The process begins and ends with a horse, a bonding that occurs along the road to the Kentucky Derby and can leave a human forever changed.
As winter dissolves into sprint, two dynamics are simultaneously at work, one involving the initiated, the other those about to join their ranks.
For horseplayers, the process of evaluating a new crop of 3-year-olds leads eventually to a decision, a future-book play perhaps, a wager on the first Saturday of May or no bet at all. More than a few astute speculators in short-term pari-mutuel futures view the 20-horse Kentucky Derby as a puzzle with too many pieces and far too many possibilities, a valid point for those who consider every position in terms of risk versus potential reward. Horseplayers battle one another every day. Passing America’s Race is not sacrifice.
The Derby is ecumenical, a test for those whose livelihoods are ground out with 6-5 shots Wednesday through Sunday and an undeniable lure to those whose flings with 50-1 longshots come 12 months apart and always in May. The Derby is meant for people who bet $2 and root for a horse that caught the eye somewhere between January and April. It is also a race that can foster the transformation from casual observer to fan, which is a complicated process that leads a few to a more significant, long-term immersion.
Quite simply, the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown are the sport’s best marketing tools. New blood is set aboil during this five-week span, the flame ignited by a horse. One Secretariat is worth a thousand Jeremy Lins. Every Derby winner is by definition unlikely, the hero of a unique Cinderella story.
The flinty, hard-edged horseplayer was once a wide-eyed neophyte who saw something unexplained that drew him to a horse, a Derby-bound 3-year-old, perhaps, that in turn drew him or her to a sport that never lost its charm or loosened its grip, which only tightened in a gnarl of intricacy.
But first, there is the bond — an unexplainable human connection with a horse. Union Rags became that horse for some who watched his powerful victory in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park. They will settle in front of a television on May 5 to see him run. Rooting will be enough. Others will find that connection as the process unfolds. The pale-grey Hansen, champion 2-year-old of 2011, no doubt gained many supporters with his impressive victory in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct on Saturday. Hansen already has people wearing tee-shirts that proclaim him to be: “The Great White Hope.” Time will tell that story. Alpha? What’s in a name?
Every racing fan encounters that first horse, an animal that for reasons never quite clear, stirs the imagination and becomes a life-changing event writ larger for some than others but never lost to time.
Mine was Tim Tam, winner of the Derby and Preakness in 1958, first seen long before my initial introduction to a racetrack on a far-less-than-high-definition black and white television screen winning the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah and the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in the Devil’s red-and-blue (grey and darker grey when translated by the technology of the time) colors of Calumet Farm. That first Derby horse, especially one that is ultimately successful, is unforgettable and the connection forged with the sport itself is permanent. From that spring, the search for the next Derby winner has been if not always successful then perennial.
Tim Tam emerged in an age when racing was still a major, front-page sport and an important part of Saturday afternoon television. So was boxing and the Friday-night fights. Major League Baseball had yet to be challenged by professional football for the hearts of Americans. The National Basketball Association was in its infancy. Hockey was played in a handful of American cities by Canadians. The daily newspaper was still the source of most information and the sports sections in late-afternoon editions carried the results of that day’s double at the local track.
As television evolved into the fast-track to stardom, Secretariat made more racing fans in 1973 than perhaps any horse in history. To this day he is known to people who have never seen a horserace. Seattle Slew, with an untamed dominance, and Affirmed, with dogged, shirtsleeve determination, won the Triple Crown during the same decade. Their races well beyond the Derby were major events that drew people in great numbers wherever they ran because a racetrack remains the one place where for the price of general admission a person can get within arm’s length of a legend.
There certainly is no developing 3-year-old on the horizon with the ability and charisma of any of these but the individual search for a Derby horse, as always, gains momentum with the ascent of the sun in the southern sky in the waning days of winter. Though 35 years have passed since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown, the passing springtime has provided many who have captured the imagination, from Spectacular Bid to Real Quiet, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide. Jockey Mike Smith told everyone who would listen that Giacomo would win the Derby. Mine That Bird was someone’s Derby Horse. There need be neither rhyme nor reason for an attraction as subtle as a wink. Nothing is required beyond an undefined connection that can be entirely ethereal but horses like these are the ones that make lifelong fans, beget new horseplayers, some of whom become owners and breeders in a self-renewing wheel of life that grinds forward, year upon year, generation upon generation.
Spring is again upon us.
Found your Derby horse yet?
Originally Posted on ESPN