Monday, April 30, 2007

A Break From Baseball (Or Why Real Quiet Keeps the Faith)

This week, I will not have any new baseball posts, and will instead be focusing on what is either my third or second favorite professional sport (I can’t make up my mind; it would probably be second if you asked me on Saturday, but third on Super Bowl Sunday), thoroughbred racing.

If you have any degree of respect for my baseball acumen at all, take that and divide it by 100 or so, and that is the degree of respect you should have for my opinions about horse racing. I make no claims to be an expert at all. This is a real good reason to ignore my Friday post in which I will attempt to handicap the Derby, but I think that I have good common sense arguments in this one.

Every year, around the Triple Crown campaign, there will be stories about how long it’s been since there was a Triple Crown winner, and about how tough it is to win the Triple Crown, and invariably there will be musings on whether or not anyone will ever win the Triple Crown again. Sometimes, you will even see the word “impossible” thrown around.

The early entrant into this genre in 2007 comes from Dave Schreiber in the St. Petersburg Times. In the interests of fairness, I should point out that at no time does Mr. Schreiber’s piece claim that it is impossible to win the Triple Crown. In fact, I think it’s a bad piece at all (although of course there are things I disagree with), I just want to use it as a starting point for discussion. I’m sure that somebody else, somewhere, will go ahead and throw out the impossible card at some point.

Twenty-nine years and counting. Imagine if that much time elapsed before the NFL could determine its next Super Bowl champion or college basketball could crown another Final Four winner. But in thoroughbred racing, the ultimate achievement - the Triple Crown - remains a rarely witnessed pinnacle of greatness.

This is the opening of the article, and it is simply silly. The Triple Crown is not the championship of American racing. The championship of American racing is the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year, or you could make the case for the Breeder’s Cup Classic (since we are talking about the Triple Crown, I’ll take for granted that we are talking about the classic division and not the turf or sprint or other divisions that have their own championships and Breeder’s Cup races). There is still a champion horse and a champion three year old if the Triple Crown is unclaimed. A much better example, brought up in the next sentence by the author, is the Grand Slam in golf. No one has won that in forever, longer then the Triple Crown; that doesn’t mean that there was no champion golfer in all of those years.

Does it mean so long to any realistic hope of seeing another Triple Crown winner?

This follows an overview of how tough it is to win a Triple Crown, and that part is spot on--it's hard as all get out. But to jump from “It’s really hard” to “It will probably never happen” is never a good idea. It’s real hard to win 300 games, or win four gold medals in a single Olympics--but there’s a pretty high probability that those things will happen in your lifetime, particularly when no cap is put on it.

"It's become the Holy Grail that nobody can quite get their hands on, but it will happen again, " says Cauthen the youngest jockey to win the Triple Crown at age 18.

Steve Cauthen, jockey of the last winner Affirmed, is right on.

Since 1979, 10 horses have won the Derby and the mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness, only to fail in the punishing Belmont Stakes.

This should be your first clue that there is a realistic hope. If ten times a horse has gotten to the point where they only needed one more win to do it, then there’s probably a pretty good chance that it CAN be done. Even if the horse would be a relative longshot, say 15-1 in true odds in the Belmont, you would expect it to happen every forty-five years or so at the rate we’ve been seeing horses win two races.

What's more, in six of those attempts, the favorites finished second or third behind horses who skipped either the Derby or the Preakness or both - one of the many traditional hurdles that must be surmounted.

This is a good point, and one of the many reasons why it may well be harder to win the Triple Crown in 2007 then it was in 1977 or 1937. I have no problem if that’s the argument that people want to make, that it’s harder now. I can accept that it’s hard; I can’t accept that it’s too hard to be done.

From here, the article goes on to describe how you need luck, and about how there are so many bad things that can go wrong. Again, there is no debate on this point. You need luck to win the Derby and the Preakness. But given that that is accomplished, you only need enough luck to win one more race. There are a number of cases since 1978 in which a horse has just barely been defeated or has run into obvious bad luck, that any claim of being impossible is shattered, because it doesn’t take much good luck to change the outcome to wins.

For instance, in 1979 Spectacular Bid supposedly stepped on a pin in his stall the night before the Belmont, causing him discomfort and taking him off of his game. What if Easy Goer’s connections had decided that continuing the rivalry with Sunday Silence in 1988 was a bad idea, waited to pick it up in the Travers or Breeder’s Cup, and not entered Easy Goer in the race? In 1998, Real Quiet was in a photo finish with Victory Gallop; the picture is at the bottom of the entry. That right there could be the beginning and end of the argument for it being possible; if you can come within a nose, you can win the Triple Crown. In 1999, Charismatic broke down in the final furlong of the Belmont. Even if one grants that the extreme stress of the Triple Crown campaign was the cause of the breakdown (since many other horses break down, on your low stakes local racetracks, it is hardly a given that that is the case), what if the injury had occurred just ten seconds later? In 2002, War Emblem stumbled out of the gate; granted, I don’t think there was a snowball’s chance in hell he was going to win anyway, but that’s another one. In 2004, Smarty Jones was beaten by a length by Birdstone. What if he had not been sent to the lead so early in the race? What if Birdstone had stepped on a pin in his stall, forcing him to be scratched? Who would have beaten Smarty Jones then?

And of course, I have only dealt with those that one the first two legs. What if Point Given in 2001 had not run the worst race of his life in the Derby? He went on to pull a Triple Crown of his own, taking the Travers after the Preakness and the Belomnt, which very few have done. What if Afleet Alex could have found another three-quarters of a length in the 2005 Derby? What if Barbaro had not broken down, or if Bernardini had run in the Derby last year? Or what if Barbaro had broken down in the Derby rather then the Preakness, and Bernardini had been in the field?

The point is, if there are this many reasonable scenarios where you change one detail and have a Triple Crown winner, then it cannot be impossible to have one. One could argue, I think, that recent years give encouraging reason to think a Triple Crown winner could come sooner rather then later. We just had a string of five straight years in which a horse had taken two of the classics snapped; that kind of streak had not occurred since 1939-1944.

Too many horses have come too close to winning to believe that we are not likely to see it at some point. Just ask Real Quiet.

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