As the Thoroughbred tribe dispersed from its heady gathering at Belmont Park June 5, still flush with more media coverage than it could have dreamed, the question in everyone's head became, "How do we keep this tidal wave of interest going?"
For five weeks, horse racing actually morphed into a major sport in America's consciousness: covers of major sports magazines; column inch upon column inch in newspapers that normally don't give it the time of day; hours of programming on television sports channels and coverage on news reports around the country. How, then, do we keep the sport from slipping back to the netherworld of oblivion?
In a word, rivalry. Let's look at the baseball model, where Dodgers/Giants, Cubs/Cardinals, and Yankees/Red Sox power the sport. Last winter, the Alex Rodriguez saga, in which he was first going to sign with the Red Sox, and then ended up in New York, kept the sport in the headlines for months before the season's first pitch was thrown.
Now, it is the easiest thing in the world to tell someone else what to do with their horse. But this is the scenario that is best for the sport: Smarty Jones needs to face Birdstone in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga Aug. 28.
I know, the Chapmans want to run their horse in front of the local fans at Philly Park in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) Sept. 6. But why not have the track write another race for the horse? It was done for Cigar when he ran at Arlington Park; it's done regularly for big horses around the country by racing secretaries who want to please trainers and keep "name" horses at their tracks.
If the Chapmans were to announce they plan to re-engage Birdstone in a "Showdown at the Spa," the sport would reap headlines through the summer. It's a natural: the blue-blooded spoiler in the Whitney colors vs. the people's horse, the one and only Smarty Jones. It's a story even a third-rate press agent could put in headlines.
Let's face it, Thoroughbred horse racing has become a sport where rivalries no longer exist. After the Triple Crown, 3-year-olds rarely face the foes with which they tangled in Louisville, Baltimore, or New York. Last year's Travers was to be the exception, with Funny Cide and Empire Maker meeting to decide who was the better horse. Neither ended up running. Top older horses almost never show up against one another to establish ongoing rivalries. The Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships serves as the one chance for all to come together, but that too is often marred by injuries and early retirements.
On a practical level, if Smarty Jones went the Penn Derby route and Birdstone were to win the Travers, the divisional championship would suddenly be very much in doubt. Sure, Smarty has the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I), but if Birdstone were to put the Travers in his column on top of the Belmont (gr. I), a win by him in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I) could deny Smarty Jones even the 3-year-old championship.
But that is not the main thrust here. I have no idea whether the Chapmans even vaguely care about such matters. What was evident coming out of the Belmont, however, was the graciousness and sportsmanship of both the first- and second-place connections. For all the Chapmans' disappointment at being denied the Triple Crown, and Marylou Whitney's and John Hendrickson's sincerity in having done the denying, there is but one avenue.
Sportsmanship is a term thrown around far too loosely in this industry. All too frequently, owners claim to be sportsmen out of one side of their mouths while sending our stars into retirement out of the other side. The Belmont connections, though, are different this time around.
Of course we understand owners must do what is right for their horses. Here they have a chance to accomplish that, and at the same time do what is best for the sport they have helped build up to possibly unprecedented heights, if the live attendance and television ratings figures are to be believed.
Let's have a summer of anticipation instead of disappointment. Let this rivalry be proclaimed from every headline and news channel. Give us our showdown, and give our sport a chance to be truly rebuilt. b Lenny Shulman is features editor for The Blood-Horse.