You’ve got to hand it Jess Jackson. The man sure knows how to keep things interesting. Following his official announcement today that his filly Rachel Alexandra will not run in the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita this October, the horse racing world is once again buzzing with passionate debate. Already folks are lining up on one side or the other. Depending on where you stand, his decision was either totally correct or tragically flawed.
Given my history of affection for his previous champion, it’s probably not surprising that I’m in the former camp.
Allow me to explain in detail.
First things first. Not a single day has gone bye since last October that I haven’t remembered with disgust the sight of watching Curlin, the world’s undisputed best dirt horse, struggle over a turf impersonating Santa Anita Pro Ride in the 2008 Classic. As a testament to his courage, heart, and talent, he managed to get to the front as the field straightened out for the stretch, but it was only for a fleeting moment. Within seconds he was being blown past by the likes of eventual “champion” Raven’s Pass. In my mind, for fans of Curlin and for horse racing, this was an absolutely unforgivable crime.
I said it last year, and I’ll say it again now:
“Artificial surfaces produce artificial (dirt) champions.”
It’s really as simple as that.
Now, looking back at Jess Jackson and his decision: Put yourself in the man’s shoes. Despite it being a veritable money pit from a profitability standpoint, the man brought back the 2007 Horse of the Year “for the fans”, and raced him around the world from Kentucky, to New York, to Dubai. He was victorious everywhere he went. What was the thanks he had in the end? Oh yeah, that’s right: “Hey Jess, now you have to ship your horse to California to run over a plastic surface!”
Great, grand, wonderful. Way to ruin our precious little field trip!
Now we’re left with a perplexing situation. Just weeks ago, folks were declaring their “concern” that Jackson would have the audacity to run Rachel Alexandra in either the Preakness or the Belmont. “My god….has he lost his mind??? Doesn’t he realize she’s just a filly?”
Rachel put those concerns to bed by romping from gate to wire, holding off the Kentucky Derby winner to become the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness. Moreover, she instantly established herself as the most popular 3-year-old in the nation, as well as the most talented.
Fast forward to today, and it’s amazing that suddenly Jackson is a villain for not wanting to run his horse in (presumably) the Breeders’ Cup Classic? What? I seriously don’t get this.
The infamous “keyboard cat” of youtube fame plays off a true villian
Wouldn’t she be facing boys again in the Classic? Wouldn’t she also have to tackle a new surface? How is that not MORE alarming than the worries expressed prior to the Preakness? Sometimes I think folks just love to hate. Give ‘em any excuse in the world, and they’ll seize on it. Truth be told, Rachel has been on synthetics before. She’s got a victory at Keeneland at the Allowance level, but the Pro Ride at Santa Anita is an entirely different story.
Need another consideration? What about her running style? She’s basically a front runner, with the ability to press/rate if the situation demands. My question for fellow handicappers is this: When considering the chances of a speedy type such as Rachel, aren’t you more comfortable with such a runner on a true dirt surface than a synthetic surface? To be fair, it’s not like front runners DON”T win at Santa Anita. They do…in fact sometimes they win in bunches, but typically you expect a synthetic race to be run closer to a traditional turf race – with a bit of a cavalry charge finish. My suspicion is that if Rachel had to fight for the lead every step of the way, as she did against Big Drama in the 2009 Preakness, that she’d probably fade in the stretch. I’ve no interest in seeing that, personally, and I’m sure Jess feels the same way. It’s not fair to the horse, it’s not fair to the purity/integrity of the game and the “championships” themselves, and it’s certainly not fair to those that love her and want to see her put in position to succeed.
Consider for a moment the role of the owner in all of this. In other sports, such as football, we praise coaches who “get the most of their athletes” by “putting them in position to win.” Sending Rachel to run in the Classic over the Pro Ride at Santa Anita would not be consistent with “putting her in a position to win.” In fact, in my mind it would be more like playing someone out of their natural position.
“Oh, what’s this? Manny Ramirez moves in from Left Field to play Shortstop! This ought to work out well for the Dodgers!”
Obviously that would be crazy, right? Well, perhaps with the right Performance Enhancing Drugs…nah, never mind. It’d be sheer lunacy. Heck, even the picture below of Manny walking to his outfield position through shortstop just looks wrong.
Or, think of it this way. If you follow pro football transactions, and specifically along the defensive line, you’ll hear teams talking about needing a “3 technique tackle”, or a guy who can play Defensive End in a base 3-4 defense as opposed to a 4-3. True, you get a few “tweeners” who seem suited for both, but bye and large players tend to succeed when they are put in the correct position and given the best chance to succeed.
For example, Tom Brady will likely once again be the top player selected in many of our Fantasy Football drafts in the coming months (provided the owner holding the 1st pick wasn’t burned by his injury last year). He’s one of the top quarterbacks in the game (if not THE top). But you’d never stick him in at Running Back though, would you? You’d never ask him to suddenly play middle ‘backer, either. That would be insane. Why? Because you’d be asking him to play out of his natural position.
Rachel Alexandra’s natural position is taking a field gate-to-wire over a true dirt surface. That’s where she excels. That’s when she’s in the “best position to succeed.” Why on earth should someone be forced to place her anywhere else? Just because it’s “the Classic?” I only ask that for all those who are determined to blame Jackson for “ruining the Breeders’ Cup” by refusing to run her, that you have the same level of anger directed at the Breeders’ Cup for their decision to force the hand of owners who aren’t interested in bringing their dirt horses to run for plastic championships. In my opinion they’ve now cost us 2 potentially brilliant champions in both Curlin last year, and Rachel this year.
…And all for the lure of the marketing dollar. That’s what this is really all about anyway. The only reason the race is at Santa Anita again this year is so the BC could schmooze it up with local businesses and sell more infield real estate See, personally, as a fan of racing, I could give a rats ass about that stuff. I don’t really care how much Nextell is ponying up (no pun intended) for an advertising booth. What I care about is seeing championship caliber racing. If you look at it that way, if we’ve sold out the true spirit of top quality racing for the almighty marketing dollar, then I’m actually happy if this entire decision blows up in their collective faces.
Seriously….I can’t let this go….didn’t it just feel hideously wrong to anyone but me when handicapping the “dirt mile” last year when it wasn’t even going to be run on dirt? There’s just something basically wrong with that, no matter how you slice it.
Jackson took one for the team last year. He sent his horse like he was supposed to. He gave it the old college try. It didn’t work. What’s that famous saying folks like to trot out from time to time to sound uber-intelligent? “Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.” Well, sounds to me like Jess has learned from the mistakes of the past, and he’s determined not to repeat them. After all, you don’t become as successful and wealthy as he is without having a keen ability from a decision making standpoint.
Several weeks ago in the Daily Racing Form, Steven Crist pondered whether it was time to revive the idea of permanently moving the Breeders’ Cup to a “neutral” site like Churchill Downs. I couldn’t agree more. Especially if we’re going to pretend that the Classic is our biggest race and should have a major say in determining who our overall champion is.
“Artificial surfaces produce artificial (dirt) champions.”
That’s my take. What’s yours?