Sunday, June 10, 2007

The Filly Wins!

Rags to Riches, the chestnut filly with the blaze face, was a last minute entry into the Belmont Stakes, the longest and most grueling race of the Triple Crown - 1 1/2 miles. The last time a filly won the Belmont was in 1905, 105 years ago. I mostly don't care much for sport competitions for the very reason that there are more losers than winners, and I feel sorrier for the losers than I feel happy for the winners. I know, I know, that's a disgustingly bleeding heart view of it but I can't help it.

Mom loves the Olympics but I rarely watch them with her. Olympics coverage always includes vast amounts of "up close and personal" information so that everyone there seems to be a hero and heroine who deserves to win. I always feel terrible for those who put in so much effort and come up short.

It's the same way with racing, the Triple Crown in particular. If you watch all the pre-race shows, you find out a lot about the trainers, the owners, the jockeys and the horses themselves. Many of them have extraordinary stories. I usually cheer for the underdog in any athletic event, like the Louisiana jockey who quit school in 8th grade to ride horses and finally won a Kentucky Derby with Streetsense this year and then got to go meet a President and a Queen. His joy was so unbounded that you couldn't help being thrilled for him.

On the other hand, once a horse has won the Kentucky Derby, then I want him to win the Triple Crown. To be a Triple Crown winner, a horse has to be better than good, he has to be great. It hasn't been done since Affirmed did it in 1978. These are three huge races in a five-week span that grind down the physical and mental stamina of the best of horses. Only the strongest, with heart to spare, can stand up to the punishing schedule. Streetsense couldn't do it this year and in the Preakness, he came in behind Curlin.

Then came the Belmont and the entry of the filly, Rags to Riches. The race was slow at the start, which was good for her, since she stumbled coming out of the starting gate. She righted herself and galloped along on the outside until the last half mile. When she and Curlin moved together, it was obvious that the race was going to be between these two. The rest of the pack fell behind as they battled it out, neck and neck. Curlin gave it his all but the crowd roared when Rags to Riches crossed the finish line a head in front. I think even those who'd bet on Curlin were rooting for the filly to beat the more-than-a-century record.

She was cool, calm and collected as they put the blanket of carnations across her neck. And this is why horseracing is my favorite sport. In all other athletic events, the desires and needs of humans are in the forefront. Whether the payoff is in glory or money or simply the driving ambition to be the best, humans push themselves for some reward. I'm not saying that's a bad thing, just that horseracing seems a purer competition between animals who strive to win only because it is built into their DNA. The only motivation that drives a Curlin and a Rags to Riches to be the first across the finish line is guts and heart.

In a time when so many of our sports figures have been sullied by one scandal or another - doping or betting or shaving points or drinking or fighting - there's something special about the integrity of the horses. Not that the humans involved with them aren't capable of corruption. Oh, no, they will do whatever they can get away with to win, just like baseball players, bicyclists or boxers. Horseracing has certainly had its share of dishonest members but this is the people, not the animals. The champions of the track give it their all simply because it is in their nature.