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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 last great renaissance of the thoroughbred on a global stage was in the decade of the 1970’s. As we kick off a new year, it’s time to ask: Is another waiting in the wings? 

Frankel spent the holidays reading the thousands of Christmas cards he received from fans around the world. On February 14, he begins his career as a sire. Who says there's no romance in thoroughbred breeding?

Frankel spent the holidays reading the thousands of Christmas cards he received from fans around the world. On February 14, he begins his career as a sire. Who says there’s no romance in thoroughbred breeding?

The title said it all: “Decade of Champions.”

Released in 1980, the beautiful book –now a collector’s item — was produced by noted American equine artist, Richard Stone Reeves, in collaboration with former London Daily Express writer, the erudite Patrick Robinson.The decade to which the book referred was that of the 1970’s and what a decade it had been. In America, three Triple Crown champions: Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed. In Great Britain, the first Triple Crown winner in thirty-six years: the mighty Nijinsky. But that was only the beginning.

The great Seattle Slew, 1 of 3 winners of the Triple Crown in the 1970's, pictured here by Richard Stone Reeves in "Decade of Champions."

The great Seattle Slew, 1 of 3 winners of the Triple Crown in the 1970’s, pictured here by Richard Stone Reeves in “Decade of Champions.”

It was as though the racing gods were having a non-stop celebration of all that was mighty and memorable about the thoroughbred. Racing, whether on the dirt, turf, or over hurdles, truly deserved its title as the Sport of Kings –and Queens:  Ruffian, Forego, Spectacular Bid, Alydar, Exceller, Dahlia, Alleged, The Minstrel, Brigadier Gerard, Mill Reef, Vigors, Allez France, Pawneese, Roberto, Waya, Rose Bowl, Dahlia, Shuvee, Cox’s Ridge, Cougar II, Majestic Prince, Youth, Optimistic Gal, Red Rum and L’Escargot, Artaius, Empery, Shirley Heights, Ivanjica. They hailed from all over the world — a parade of champions.

The absolute star of British racing in the last century, the brilliant Brigadier Gerard.

The absolute star of British racing in the last century, the brilliant Brigadier Gerard.

The wonderful Mill Reef and trainer, Ian Balding

Mill Reef and trainer, Ian Balding. Barely taller than a pony, the mighty colt would win the Epsom Derby and the Arc in the same year for owner, Paul Mellon.

Was there a horse with a greater heart than Alydar? In the 1970's, most North Americans would have said, "Absolutely not!"

Was there a horse with a greater heart than Alydar? In the 1970’s, most North Americans would have said, “Absolutely not!”

"The greatest horse to ever look through a bridle." He may have lost the Triple Crown due to the misfortune of a pin stuck in his foot, but Spectacular Bid was one of the stars of racing in the 1970's. Shown here in his "walkover" at

“The greatest horse to ever look through a bridle.” He may have lost the Triple Crown due to the misfortune of a pin stuck in his foot, but Spectacular Bid was one of the stars of racing in the 1970’s. Shown here in his “walkover” at the Woodward Stakes of 1980.

Between them, they managed to shatter records and turn convention on its ear: two consecutive wins in The Arc (Alleged), three consecutive wins in the Ascot Gold Cup (Sagaro), a winner of both the Epsom Derby and The Arc (Mill Reef) and the emergence of the most brilliant miler in the history of British flat racing, (Brigadier Gerard). Below are Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard running in the 2000 Guineas of 1971:

And the fillies! They showed their heels to the colts with staggering consistency. Among their routs of the boys: winning the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes three times in four years, capturing The Arc four times in seven years, annexing The Washington International twice in three years, as well as earning the prestigious Champion Stakes (UK) four times over a period of six years. Even the coveted Jockey Gold Cup fell to the ladies for two successive years.

San San, a daughter of America's Bald Eagle, as she appears on the cover of The Blood-Horse after her Arc win.

San San, a daughter of America’s Bald Eagle, as she appears on the cover of The Blood-Horse after her Arc win.

The gutsy Three Troikas polishes off the decade by winning the Arc. She joined Allez France, San San and Ivanjica as the last of four "girls" to win it over a span of 7 years.

The gutsy Three Troikas polishes off the decade by winning the Arc. She joined Allez France, San San and Ivanjica as the last of four “girls” to win it over a span of 7 years.

Watch as the brilliant mare, Allez France, defeats the Queen’s Highclere and Comtesse Loire — as well as the colts! — to win the Arc in 1974:

Dominant sires of this renaissance were Northern Dancer and Bold Ruler. But there were others who played roles that altered the racing narrative of the seventies in dramatic fashion,among them the stallions Vaguely Noble (Exceller, Dahlia, Empery), Sea Bird II (Allez France), Nashua (Shuvee), Hoist the Flag (Alleged), Reviewer (Ruffian), the prepotent Never Bend (Mill Reef) and Bold Bidder (Cannonade, Spectacular Bid). As well, broodmares like Somethingroyal (Secretariat), Won’t Tell You (Affirmed), My Charmer (Seattle Slew) and Flaming Page (Nijinsky) brought their bloodlines to bear on the making of thoroughbreds who were to become legendary. Of course, there were surprises — bloodstock who weren’t brilliant producers coming up with stars, notably the stallion Firestreak, sire of Epsom Derby winner Snow Kinight.

Bold Ruler with trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons.

Bold Ruler with trainer, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. As a sire, he produced Secretariat, Bold Bidder, Waya and What A Pleasure, among others. Bold Ruler was also the great grandsire of Seattle Slew throiugh his grandson, Bold Reasoning.

Dahlia never won the Arc, but Nelson Bunker Hunt's filly won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (defeating the likes of Roberto), the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, the Man O' War Stakes and the Washington DC International over a space of two years.

Dahlia never won the Arc, but Nelson Bunker Hunt’s filly won the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (defeating the likes of Roberto), the Benson & Hedges Gold Cup, the Man O’ War Stakes and the Washington DC International over a space of two years.The daughter of Vaguely Noble was  adored by racing fans worldwide.

Exceller, a son of Vaguely Noble, was also owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt at this time. He deserves to be remembered for the champion he was and not only his tragic fate.

Exceller, a son of Vaguely Noble, was also owned by Nelson Bunker Hunt at this time. He deserves to be remembered for the champion he was and not only his tragic fate.

How good was Exceller? The son of Vaguely Noble was good enough to beat two Triple Crown champions in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. Affirmed (Steve Cauthen) was seriously hampered by a loose saddle, but be that as it may, Exceller’s performance was stunning:

Zoom forward to 2013.

Zenyatta, Deep Impact, Frankel, Danedream, Galileo, New Approach, Empire Maker, Black Caviar, Oasis Dream, Redoute’s Choice, Goldikova, Invincible Spirit, Bernardini, Medaglia d’Oro, Igugu, Tapit, Rags to Riches, Fastnet Rock, Rachel Alexandra, Lonhro, Exceed and Excel, Orfevre, Royal Delta, Havre de Grace, King Kamehameha, Gentildonna, Street Cry ……. these are but a few names of elite thoroughbreds who are globally leading the charge to what may, indeed, be a time full of promise on tracks from Hong Kong to Belmont to Longchamps. In truth, the number of established to promising thoroughbreds in both hemispheres who are now in breeding careers is astounding — simply too numerous to mention here. It is inconceivable that these talented individuals will not align in this decade or the next to produce something akin to the thoroughbred renaissance of forty-three years ago.

Does Zenyatta know something about her first born's future? The colt, by leading sire Bernardini, is definitely one to watch in 2015!

Zenyatta with her first born. The colt, by leading sire Bernardini, is definitely one to watch in 2015!(Photo and copyright, Mathea Kelley)

Australia's beautiful Redoute's Choice.

Australia’s beautiful Redoute’s Choice.

The magnificent Deep Impact, working out in his paddock.

The magnificent Deep Impact, working out in his paddock. The son of Sunday Silence is the sire of Japanese Triple Crown winner, Gentildonna as well as a host of other fine individuals.

The stallion Exceed and Excel.

Darley’s Exceed and Excel has most recently sired Excelebration and the Australian champ, Helmet.

Some, like Frankel, Havre de Grace, Goldikova and Danedream are newly-retired and have yet to make any impact at all. In the case of Khalid Abdullah’s superstar, decisions will have to be made about just how much more Northern Dancer blood is desirable in Frankel progeny. (Frankel is inbred to Northern Dancer 3 X 4 (Galileo, Danehill), to Natalma (4 X 5) and to Buckpasser 5 X 5.) As was pointed out in The Blood-Horse (January 2013), if Northern Dancer is to be virtually eliminated in prospective broodmares selected, Frankel will lose out on about 40% of the best potential there is at the moment — a testimonial as to just how sweeping the Galileo and Danehill influences really are in European and Southern Hemisphere thoroughbreds.

Impossible to think that the champion, Rachel Alexandra, won't exercise her own influence on the generations of thoroughbreds to come.

Impossible to think that the champion, Rachel Alexandra, won’t exercise her own influence on the generations of thoroughbreds to come.

Havre de Grace and Plum Pretty, December 2012. As the HOTY and her gorgeous companion prepare for a new career, we are invited to hope for babies like them.

Havre de Grace and Plum Pretty, December 2012. As the HOTY and her gorgeous companion prepare for a new career, we are invited to hope for babies like them.

On the bright side, some 15 American mares have been accepted into Frankel’s first book, among them Oatsee (Unbridled ex. With Every Wish by Lear Fan {Roberto}), Balance (Thunder Gulch ex. Vertigineux by Kris S. {Roberto}) and In Lingerie (Empire Maker ex. Cat Chat by Storm Cat {Storm Bird}). The interest of American breeders in Frankel and the “40% Question” that dogs his pedigree makes one wonder if this isn’t a fabulous opportunity for the North American and Southern Hemisphere breeding industries, since some of their finest boast influences that have already proven successful when mixed with Northern Dancer descendants. For example, the sire Deep Impact — heralded as one of Sunday Silence’s  best — is a product of the Sunday Silence/Northern Dancer cross. Other superstars, like Black Caviar and Japan’s Gentildonna are still racing, although it is likely they will retire in 2013. It has already been suggested that Black Caviar will go to Frankel.

Balance shown here with her A.P. Indy colt, Mr. Besilu (2009) who is still unraced.

Balance shown here with her A.P. Indy colt, Mr. Besilu (2009) who is still unraced.

Oatsee nursing Shackleford.

Oatsee nursing Shackleford.

First progeny of champions Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra and Blind Luck have yet to strut their stuff, but their longterm influence on the American-bred thoroughbred can only be positive. Young sires like Bernardini, Fastnet Rock, Empire Maker and New Approach are producing fine-to-brilliant winners and the more established sires, notably Galileo, King Kamehameha, Deep Impact and Tapit, are showing remarkable consistency in producing champion offspring with both depth and scope. And the broodmares are more than doing their part — individuals like Better Than Honour, Helsinge, Kind and Vertigineux immediately come to mind.

Bernardini in the Southern Hemisphere at Darley Australia in 2011.

Bernardini in the Southern Hemisphere at Darley Australia in 2011. (Photo and copyright, Bronwen Healy.)

King Kamehameha, a son of Kingmambo, has been visited by mares like Stardom Bound, who recently produced a colt by this up-and-coming Japanese sire.

King Kamehameha, a son of Kingmambo, has been visited by mares like Stardom Bound, who recently produced a colt by this up-and-coming Japanese sire.

Zenyatta's second foal is sired by Tapit, shown above.

Zenyatta’s second foal is sired by the handsome Tapit, shown above. The Gainesway stallion is off to a very impressive start at stud.

Darley's Shamardal, a son of Giant's Causeway, is a young stallion that has already had success on the track. Together with Footstepsinthesand (Giant's Causeway), he was recently hailed as one of the best young sires of 2012.

Darley’s Shamardal, a son of Giant’s Causeway, is a young stallion that has already had success on the track. Together with Footstepsinthesand (Giant’s Causeway), he was recently hailed as one of the best young sires of 2012.

However, not every champion produces champions. And some of our contemporary thoroughbreds may need more than one generation to exert the kind of influence they will undoubtedly bring to the evolution of the breed.

The foundation for another “decade of champions” (if it hasn’t already begun) appears to be there for the taking.

But it will require that the breeding industry worldwide exerts the kind of patience it took to arrive at a Deep Impact, or a Frankel, or a Galileo, or a Montjeu. Of course, smaller breeding enterprises can’t afford to wait. But those who can need to act on the understanding that no stallion will immediately produce a string champions in his first or second season. It takes time. Recent examples of impatience in the Northern Hemisphere — fed by a market place that is looking for a rapid return on its investment — are the soft reception of brilliant prospects like Smarty Jones and Invasor (a winner of the Triple Crown in his native Uruguay, as well as the 2006 Breeders Cup Classic and the 2007 Dubai World Cup) or the sale of Empire Maker and I’ll Have Another to Japan. There is nothing wrong with enriching the breed — in fact, it is an essential aspect of what has become a global industry. And clearly, the glut of Sunday Silence blood in Japan requires that Japanese breeders look elsewhere for stallions and mares that might work well with Sunday Silence bloodlines.

Three Chimney's Flower Alley has had the kind of patient management one would want for all promising young stallions. ow, as the sire of the champion I'll Have Another, he's finally getting the attention he deserves.

Three Chimney’s Flower Alley has had the kind of patient management one would want for all promising young stallions. ow, as the sire of the champion I’ll Have Another, he’s finally getting the attention he deserves.

The mighty Curlin, who stands at Lane's End, is sure to leave his mark on the thoroughbreds of the 21st century.

The mighty Curlin, who stands at Lane’s End, is sure to leave his mark on the thoroughbreds of the 21st century.

Nor is the practice of introducing different strains of bloodstock a new one: the Aga Khan sold many excellent individuals to outside interests in the 20th century — among them, Mahmoud — and North American racing owes its beginnings to imported stallions from Great Britain and France. But when a stallion is marginalized because his produce are not immediately successful, or because it is thought that he won’t get the time he deserves to prove himself, the foundation for greatness starts to crumble.

No question that we live in a world where the concept of time, and its incumbent impact on our expectations, has speeded up considerably from what it was back in 1901. Nor can the realities of the global marketplace be ignored. But sometimes, in order to go forward, one must agree to go back. And in order for the promise of a Frankel or a Zenyatta and so many other exceptional individuals to come to fruition, leading breeders must do exactly that by exercising the kind of patience, knowledge and wisdom that breeds a champion.

(Below is footage of Smarty Jones’ daughter, the fabulous Better Life, winning the 2012 Longines’ Singapore Gold Cup two months ago. Born in Australia and out of a Sunday Silence mare, Better Life was crowned the Champion Miler of the Southern Hemisphere in 2012.)

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