By SEAN CLANCY
TODAY is the Belmont Stakes, the culmination of another roiling and baffling Triple Crown. First there was Mine That Bird, the gelding who shocked 18 likelier winners of the Kentucky Derby. His jockey, Calvin Borel, deftly guided Mine That Bird from the back of the field; he saw every horse and passed them all. Two weeks later, Borel put Rachel Alexandra on the lead to win the Preakness; he saw nothing but her ears.
Mine That Bird emulated Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson. Rachel Alexandra campaigned like Hillary Clinton, but better; she won. Today, Borel will be back aboard Mine That Bird and he’ll probably get the job done.
That’s the thing about Thoroughbred horse racing. Nobody knows what’s going to happen today or any day. That’s part of the deal. Get over it.
Racing has taken a lot of knocks lately. Trainers run afoul of drug testers. The amount of bets — the handle — is down. Attendance is worse. Racetracks are closing. The filly Eight Belles died in last year’s Derby. Then Big Brown went to New York, needing only to saunter around Belmont Park’s sandy oval to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in the sport’s history. He finished last, as Da’ Tara led beginning to end. Big Brown won two more races and retired. Da’ Tara hasn’t won a race since.
Outsiders sulked. Insiders laughed. Not at Big Brown, but at the lunacy of the sport to which we’ve devoted our lives.
“People ask me all the time, how do you win so many races?” said Rachel Alexandra’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, who’s had 256 first-place finishes this year. “Do you know how many races I lose? That’s how you win that many, you lose that many. I went 0-for-18 last Saturday, had a 2-5 shot in a stakes, she got beat a nose. I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Asmussen recently said to me.
So, today, people will lump their money on Mine That Bird or, thinking back to Da’ Tara, one of the horses with longer odds. They’ll think they can predict the mindset and the ability of a living, breathing creature that sleeps standing up and can die of a stomachache.
People ask me, “What are horses like?” It’s taken me a lifetime of riding, training, writing and betting to finally home in on an answer.
Horses are just like people; there are smart ones, dumb ones, miserable ones, honest ones, simple ones, cheats, freaks, leaders and laggards. They have good days, bad days and plenty of average days. They can be brilliant one minute, horrible the next. They can remember something that happened a year ago and forget what they learned yesterday. They’ll walk placidly into a metal starting gate that clangs and rings when the doors open, and then be scared of a bucket that wasn’t there yesterday.
And we think we know what’s going to happen this afternoon.
Sean Clancy, a former steeplechase jockey, is an editor and publisher of The Saratoga Special and The Steeplechase Times newspapers.
The New York Times