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Archive for March, 2019

As the incomparable WINX marches on, in a campaign that has us all witnessing history-in-the-making, what is it that keeps us coming back to watch her race again?

The psychology of sport is arguably as fascinating as the sport itself. And while those of us who follow horse racing think we do it out of a passion for thoroughbreds or standardbreds, what gets our cranial pleasure centre pumped is the risk that our champion of the day might lose. It could be convincingly argued that without the potential for loss, sport might not exist at all. Because winning — especially winning all the time, despite the odds — is boring.

As much as metaphors of horse racing extol its capacity to inspire hope, the possibility that our four-legged hero or heroine might be conquered is as intoxicating. In a sense, we repeatedly tune in for a Winx or a Rachel Alexandra or a Frankel race because the possibility that they’ll be defeated is irresistable. Which is not to say that we think about this consciously: we don’t think “Will Zenyatta lose?” rather, what we tend to write, speak and ask ourselves is more like “Can Zenyatta do it again?”

Case in point was Zenyatta’s bid for a second consecutive win in the 2010 BC Classic. Even though the loss was painful for fans and her team, broadcaster Trevor Denman spoke a text rich in the nuanced possibility that defeat might, indeed, happen.

Since 2010, it has been the thinking of most racing experts that the great mare ran the best race of her career in defeat. But what most of us remember about that day is the anticipation — and the foreboding — as Blame and Zenyatta near the wire. And Denman’s words, “…Zenyatta ran her heart out…”

The part of the brain that controls pleasure is the amygdala and when we are in contexts that excite us or move us to a level of “brain happy”, as in intense physical workouts or deep meditation, the amygdala releases dopamine into our system. Dopamine is a natural “high” that gives us feelings of intense, emotional well-being, relieving stress and anxiety in a matter of nano-seconds. Arguably, our excitement watching a big race like the 2010 BC Classic is as much about the thrill of the loss as it is about the thrill of the win — and the amygdala cooperates by responding to our heightened senses as we watch to see what will happen.

And the “what” in “will happen” is written in the tension between win and loss, victory and defeat. In the great Frankel’s last race, the ground was less than ideal, and the colt was caught “sleeping” at the start:

Granted, the “nail-biter” of Frankel’s last appearance on the track resolved itself fairly quickly when the colt made his big move in the stretch against a valiant Cirrus des Aigles.

But many of the greatest, most beloved thoroughbreds have come perilously close to sufferring defeat at least once in otherwise brilliant careers.

One instance of this would be Personal Ensign’s victory in what would be her final race, the 1988 BC Distaff, where with heart-thumping courage she struggled in the slop against the winner of the 1988 Kentucky Derby. This race stands as arguably the best performance ever seen in a Breeders Cup Distaff/Ladies Classic. The stakes were high: Could the undefeated Personal Ensign finish off her career with a win against the Kentucky Derby heroine?

The 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup was still another battle to the wire. It featured two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, as well as Nelson Bunker Hunt’s Exceller. Although, sadly, many know Exceller because of his end in a slaughterhouse in Sweden, the colt was a champion who had won races in Europe as well as America.

As you will see in this (rather poor quality) footage of the 1978 Jockey Gold Cup, Seattle Slew ominously rushes out of the gate before the start, although this didn’t appear to dampen his ability in the slightest as the race gets underway. But as viewers in the moment we, of course, don’t know this. And the “Can Slew do it?” is in the forefront as the race gets underway. The track conditions are sloppy but racing fans were firmly entrenched in either the Seattle Slew or Affirmed court:

 

Champion EXCELLER portrayed by Richard Stone Reeves.

The rare defeats of champion thoroughbreds only seem to make racing enthusiasts respect them more. This might be because a champion has proved his/her vulnerability, making them appear a little more like the rest of their human following. The poet Sylvia Plath wrote, “Perfection is terrible … Cold as snow breath..” and, in a sense, our passion for a particular thoroughbred champion is also based on their overcoming the stasis of perfection, which they do by bravely facing the music again and again and risking everything.

The corollary of hope is despair, and loss is one of the experiences that triggers feelings of despondency. Perhaps no other event in the last century of racing in England was as keenly felt as Nijinsky’s narrow loss to Sassafras in the 1970 Arc.

The British people had easily fallen for the brilliance of their Triple Crown winner and so much hope was placed on a triumph in the Arc. But what most had no way of knowing was that Nijinsky had fallen ill to an extreme case of ringworm during the season and that his run in the St. Leger, the last leg of the British Triple Crown, was against the advice of his trainer, Vincent O’Brien. But as owner Charles Engelhardt wanted Nijinsky to run in the Arc — another request frowned upon by O’Brien — the St. Leger was the only decent prep moving forward.

Had O’Brien’s sage advice been heeded, there would have been no Triple Crown winner of 1970. And, as it turned out, the trainer’s judgment about the champion’s fitness for the Arc was also correct.

Still another lacune was Lester Piggott’s ride on Nijinsky in the Arc: he held the colt back too long and whipped him near the finish, causing Nijinsky to shy and lose any chance he may have had to beat Sassafras:

 

The 1970 Arc. It was this close — NIJINSKY on the outside in a photo finish.

Still, it was a photo finish. But when Sassafras was declared the winner, the despair of Nijinsky’s handlers was visceral. They were not alone. Just across the English Channel, England and Ireland felt the loss every bit as keenly.

Had he won under circumstances that would stop most horses cold — from a poor post position to the distance he was asked to travel to reach Sassafras – Nijinsky would have gone down in history as THE thoroughbred of the century. But such was not to be. However, Nijinsky’s courage and raw ability could not be denied: in defeat, he was glorious.

The Hero’s Journey is played out in myth,religions, literature, film and popular tv series around the world.

Since the beginning of time, myths of the hero’s journey have been written. It’s a formula that we all know very well, however we might have learned it: the hero/heroine is born but orphaned early in life — to realize his/her true heroism, s/he must accept and overcome a series of challenges — triumphing over all, the apprentice becomes a true hero/heroine.

In modern times, we recognize the pattern of the ancient hero myths in Shakespeare, in George Lukas’ original Star Wars trilogy, in book series such as Harry Potter and author Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” in Marvel characters (Superman, Spiderman, Wonder Woman et al.) and in television series like Game of Thrones.

But it was theatre and sport that first popularized the hero myth for enthusiastic spectators in the ancient world, pitting individuals against challenges both psychological (as in the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex) and physical (marathon runs, chariot races, etc.) That tradition has continued to the present.

GOSHAWK walks onto the track. The image evokes the hero entering the fray, and few capture it better than the incomparable C.C.Cook. Date: 1923. (Source: The Vault, private collection)

The pageantry of a horse race echoes, in microcosm, the journey of the hero. Out the horses come, one by one, in the pre-race parade. Each is a warrior going into a battle where the outcome is far from assured. And as we watch them, we can’t help but imbue each one with the courage they so rightly deserve. Once the race is on, we are presented with a micro-battle scene, as horse and jockey overcome all that is thrown in their way to cross the finish line first. If they come home leagues ahead of the field, or fight it out to get their nose down first, they triumph as only a hero or heroine can.

BATEAU (Man O’ War) seems dwarfed by the enormity of the track, reminding us of the challenge she faces — and will be asked to overcome. Another of C.C. Cook’s “racing portraits.” (Source: The Vault private collection.)

 

The Dwyer, July 1920. MAN O’ WAR, with Clarence Kummer up, on his way to the post. Cook frames the colt’s readiness for battle in an image that depicts his taut body and pricked ears, underlying the determination that was so much a part of Man O’ War’s character. Keeneland Library: Cook Collection. Used here with permission.

The drama of a race in which we have invested our hopes and fears is cathartic because we, too, have run races in our own lives. We have funded courage against the odds and struggled to overcome them, and we have succeeded or failed in the process.

Win or lose, the thoroughbreds we have grown up with and come to love, go on. And as we participate in their campaigns, we are also subconsciously reliving places in our own lives. How else to explain our unerring understanding of the grammar of loss and our enthusiastic reception of the crucible through which thoroughbred champions come to be?

 

 

 

BONUS FEATURES

Out of the past: A few of the many other breathtaking performances that are personal favourites (below), listed at random.

We’re certain that our readers have their own favourites. Many of these are available on YouTube if you’d like to relive them.

 

Secretariat — The Belmont

 

Ruffian — The Mother Goose

 

Rachel Alexandra — The Kentucky Oaks

 

Barbaro — 2006 Kentucky Derby

 

 

Tiznow & Giant’s Causeway — 2000 BC Classic

 

Dance Smartly — 1991 BC Distaff (following her winning the Canadian Triple Crown)

Invasor & Bernadini — 2006 BC Classic (also features Lava Man, Flower Alley, George Washington, Giacomo, Lawyer Ron & Brother Derek):

 

Zenyatta — 2009 BC Classic

 

American Pharoah — 2015 Belmont Stakes, winning the Triple Crown

 

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