Everything about the Triple Crown is big.
The crowds are big. The track is deluged with enormous numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent in bets alone.
The media scrutiny of the horse’s ‘team’ is overwhelming. You can’t pick up a pile of manure from behind the horse “Favored to Win the Triple Crown” without having to explain to a pair of idiots with a microphone and a camera what it is you’re doing.
The TV network televising the race has well dressed, microphone toting nitwits all over the place, looking for a human interest story to fill in three hours of advertising before the actual one and a half minute race. Most of the people couldn’t tell you the difference between a colt and a filly, even if you shoved him underneath the horse.
The pressure on everyone on the favorite’s team is mind numbing. The jockey is followed into the dressing room. The owner is pressured to bring in anyone in his sphere of acquaintances and family to pose in front of a camera and tell what part they played in the horse’s life.
The trainer has it hardest of all. He’s the real driver of the team. He has to put all his experience of racing horses against the world outside the shed row, explaining everything he does.
This is BEFORE the race.
If the horse wins the Derby and the Preakness, the aftermath is an escalation in magnitude of intrusion and annoyance. Couple that with the phrase the trainer is going to hear a million times before the Belmont: “how do you think your horse will do?”
Underneath it all are the pencil necked shifty eyed insurers. This horse went from being just another animal in a huge pack of Derby horses to The Favorite. Suddenly that horse is worth a shitpot full of money, a lot more than the trainer will ever see in his whole life.
The horse only increases in value if he wins the Preakness. Winning the Preakness suddenly turns a laser of attention on him. Everyone wants another Secretariat. Everyone wants to say “I saw I’ll Have Another win the Triple Crown.”
The trainer of any Triple Crown hopeful is under such tremendous pressure that it must strike terror in his heart. Before the Derby and the Preakness, he was just another horse trainer. Before the Belmont, he is a god, expected to prognosticate and PROMISE that his horse is going to win.
If the horse doesn’t win, the trainer falls from the summits of artificially enhanced glory like a rock.
At the bottom, and usually almost an afterthought, is the horse himself.
He’s just a horse. He doesn’t know, or care, that the hopes, dreams and financial house of cards of hundreds of thousands of humans are suddenly on his withers. He’s just a horse, a Thoroughbred race horse, bred to run and loving it when he does. Whether he wins or not means nothing to him. He wants to beat the horse next to him, but if he doesn’t, it matters not. He wants a good blowout, a nice cool down and a bath, a deeply bedded stall, fresh hay and grain.
Being a Thoroughbred, he goes out and tries his best. The Thoroughbred is the ultimate sport horse. His breed is the gamest of the game, with hearts as big as the ocean, with enough try to move a mountain. He will run on three legs. He will run through pain, masked by drugs meant to keep him from feeling it. He will run because that’s what he does, damn it. He RUNS.
It is the trainer who must protect the horse from himself, and from the fame the horse wins. It is the trainer, ultimately, who must stand up for the horse. He is nobody, really. Who remembers the name of the trainer of Secretariat? (Lucien Lauren) The trainer is the ultimate arbiter.
It is the trainer who has put in hundreds of hours, (usually god-awful ones) in this horse, training him, aiming him at this big monster of a Triple Crown.
When his horse wins the first two races, the third becomes nothing but decisions.
On one hand is the horse he’s trained. He doesn’t even own it, usually.
On the other, are the hundreds of people who suddenly are in his face, all wanting something from him, and all of it ultimately coming down to money.
In a way, the Belmont is a lot like the night before the big wedding. You’ve paid a huge amount of money for the reception, the guests are flying in from the East Coast, you’ve had the ugly dress custom fit. You don’t dare back out now, even though your feet are suddenly freezing.
The day before the Belmont, is when the horse trainer puts his (or her) soul on trial. Are you a Horse Trainer? Or are you the puppet of Big Money? Will you bow to the tsunami of pressure from millions of people who want you to run the horse and win the Triple Crown?
Even if he’s hurt?
A Thoroughbred runs. It is bred in them. They love it. They will run even when it hurts.
The trainer is the one decides whether the horse SHOULD run, or should stay in his stall, eating up lots of money and not making any.
It takes a real horseman to put his horse, his Probably Maybe We Sure Plan on Winning the Triple Crown horse, on the track three hours early, just to confirm a feeling that something was wrong with that leg.
That’s was real horsemanship. He put the horse on the track before the cameras got there, so he could LISTEN to what the horse was saying.
A real horseman asks the horse what he is feeling.
It’s real horsemanship to understand what his answer is.
It takes a spine of steel to accept the answer, no matter how disappointing it may be.
It takes a big, big pair of steel balls to call up the owner on Friday, 8 June 2012, and say, “Mr. Reddam, we need to scratch.”
It takes equally strong character to be the owner and say, “OK, Doug, you know best.”
Right now a firestorm of anger is raging on the internet. Many, many fools out there are pissed because Doug O’Neill STOLE their chance to see I’ll Have Another win the Belmont, and become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years.
They’re roasting him like a giant hotdog.
These fools have stopped understanding, or don’t want to understand, or are incapable of understanding, that I’ll Have Another is a horse. He’s not a programmable machine. He’s not a Sure Thing, Gar Ron Teed to win the Triple Crown. He’s a horse. An animal. One that, ultimately, is the true decider of winning or losing.
They didn’t consider the fact that I’ll Have Another may have lost.
They (and a lot of trainers) would have run the horse, regardless of whether the horse was in shape to do so. Pop him with some Bute and run him. There’s a lot of money to be made on him. Cross your fingers he doesn’t break down in front of millions of people, and run him.
What O’Neill lost in the eyes of these fools is miniscule, really, in comparison to what he’s gained in the eyes of real horsemen.
Those of us, who understand, do.
I salute O’Neill, for having the courage, the moral and ethical strength to say, “No, he’s not going to run.”
I am so sorry to not be able to say I saw I’ll Have Another win the Triple Crown, because I really thought the colt had a good chance.
But I’d rather see the horse standing in his stall tomorrow on Belmont Day, then see him lying on the track, transformed from The Great Hope to a very, very expensive mound of dog food.
Congratulations, Doug O’Neill, for your courage, your empathy, and your very profound horsemanship. Because of your strength and wisdom, I’ll Have Another WILL.