strike skipping the Preakness to wait for the Belmont? Wouldn’t a shot at the Triple Crown potentially be the proverbial pot at the end of the rainbow?
One horseman who spoke on background to a couple of us media types this week at Churchill Downs said Rich Strike’s peak value already may have been reached – at least in terms of a stud fee. A Triple Crown, after all, is not going to make that Keen Ice blood any richer in genetic value.
He said the biggest bucks that current owner Rick Dawson might see waved in front of him would come right before Rich Strike’s next start. The thinking there was that among all the suitors who might want to add a Derby winner to their stallion roster, one might be itchier than another, and that could result in a can’t-refuse offer on the eve of the Belmont Stakes.
After that, the risk-reward quotient changes. How much more would Rich Strike be worth if he won the Haskell or Travers or Breeders’ Cup Classic or some other Grade 1? Maybe nothing more at all in the current market. Even if he went to auction, that peak number already may be set in the minds of the would-be buyer. And how much less would it be if he laid an egg in those races?
All this was one man’s opinion, but a learned opinion at that. Thoroughbreds long ago stopped being bred to race. These days they are being raced to breed. No amount of calling for champions to race champions will change that reality. Nor will the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act, the impact of which remains a guessing game, nor the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which feels like it has abandoned its role as a promoter of the game in order to focus on lobbying. But that is another column for another day.
At some point in the coming weeks, we may for the fourth year in a row have three different winners of the three U.S. classics. That sort of non-domination has not happened since 1924-29.
If that happens, there will be breathless hype about how the winners of the Derby and Preakness and Belmont will show up this summer in the Travers. And then one of them won’t. And maybe another won’t. Lather, rinse, repeat.
With apologies to the two most recent Triple Crown winners and even California Chrome, the last horse who really made a difference with the public was Zenyatta. Think about it. American Pharoah and Justify and Chrome already were going to get big followings, because they won the Kentucky Derby, a race that never fails to draw a big TV audience. When Pharoah finally won the Triple Crown, that was supposed to bring the masses back to the sport. Remind me how that worked out.
On the sheer force of her being unbeatable until her last race, Zenyatta built her following from scratch. Who else was going to get so many people hopped up about the Lady’s Secret Stakes? I remember standing on the back side at Churchill Downs with the great European trainer Freddy Head, who stopped everything he was doing that morning just to see Zenyatta gallop. Even her one and only loss remains indelible, and it allowed Blame to make a name for himself. That was all because of Zenyatta.
Again, though, the foundation on which that story was built was fragile. If Zenyatta had not been so durable, if she had taken so much as one bad step to derail her career, that big following would have dispersed. Go home, folks. Nothing more to see here. So, too, it may seem with next Saturday’s Preakness.
If you are like me, you are relishing the betting possibilities and might even see the Preakness itself as being relatively unaffected by the exit of a deep closer like Rich Strike. If Epicenter or Early Voting bows out, then you might have something – at least for us wonks who project pace.
Maybe we all felt like we should react in a certain way to the news Rich Strike was not going to the Preakness. Sort of like we are supposed to react a certain way when we hear bad news about which we really have no interest. (’Fess up. You know you do.)
As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman, “We’ll always have Louisville.” Oh, wait. Never mind.