When Failure Is Not an Option
According to some — no doubt inspired by the fact that for two years running the U.S. Horse of the Year has been female — Blind Luck should now be considered for racing’s top honor. It’s an intriguing proposition to be sure and, from a talent standpoint, one worth considering. However, many dismissed the notion out of hand.
There was the expected (and perfectly reasonable) argument that Blind Luck has yet to face males — or run a truly fast race, her fine effort in the Del. ‘Cap notwithstanding. But there was also the contention, which I first saw advanced by a Facebook friend of mine, that Blind Luck had already lost too many races (3) to be considered the best horse in training. And that got me to thinking: Have we reached a point in the Sport of Kings — or in society as a whole — where failure is no longer an option? Sadly, I think the answer is yes.
In a 2008 commencement speech at Harvard University, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling (apparently, Snooki wasn’t available) noted that “some failure in life is inevitable.”
“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default,” Rowling said.
And Rowling should know. In that same address, the muggle-born author pointed out that, prior to creating the world of witches and wizards that made her famous (and more than a little wealthy), she had failed “on an epic scale.”
“An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded,” Rowling related, “and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. The fears that my parents had had for me, and that I had had for myself, had both come to pass, and by every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.”
Of course, Rowling's story ultimately had a happy ending, but — and this is the point I’m trying to make — had she thrown in the towel before the publication of her first novel, or had anybody judged her merits as a writer prior to that time, J.K. Rowling would probably be just another coffee shop weirdo with dreams of writing a book.
By the same token, what if Seabiscuit had been retired after he went winless in his first 17 starts, a span of races that included four forays into claiming events? Clearly, the Daily Racing Form (DRF) and the Thoroughbred Racing Associations of North America (TRA) would have needed to find an alternative Horse of the Year in 1938 — and the brilliant Laura Hillenbrand would probably be just another coffee shop weirdo with dreams of writing a book.
The same goes for the great Stymie. Although never voted Horse of the Year, Stymie captured numerous prestigious events in his 131-race career, including the 1946 Manhattan Handicap and Gallant Fox Stakes, as well as the 1947 Empire Gold Cup (boasting a purse equivalent to $1.1 million in 2011), over Triple Crown winner Assault. Yet, he began his career in a most inauspicious fashion, winning just once — in a $3,000 maiden claiming affair — in his first 19 trips to post.
In recent years, this emphasis on not losing has become almost an obsession. In the 1970s, a period that witnessed three Triple Crown winners go on to be named Horse of the Year, the overall winning rate for the country's top steed (as determined by the DRF and TRA) was 65.8 percent, down from 69.3 percent the previous decade.
In the new millennium, the rate currently stands at 78.2 percent.
Not surprisingly, this increased winning proficiency has come with a price. From 1960-79, the Horse of the Year started an average of 11.1 times per year; since 2000, that number has plummeted to 7.1 starts per year. While some may attribute the decline to a more fragile breed of racehorse, it's hard to completely ignore the other explanation: that owners and trainers are simply sheltering their top stock.
While many took issue — often in a very vociferous manner — with Zenyatta's 2010 championship campaign, it's not like Blame, Zenyatta's main rival for Horse of the Year, ran his guts out either. In fact, weak competition or no, Zenyatta (six starts) actually answered the bugler's call more often than her male counterpart (five starts) last year.
What this intolerance towards failure has effectively done is made owners and trainers even more cautious about where they place their charges — all in the guise of “doing what’s right by the horse” (there’s nothing like a gullible public to make dubious decisions seem reasonable). Naturally, this has led to fewer and fewer starts by stable stars, as well as the glut of specially-written races we’ve seen in recent years, e.g. the Timely Writer Stakes and the New Orleans Ladies Stakes (just to name a couple).
What’s more, focusing on the flawless may well be one of the reasons that American racing has lost so much of its appeal. After all, Seabiscuit resonated with people, in part, because he was a blue collar champion in a white collar world. When “The Biscuit” faced War Admiral in that now-famous Pimlico Special match race on Nov. 1, 1938, it was like David vs. Goliath all over again. Only this time, David slapped Goliath into submission, as Seabiscuit humiliated War Admiral by beating the regally-bred colt at his own game — going wire-to-wire and scoring by four widening lengths.
But there’s another pitfall related to dismissing all the little-trains-that-couldn’t in the racing game. Mainly, doing so ignores the fact that, just like fine wine, some horses get better with age and experience. In short, they improve.
In 1969, just prior to Canadian rocker Bryan Adams’ best summer ever, the Horse of the Year award looked like a foregone conclusion. Undefeated in nine lifetime starts — including a perfect seven-for-seven in ’69 — Majestic Prince was the obvious honoree. Included among his victories that year were both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, in which he defeated Arts and Letters by a neck and a head respectively.
But a strange thing happened on the way to the awards ceremony. Some reports claim that Majestic Prince came out of the Preakness Stakes with a “developing” tendon problem, others say that the horse was simply tired. Whatever the case was, trainer Johnny Longden (a retired Hall of Fame rider) made plans to ship the colt back to California and skip the Belmont Stakes — a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the racing industry and left many questioning the moral fortitude of Majestic Prince’s owner Frank McMahon.
Under intense media scrutiny, McMahon promptly did an about-face, announcing that his charge would run in the final jewel of the Triple Crown a mere 48 hours after publicly supporting Longden’s decision to give Majestic Prince some time off. In an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated, McMahon explained his change of heart:
In the first place, nobody made this decision but myself, and it was not because of newspaper criticism, most of which hadn't even appeared in print when I made up my mind. Roughly the sequence of events is this. On the Sunday after the Preakness, when Johnny told me he felt the colt needed a rest, I went along with his decision. I felt that if he was all that tired Majestic Prince should remain at Pimlico a while and then come on to Belmont anyway to see how he progressed. What disappointed me, to say the least, was that without my knowledge Longden ordered a plane for California.However, as Longden had suspected, something was, in fact, amiss with Majestic Prince. Although he finished second to Arts and Letters in the 1969 Belmont, he was beaten by 5 ½ lengths that day and never raced again. Meanwhile, Arts and Letters followed his Big Apple triumph with wins in both the Jim Dandy and Travers, as well as the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup versus older foes.
I came home to Palm Beach Sunday afternoon and stewed about this whole thing for two days and two nights. Why in hell am I doing this? I asked myself. Why are we ordering a plane and leaving the show? This colt should be with the others at Belmont, and if he's O.K. he'll run. If he's not, he won't. If he runs and gets beaten, at least he will have tried. Sure, he might lose; he might not want to go a mile and a half. But I'm thinking to myself, there's one chance in 50 million that I would ever get in this position again. Win or lose, if the horse is all right it's something I've got to go for. And I knew perfectly well that once Majestic Prince got to California there would be no chance of getting him back to Belmont Park for a race on June 7.
So Tuesday evening I called Longden and said, 'I want to stop this whole thing and ship the horse to Belmont. I own this horse 100 percent, this is the way I want it and this is the way it's going to be.' Longden listened to me and then replied, 'If you want the press to train the horse that's O.K. with me.' I answered him quickly, 'The press is not training this horse. You are. Do you think he can win the Belmont?' 'Yes,' said Longden, 'he can win.' 'O.K., that's what I want you to do; do your best to win the Belmont.'
Hence, despite six losses (including two to his primary rival), Arts and Letters was named the Horse of the Year for 1969.
It seems to me that turf writers then realized what turf writers and fans of today have forgotten — that it doesn’t matter where you start in life, it’s where you end up that counts.
At least that’s what some weirdo at a coffee shop once told me.