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Jim Murray

The Chance of Lifetime Comes Once

May 20, 1986|Jim Murray

Oh, dear! Anybody got any aspirin?

California racing has done it again. There it was in black-and-white headlines: "Snow Chief, 11th in Kentucky Derby, Wins Preakness."

It's depressing. It's like those guys going out and setting national and world records in their events two weeks after they have flopped in the Olympics. It's like thinking of a snappy retort the next morning or on the way home. It's like catching two aces just after you have discarded one.

You want to take the horse by the ears and scream a him. "Not now , you klutz! Not this one ! That one two weeks ago. You know, the one where they play that song (here, you hum a few bars of "My Old Kentucky Home"). The one where all the women were wearing these big hats and gloves. The one where they put the weeds in the drinks. Didn't you notice all the movie stars, the politicians, the 125,000 people? What'd you think it was, the fifth at Caliente? Now , you run your race."

The papers are full of phrases such as "vindicated," "avenged," "atoned for," "made amends." Bah! You don't "atone for" losing the Kentucky Derby. You don't "make amends" by winning the Preakness or the Belmont or some funny race at Arlington or Monmouth Park. You don't make up for blowing an opportunity you get only once in a lifetime. You can't say "Wait till next year" about a Kentucky Derby.

You see, the proposition is, California has a massive inferiority complex when it comes to horse racing and the Kentucky Derby. Out of the thousands of horses we breed out here, only three have ever won that race. None have won the Triple Crown.

We breed fast horses, we breed pretty horses--we just don't breed tough ones. When they get to Kentucky, they wilt in the stretch. They usually have to creep back to California and get back on our nice, safe, pasteboard tracks and out of that he-man racing they have where the ground freezes in winter. Eastern interests have historically sneered that California time in races shouldn't count seriously east of the Tehachapis. Our tracks run slightly downhill, they snicker.

They even codified the insult this year. They came up with a look-down-the-nose formula called the "dosage index," which was a polite way of affirming that horse racing was the last stand of royalty in this world and that horses are still ruled by divine right in the sport of kings. Even before dosage, it was common to hear horsemen explain that horses won "on class." It's the antidote to speed, they say.

It was as full of malarkey as the social register. There have been too many full brothers of Man o' War who couldn't win a border claimer, and an English horse who had the dosage index of the hunchback of Notre Dame damn near won the Derby this year. But when Snow Chief ran down the track in Kentucky this year, the genealogists nodded their heads wisely. But, before we put the czar back on the throne, how did Snow Chief outrun his dosage in the Preakness?

Still, to have a horse good enough to win a Preakness after blowing Kentucky is galling. It's like sending your dog out after pheasant and he flushes a family of skunks--or he dives in the water and retrieves an old boot to lay at your feet with his tail wagging.

Snow Chief is a lovely little California colt. Black as coal, as close coupled as a locomotive, game and agile, he won more money faster than any horse in history.

But, if he's the best horse in the Preakness on May 17, if he can beat by four widening lengths the cream of American racing, why couldn't he do it two weeks earlier?

I've said before: If the Triple Crown events of horse racing, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, were sisters, the Preakness would be the one with buck teeth, glasses and a weight problem. The only way it gets in the history books is if the same horse who wins it wins the other two.

You win the Derby or forget it. I'll give you an example: you ever hear of a horse called Little Current? Well, Little Current won the Preakness and the Belmont by seven, repeat seven , lengths, in 1974. He should have won the Kentucky Derby. He got shuffled all over the track in the 23-horse field and was closing from 20th at the head of the stretch to fifth when he got bottled up.

Native Dancer might have been the greatest horse--this side of Man o' War--who ever lived. He only lost one race in his entire life (not even Secretariat can make that boast).

No one lists Native Dancer as the greatest horse in the same lists as Secretariat and company. Because, and only because, the one race he lost--by a nose--was the Kentucky Derby. The whole country is looking on the day of that race. Office pools are riding on it, winter books are relying on it--the whole nation thinks it's the world championship race, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the heavyweight championship, the Open, all rolled into one.

It's the Palace, the Centre Court, the Academy Award. If you don't win it, you don't "atone," "avenge," "amend" by winning the Preakness. You just show how badly you misunderstood the situation. To use the Kentucky Derby as a prep race, a tightener, is like showing up at the Miss America contest in curlers. Or asking Liz Taylor if she's got a sister.

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