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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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The track where the 2012 Belmont Stakes will be run is affectionately known as “Big Sandy,” and since the opening of Belmont Park, Big Sandy has been making horse racing history. History can be dry at times, but Belmont Park — as you are about to see — is a site where it comes alive. 

BELMONT PARK: Opening Day

1905, the Opening Day of Belmont Park. In the featured race, The Metropolitan, James R. Keene’s undefeated colt would take on all comers.

Belmont grandstand and track.  (1905)

August Belmont II and William Collins Whitney led a group of prominent investors who built the original Belmont Park. For the first 15 years,  all races were run clockwise as was the case in the United Kingdom, a source of bloodstock patronized by prominent American and Canadian owners-breeders. The clockwise direction also resulted in the finish line being directly in front of the clubhouse, where racing nobility would be seated.

August Belmont II was an avid racing patron and breeder; he is also remembered for being the breeder of the legendary Man O’ War. The Whitneys were another of the founding families of American racing who, like the Belmonts, James Robert Keene and the Alexanders nurtured the sport from its inception to the present. Without their diligence, commitment and enthusiasm, there would have been little chance for the Sport of Kings to flourish “across the pond.”

August Belmont II (hand on hip) with Paul Cravath.

James Robert Keene, circa 1875, a brilliant owner-breeder who had a vision for the sport and a gift for finding and breeding blue-bloods.

William Collins Whitney, the founder of an American dynasty, represented today most vividly by the grand Lady of Racing, Mary Lou Whitney.

When the Belmont track opened on May 4, 1905, it was the running of The Metropolitan that provided the buzz, since the race would feature James R. Keene’s undefeated colt, Sysonby. The innovation of a Long Island Railroad extension from the Queens Village Station, making it possible for fans of more modest means to attend on opening day, made the trip to Belmont Park easy and affordable.

Racing fans arriving at the old Belmont Park in the early part of the century.

The Metropolitan, or “Met Mile” as it came to be known, was the featured race at Belmont on May 4, 1905. The expectation was that James R. Keene’s brilliant colt would win.

Sysonby was ranked by at least one prominent turf writer of the day, Neil Newman, as one of the best three thoroughbreds he had ever seen (the other two were Colin and Man O’ War). The bay colt was not much of a looker and it had been Keene’s intent to sell him overseas, but his trainer, James G. Rowe Sr. persuaded him otherwise.

A son of 1885 Epsom Derby winner, Melton, and Keene’s mare, Optime (a granddaughter of the great Ormonde), Sysonby was to prove himself almost invincible on the track. Sysonby was only defeated once in 15 starts — by the fillies Artful and Tradition in the Futurity Stakes — but in that instance, it was discovered that Sysonby’s groom had been bribed to drug the colt before the race.

Even drugged, Sysonby came home a valiant third.

Sysonby at work. He may not have been beautiful, but he was one of America’s all-time greats at the time of his premature death, from variola, on June 17, 1906. Sysonby was only 4 yrs. 4 months old.

The Metropolitan was to end in a dead heat between Sysonby and a colt called Race King, who carried 97 lbs. to Sysonby’s 107.

The program on Opening Day at Belmont, highlighting the runners in the featured race.

COLIN

Another thoroughbred champion associated with Belmont Park was Colin, who broke his maiden over the dirt there in 1907 and went on to win the Belmont Stakes as a 3 year-old in 1908.

Bred by James R. Keene at his Castleton Farm, Colin’s sire was Commando, a son of the incomparable Domino, both of whom were owned by Keene, who was also the breeder of Commando. The colt was arguably the most prominent of Commando’s offspring, he Domino sire line as an American (thoroughbred) foundation family.

Domino, the grandsire of Colin.

Commando sired Colin, as well as Peter Pan and Celt (sire of Marguerite and BM sire of Triple Crown winner, Gallant Fox). He won the Belmont Stakes in 1901, as would both Colin and Peter Pan. Arguably the best of Domino’s sons, Commando died prematurely of tetanus after producing only 27 offspring. However, those 27 were sufficient to ensure the influence of the Domino line in the modern thoroughbred.

Colin was also trained by James Rowe Sr. and is shown here with asst. trainer, Marshall Lily.

Colin at work with Marshall Lily in the irons.

Colin’s Belmont win —  his fouteenth in 14 starts — was dramatic: the colt was entered even though he had come up lame, either as a result of dual bows in his front legs or severe soreness. His chief rival would be none other than the gritty Fair Play, whom Colin had met and defeated before. On the day of the Belmont it poured and the horses started off in the rain. Fat curtains of fog obscured the track…….

Fair Play, the sire of Man O’ War, during his racing years.

……how Colin did it, we will never really know, but he made it to the wire just before the quick closing Fair Play whizzed passed him. His great heart as well as his racing prowess resulted in his taking Horse of the Year in 1908.

Undefeated in 15 starts, Colin was retired at age 4 and went on to have a moderate influence on the thoroughbred of today, through such descendants as Alsab, Ack Ack, Youth, Broad Brush and Concern. Even though Colin had several owners after his retirement, James R. Keene considered him the best colt he ever bred — and this was the ultimate compliment from a man who had bred many outstanding thoroughbreds during his lifetime.

Below, Alsab returns to Belmont to capture the Withers.

OTHER GREATS WHO TOOK ON BIG SANDY

It’s fair to say that since its opening in 1905, Belmont Park has been visited by all the greats of American thoroughbred racing at one time or another.  Below are a few of the many that raced right into history over Big Sandy, as well as into our hearts and imagination……..

Man O’ War won the 1920 Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths and set a new track record. He would return that same year to take The Jockey Gold Cup.

The great French thoroughbred champion, Epinard, raced at Belmont in 1924. It was one of three international races the colt would run in the USA. He finished third in all three, but his performance was spectacular enough to earn Epinard US Champion Older Male that same year. Owned and bred by Pierre Wertheimer, the colt was ridden by jockey Everett Haynes.

Papyrus, the Epsom Derby champion, met America’s Kentucky Derby winner, Zev, at Belmont in a Match Race on October 20, 1923. Papyrus is shown here with famous jockey, Steve Donaghue, up. Of note, the British Derby champion figures in Zenyatta’s pedigree.

Zev, ridden by Earle Sande, went on to decisively win the Match Race against Papyrus. One wonders if the British colt’s long journey to get to the USA wasn’t a bonus, although Zev was a wonderful thoroughbred in his own right.

Shown below is Gallant Man’s impressive victory in the 1957 Belmont Stakes. Probably the most famous story of Gallant Man’s racing ,career was his loss to Iron Leige in the Kentucky Derby, due to a misjudgement on the part of his jockey, Bill Shoemaker. Mistaking the exact position of the finish line, Shoemaker stood in the stirrups too early. Accordingly, Gallant Man slowed down just before the finish line, allowing Iron Leige to surge passed him to win. The blunder was arguably the worst in American horse racing and Shoemaker never really lived it down.

But in the Belmont, Gallant Man made it all look too easy. The Nerud-trained colt won by 8 lengths, beating Bold Ruler among others, and in a record time that stood until Secretariat.

Lady’s Secret, Secretariat’s most accomplished daughter on the track, would start 45 times in her career, 15 of which were at Belmont. The champion broke her maiden at Belmont and then went on to win the Bowl of Flowers and Rose Stakes, as well as the Maskette, Ruffian and Beldame Stakes twice each. The “Iron Lady” also won the Shuvee, Metropolitan, Whitney and Hempstead Handicaps at Belmont.

Here is Lady’s Secret, winning the Beldame at Belmont:

Undoubtedly, one of the most dramatic runs on the Belmont track came in 1996 in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Skipaway and Preakness winner, Louis Quatorze, took on Cigar in what would be the great horse’s last race at Big Sandy.

“IT WAS LIKE GOD WAS HOLDING THE REINS AND SECRETARIAT WAS ONE OF HIS CREATURES…”

It would be impossible to conclude this article without honouring one of the greatest performances in the whole history of thoroughbred racing.

Big Sandy is many things — a site of history, victory and loss. But it is first and foremost the crucible of thoroughbred racing in this part of the world. And perhaps no horse will ever again dwarf a track that is the deepest, the longest and the most challenging in North America the way Secretariat did on that afternoon in June, 1973.

Told in the words and reminiscences of those who were there to see it, this is a particularly touching tribute to a big red colt who walked onto the track as a possible Triple Crown winner and left it a thoroughbred legend, as beloved today as he was 39 years ago.

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