How We Remember the Great Ones

With all the stories regarding Justify's latest status and the pessimism that is building regarding his future, people ask me what I think. Will he ever race again? So to answer everyone at once, I don't give it any thought. I am immune to this repeated scenario that we have gone through so many times with so many shooting stars. If he never races again, so be it. You can't fret about things you have no control over. As disappointing and frustrating as it is, you just accept it, cherish the few great moments he provided, and move on. It is the new nature of the game.

Anytime a 3-year-old star's career is ended by an injury, it is crushing news, especially if he was the dominant horse throughout the Triple Crown and became known nationally. But when that 3-year-old was going to retire at the end of the year anyway, it does soften the blow a bit. American Pharoah's victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic enhanced his reputation, but it also made his impending retirement tougher to accept, as one could only speculate what feats he would have accomplished as a 4-year-old. How many wanted to see Bernardini, on the verge of superstardom, get a chance at 4 to avenge his defeat to Invasor in the Breeders' Cup Classic? He looked like a super 4-year-old in the making.

People wonder why I often hark back to the horses of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and don't reminisce as much about incredibly gifted horses such as American Pharoah, Bernardini, Barbaro, Point Given, I'll Have Another, Big Brown, Uncle Mo and other brilliant horses who were retired at 3, whether healthy or due to injury. Justify will soon be added to that list. The eight horses mentioned averaged 8.4 lifetime starts.

Yes, in regard to writing retrospectives, there have been exceptions, such as Smarty Jones, because of the amazing impact he had on an entire city, the soap opera-like drama that encompassed his life, the number of special times I spent in his presence, and the relationships I formed with those close to him. So in his case it was strictly personal. And remember, although Secretariat retired at 3, he did race 21 times and ran six times after the Triple Crown, five of them against older horses. And he was Horse of the Year before he even turned 3.

But in the other cases, try to picture two very different types of human relationships -- a glorious brief fling and an equally glorious long term relationship, during which you share many special moments and memories. Both were wonderful experiences, but the brief fling is going to fade from your memory a lot quicker than the long term relationship, which often never fades. 

In the realm of Thoroughbred racing, the horses mentioned above were basically brief flings compared to the long term relationships with horses like Damascus, Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, Arts and Letters, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid and so many other dominant 3-year-olds whose career spanned three years or more.

It has nothing to do with talent. It is the familiarity and the number of wonderful times that keep the memory alive and remain with us always. American Pharoah has his passionate fans who still worship him, but California Chrome has his “Chromies,” a large group of zealous followers who will hold him close to their heart forever. Just check out his souvenir shop located up the road from Taylor Made Farm, where he resides. It was his 5-year-old campaign that helped build such a following, just as it was the 4-year-old campaigns of Dr. Fager, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Tom Fool, and Spectacular Bid that stamped their (all-time) greatness. There is a difference between a great horse and an all-time great, and none of those would be ranked among the all-time greats had they not raced at 4.

It was the number of campaigns and the accumulation of memorable victories that made geldings such as Kelso, Forego, and John Henry, as well as a horse like Seabiscuit, so beloved. They became familiar names over a period of time and their victories greatly overshadowed their defeats. Those who did etch their place in history as 3-year-olds, regardless of what they did as older horses, or whether they even ran past 3, such as Secretariat, Man o' War, Citation, Damascus, and Count Fleet, all had extensive careers of over 20 starts before reaching the age of 4.

I realize how much times have changed and how seductive the siren’s song is that calls out from the breeding farms. I will always be excited by horses like Justify and Arrogate and American Pharoah and enjoy them for as long, or short, as they last. All three provided some of the most thrilling moments in racing history, but that is what they were -- moments.

I can't help but think of the closing line of each verse and title of the 19th century song that went:

When my heart you so beguiled
Why did ye sci-daddle from me and the child
Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye

When lightly raced horses are retired at the end of their 3-year-old campaign or before, I come to expect it and simply move on and look for the next one, knowing that in racing we now live in a world of brief flings. So just enjoy them while they last. They will linger for a while, providing joyful thoughts and memories, but it is the long term relationships that withstand the test of time.

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