Headline: "Kentucky Derby-winning owner thumbs nose at Preakness. Says, in effect, 'You can't eat tradition.' Opts for $2.6-million payday in something called the 'Jersey Derby.' Horsemen applaud, press deplores." Some days ago in these columns, a colleague saw fit to reprise a little monograph your correspondent had written on the occasion of the 1963 Preakness.
In it, a little unkindly perhaps, I alluded to the fact that, if the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont were sisters, the Preakness would be the ugly one with the buck teeth and the glasses.
What I had reference to was that a good horse, Candy Spots, that year had dawdled all over the track in the Derby and then summoned up all his strength to run to a smashing victory in the Preakness, and that I had felt like shouting at him, "No, no! you schlamazel! Not this one! That one last week in Kentucky!"
What I was saying was that winning the Preakness after blowing the Derby was like saving your game for the Greater Greensboro Open and only puttering around in the Masters, or saving your best forehands for the clay courts championships and experimenting with them at Wimbledon.
But does this mean that I think owner Dennis Diaz and his trainer, whose name I forget, did the right thing in passing up this year's Preakness and a possible Triple Crown win for mere money at Garden State?
By no means. The Preakness may be the ugly sister of the Triple Crown, but she's Elizabeth Taylor compared to the Jersey Derby.
I never thought Candy Spots should have stayed out of the Preakness, I merely thought he should not have saved his best race for it instead of the Derby. I thought, and still think, if you've got to win only one of those two races, the Derby should be it.
But I also always believed that a horse who won the Kentucky Derby had a moral obligation to run in the rest of the Triple Crown races.
You see, racing people are always in a posture of pretending that their game is a sport, not a business. They syndicate these animals for millions of dollars at stud. Fortunes have been founded on the exploits of one fleet colt plucked out of an auction.
But what makes a horse worth millions? He can't pull a wagon, plow a field, pack the mail or lead a cavalry charge. What he can do is attract people at the gate. He's a star--like Robert Redford, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt.
You don't get to be a star winning the eighth race at Garden State the last Monday in May. The public doesn't care about that race. The public doesn't even know about it.
The public cares about the Triple Crown, in the same way it cares about the World Series, the Super Bowl, Wimbledon, the U.S. Open.
The Triple Crown races are the showcases of the sport. They make gates and promote the sport generically. They are focuses of attention. Tamper with them and your sport recedes in the public consciousness. Phase them out and see how long your stallions will be worth $50 million.
Winning Derby owner Dennis Diaz's action smacks of killing the golden goose. His horse, Spend a Buck, is eligible for a $2-million bonus if he wins the Jersey Derby in addition to the Derby and the races he's already won at Garden State, the world-renowned Cherry Hill Mile and the ever-popular Garden State Stakes.
The Cherry Hill Mile doesn't get horse racing's names in the news coast to coast. It only gets them in scratch sheets read by guys who are more interested in the horse's post positions than their names, guys to whom Man o' War would have been "the bottom horse." Cherry Hill, Garden State and the Jersey Derby ain't the Triple Crown. As far as I'm concerned they're the triple nothing.
Diaz is 42 years old. The Preakness is 110.
Now, while tradition for tradition's sake is eyewash, a lot of people have put in a lot of years dramatizing, promoting, evangelizing this race in order to capture the attention of the American public for this race and the two surrounding it.
Diaz is like a lot of Johnny-come-latelies in sports. He thinks these things have always been around, that his horse is intrinsically worth the $2.6 million or so he's going to get. He isn't. I hate to tell you what Buffalo Bill would have offered for him. David Harum wouldn't even have swapped for him.
If there isn't any Triple Crown, he is worth what the Central Park bridle path will bring.
Racing is a billion-dollar industry only as long as the little old bettor shows up. Not the hard-core, but the hat-pin brigade, the ones who get interested through the office Derby pool. The Jersey Derby isn't going to do it for these folks. Neither is the Paumonok Handicap, or the Withers or the Lawrence Realization.
Diaz thinks his colt won't like the Pimlico surface, that the Garden State will suit him better. Well, isn't that too bad. What is it, a contest--or an exhibition? A sport? Or a lottery? If racing is a sport, let's treat it as one. If it's a business, let's list it on the Big Board.
Personally, I think Spend a Buck and jockey Angel Cordero "stole" the Kentucky Derby. Even at the shorter Preakness distance, I would never expect him to beat Chief's Crown and Stephan's Odyssey by 5 lengths. I would not expect him to beat them at all, if you want to know the truth.
But we'll never know, because we're not dealing with a sport here. We're dealing with something as athletic as corporate bonds. Dow-Jones should cover it, not Sports Illustrated.
One thing is sure: Stephen Foster would never write a song about "My Old $2.6-Million Home." Horses would not parade to the post to the strains of "Million Bucks, My Million Bucks."
The Preakness may be the Triple Crown's homely sister but she's still family. No matter how much money she throws around, that other one is just a dance-hall strumpet. The horses in the Jersey Derby should come out to the tune of "The Jersey Bounce." That's what racing is getting.