Thursday, February 19, 2015

Modern Records Broken

As I was walking through the lanes of bloggy nostalgia, I came across a post about my favorite racehorse.
The horse holding this honored position is the unconquerable, invincible, unbeatable Cigar!

Much to my heart's regret, the great Cigar recently became the late, great Cigar. The beloved champion and fan favorite passed away October of 2014.  I was fortunate enough to see the stallion twice at Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions. I know people always anthropomorphise animals-especially race horses-by saying things like "that horse knew he was special". Well, I'm sorry, but Cigar new he was special! There were plenty of other Champions in that presentation that acted like...well...horses. This wasn't disappointing. I love seeing famous horses being horses. Finding pictures of Zenyatta covered in mud or Wise Dan in blanket enjoying a paddock makes me happy. However, Cigar was able to be a horse while still knowing who he was. The stallion simply walked differently. Stood differently. Took in his surroundings differently.   Like Secretariat, he knew where the cameras were. He posed. He knew we were there to see him.

Cigar was also the only horse I have had 'look through me'. I first heard that phrase in the Seabiscuit movie when Tom Smith was getting his first look at Seabiscuit. The narrator lets us know that Smith felt like the horse looked through him. Cigar did that to me. When they brought him around to my side of the pavilion, he had his head up, staring at the distance as I happily clicked away. He ignored me for probably seven shots, and then-without shifting his head-he dropped his gaze to me. I was able to get one photo before I simply froze under his stare. With what I could only describe as horsey satisfaction, he returned his focus to whatever he looked at before. Is it possible that he was simply looking at me and the power of his legend is what caused me to pause? Sure. Does that make as good of a memory? No.
Is that what I actually think?

Back to the title of this post.
In what has become not so recent years, some of Cigar's records were challenged and broken. There was a big fuss made about how these records were finally defeated, but I had to question...were they? If by number, they certainly weren't as impressive.

Now, before you get your hackles up saying I'm just a Cigar follower, both the horses in question are also atop my favorites list: Curlin and Zenyatta.

Curlin beat Cigar's record for most earnings in won in North America. Cigar held that for years before Curlin came along, finally nudging the legend out of the winning position. However, Curlin earned more in fewer races. Cigar had to win more to earn that much. Arguably, he worked harder for it. So, how did Curlin beat him?

Were his connections just more direct with what purses the races they entered held? Curlin's connections sought out fame and fortune, whereas Cigar's did a lot of traveling to share their wonder horse. Because of this, he may have missed out on some bigger winnings.

Have the purses themselves increased? Think about the Breeders' Cup Classic. The purse to the winner has definitely grown there.

So, is that really a fairly broken record? I'm not so sure. This holds true not just for Curlin beating Cigar, but for whomever Cigar beat as well. With more and more money being poured into purses, I think the focus needs to be shifted on how many Graded Stakes did they win. How many were Grade Is? That is where records become impressive.

That thought brings us into my next case: Zenyatta's winning streak. As the mare pounded away at her competition while writing her legend, a lot of hype came about when she was getting ready to challenge Citation and Cigar's win streak. Any horse stringing together his many Graded wins is impressive. Was Zenyatta's triumph over these two boys as impressive? Undecided. While she did extend that streak to 19, she did it over a much longer time span than Citation or Cigar. On one hand, that shows formidable staying power. It is no easy feat to stay at the top of this game for that many years. On the other hand, she was not run nearly as much as her counterparts.

This is simply a different way to view titles and records. So often we place importance on success without looking at the path that got them there. Sometimes, we look at and reward success to a fault. Not allowing the horse to flounder and comeback.  I wonder how many more wins Zenyatta had under her girth after that close loss at Churchill. I wonder how much more money Curlin could have pulled together before the allure of the breeding shed stuck him into retirement. I wonder how many good horses were retired before they could become great simply because they broke a record. Thinking back to a horse named Aggie Engineer. He didn't manage to win until he was 5.  After that, he pulled together some more wins and decent efforts in Graded company. He was a good horse-in his own respect-that managed to sneak into greatness given the time. I wonder how many other horses were denied true greatness in favor of inflated reward? That sounds like another entry for another day. In the meantime...

Stay safe. Stay sound. Stay savvy.

More Than Blood

This is a post I have been meaning to get out forever. One of the topic horses has been standing at stud for 3 years. This idea started to percolate when he was only 2. However, as we are in full swing of the current foaling season, I figured there was no better time to discuss blood vs. the X factor.

People spend a lot of time and money on bloodstock agents. These people work tirelessly to make sure that horses are matched together in a hopeful perfection. Although, it would seem their time would be better suited to worshiping an X factor deity.

You cannot plan for that special horse. You cannot replicate that special horse, but you can keep trying.
My strongest case for this dates back to Barbaro. My heart still breaks for the would-be champion. Often after the Derby, my gut lurches as it relays to me that "nope. That one will not be winning the Triple Crown."
"But gut!" my heart argues, but my gut refuses to listen. Refuses to let me forget it's nagging reassurance that it is always right. Of course I still get caught up in hope and band wagoning as I attempt to ignore its prediction. I cheered for the plucky Funny Cide despite my gut cringing as the gelding took the lead in the Belmont instead of stalking the pace. I really wanted to believe Calvin when he said Mine That Bird would take the Crown. I was devastated that I'll Have Another was pulled from the Belmont. I was very hopeful that California Chrome would win one more for his fans. However, I also always grudgingly have that conversation with my gut. "Well, you were right...again. No Crown for me this year."  The only time my gut and heart were equally impressed and jumping on the same band wagon was after watching Barbaro.

I eagerly awaited his Preakness run. That horse had power, grit, heart, and class. That horse would also meet an untimely end before his potential could be fully realized. Regardless, his connections wanted to try again. So came into the world Barbaro's two full brothers, Nicanor and Lentenor.

Very few have probably heard of these two. Fewer actually remember them. Both of them turned in some wins at the allowance level. They made decent efforts in some Graded Stakes, but neither ever hit or neared the level of talent their brother held.

Same dam. Same sire. Same connections. Same hopes. Completely different outcomes. It makes you wonder what really makes a champion? Michael Martin Murphey hit the mark in his song "Run for the Roses." In the verse that I inevitably get teary at, he says, "From sire to sire, it's born in the blood. The fire of the mare, and the strength of the stud. It's breeding, and it's training, and it's something unknown, that drives you and carries you home."

I think that about sums up breeding. You need a certain quality of blood to increase your chances of creating a champion. Sure. I think we can agree to that logic. However, that X factor, that "something unknown" cannot be bred. It cannot be passed down. Dynaformer and La Ville Rouge were pressured into hopefully creating another Barbaro. They did not. Secretariat saw how many mares a year in hopes of making a "Big Red Jr."? He never did.

So good luck to all those foals who have hit the ground so far and all those we're still waiting for. I hope you hit the ground running with the "unknown" on your side.

Stay safe. Stay sound. Stay savvy.

California Chrome vs Shared Belief: It Continues...

A lot has happened since my last post.
California Chrome was named 2014 Horse of the Year.
Shared Belief won the much anticipated rematch.

And yes...people are still complaining, still fighting, and still missing it.
I have to give fans credit thought. There is a lot more, "dude...chill out...they are both great" comments floating around the Internet with this rivalry.

However, the fallout from the Horse of the Year decision was fairly despicable. Personally, I was not terribly impressed with the nominees to begin with, but I have been spoiled with having the power house Wise Dan as a shoe in. Of the choices, I was surprised to find out anyone was...well...surprised! Kentucky Derby winners almost always get "bonus points" when it comes to voting. Throw in a Preakness victory, and they almost give you the title there. Obviously, this is not always the case, but it does seem to sway a lot of voters.

Regardless, the win did not warrant the reaction it received from some fans. Comments flung about how: the voters did not use their brains; the voters were swayed by emotion; California Chrome didn't deserve to win; Shared Belief is a better horse (yet no comments about how he wasn't even a finalist...); blah blah blah! Seriously though, do these people note realize how voting works? They didn't just go up to the casual fan and ask "who do you like?" Nope. (Although...if they did California Chrome STILL would have won. Remember the Vox Populi Award? Chromies do.) The voters have more prerequisites than "I like horse racing!" Still, they can vote how they want. Sure, they will look at number and types of wins, times, the company they beat, etc., but there is no stopping them from simply going "I like this horse." There were plenty of things to sway the other two candidates out of contention. Let's be honest...after the Bayern bump in the Classic, he wasn't going to win. Although people do use logic, the heart wins a lot too. As for Main Sequence, I cannot say, but I can speculate a lot of people were playing the what if game. "What if Wise Dan hadn't been sidelined most of the season?" There are some ideas that had to be floating around in the minds of votes, just as I can guess some simply went "I can't stand Steve Coburn." (Again, I have nothing against the guy. There are other owners I have bigger problems with.)

Anyway, California Chrome won guys. Get over yourselves. Besides, it wasn't but a few short weeks before you got your win as well! The 2015 San Antonio Stakes was an anticipated rematch between the two stars after Shared Belief got the bump in the Classic. Both horses had a good race; both horses had no excused. Shared Belief came out on top. No Chromies, don't diss the little guy. No Beliefers, don't take away big guy's HoY title. I think Shared Belief has more heart and grit than California Chrome does. I think that came out during the San Antonio. Chrome had no excuses during that race. It just seemed like Shared Belief wanted it more, and so he won it.

Again, I think we need to get away from the name calling and horse hating. Pick a side when they are in a race together if you'd like (or bet the exacta box), but we should be enjoying this rivalry. I am. I am loving the fact we had two, strong three year-olds stay sound enough to come back in the 2015 season. I am grateful to the owners for sharing these horses with us. I am looking forward to watching this rivalry grow. I am eagerly awaiting the next rematch.

Stay safe. Stay sound. Stay savvy.