Great: Racing’s Most Abused Word

This column is about one simple word that in the world of horse racing isn’t that simple, but is used way too often. This is my take on it, which may wind up making it even more complicated than it already is. But it is something we’ll open for conversation and debate.~ Steve Haskin

“Great:” Racing’s Most Abused Word

By Steve Haskin

As Flightline prepares to add another chapter to his already freaky resume when he stretches out in distance in the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic we should be prepared to hear the word “great” tossed around once again. But will a victory make Flightline a great horse after only five lifetime starts or, more reasonably, will it enable him to be considered a potentially great horse? Potentially great becomes great only after you prove you can sustain that high quality over a prolonged period of time.

Today’s generation has a tendency to let the word “great” roll off the tongue way too easily, and all that does is cheapen it until it eventually becomes meaningless and irrelevant.

This is not meant to knock, demean, or downplay the horses of today and their accomplishments, as we have seen some extraordinarily talented horses over the past three decades. But we do have a tendency to deal strongly in semantics and are quick to put the label of great on a horse based on just a handful of races. We put Arrogate on a throne and placed the crown of greatness on his head, and then following arguably his most jaw-dropping performance he fell off his pedestal, leaving him with only four sensational races to combat the passage of time.

The word great can have different meanings to different people. You can’t even find a good definition for it. Checking the list of synonyms for great, it goes from tremendous, wonderful, exceptional, and perfect down to fine, good, able, and admirable and even farther down, as odd as it may sound, to bad, brutal, and cold. So we use the word because it sounds good and we have no other word to use as a replacement.

Nowadays, people in racing use the word as a knee-jerk reaction to every “great” performance they see, as if that one race defines a horse and his or her status. The only way I can explain it, and this opinion could be way off base, is to look at how Broadway theater audiences have evolved. In the past at the end of a Broadway show a standing ovation was not a common occurrence and meant something when it happened. It was a special moment to recognize greatness. But ticket prices for a show have skyrocketed and audiences who are willing and able to spend such outrageous prices need to convince themselves that the money was worth it. So they now give standing ovations at the end of just about every show as if to make them feel as if they were part of something special, or dare I say great. When people stand and applaud, suddenly the price of the ticket no longer matters. They, in their mind, have witnessed greatness. They block out the reality of an entire theater standing and applauding mediocrity.

Using that philosophy in racing, fans and horsemen who never witnessed the heroics of the greats of the past are quick to say following an exceptional, breathtaking performance, “What a great horse!” Trainers are always quick to say “He’s a great horse.” We all want to witness greatness and if we say a horse is great then he or she must be great and we are privileged to have been there to see it.

As a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I found it interesting that of the 10 horses and people we put on the ballot, only two – Beholder and Tepin – received enough votes to get into the Hall of Fame. Should that serve as a reminder that there is indeed a difference between truly great, near great, and very good, and that perhaps we are diluting racing’s greatest honor?

Many people are unable or unwilling to differentiate between an all-time great horse, a great horse, and a horse who on occasion does great things. We pretty much know the all-time greats – Secretariat, Man o’ War, Citation, Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Native Dancer, Damascus, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Round Table, John Henry, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Buckpasser, Tom Fool, War Admiral, Swaps, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway etc – horses and their feats that have survived the test of time. But the most recent of these horses, John Henry, raced 38 years ago.

Some people would put Cigar on that list and it would be hard to argue, but I am not sure if many people would rank him above any of the aforementioned horses. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you name a horse since Cigar in 1996 that you would honestly even consider putting in that category. You can call American Pharoah a great horse, but you wouldn’t call him an all-time great. Same with Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Skip Away, Alysheba, Curlin, Point Given, California Chrome, Arrogate, Invasor, Ghostzapper, and perhaps even Justify despite his abbreviated career.

And even on that list less than half the horses raced in the last 15 years. How many of the 13 horses mentioned will be considered legends of the Turf?

With the exception of Secretariat and Count Fleet the tag of all-time great comes with a degree of longevity, consistent dominance in top-class races against top-class horses, and basically running and accomplishing great things past the age of 3. Carrying heavy weights (130 pounds or more) and conceding a lot of weight also helped define all-time greatness. Today, champions carry virtually the same weight as horses far inferior to them.

To demonstrate the importance of excelling at 4, the careers of Affirmed and Seattle Slew both declined dramatically following their Triple Crown sweeps, but both accomplished great things at 4 and that is what established them as all-time greats; something even a Triple Crown sweep cannot guarantee. But even with Secretariat and Count Fleet, they both still ran over 20 times, were champions at 2 and 3, and had a signature Triple Crown race so spectacular it elevated them to heights never seen before or since.

I have no idea if American Pharoah could beat Count Fleet, just as I have no idea if I would enjoy a $550,000 Romanee-Conti, vintage 1947, more than a $15 bottle of Vinho Verde from my neighborhood liquor store. Is all-time greatness like with wine, a product of time and perception? With a world that changes dramatically with every decade and keeps producing better athletes why do names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio still resound so loudly through the corridors of history?

I am well aware that with the passage of time fact can begin to take on mythical qualities and become fable. Lore becomes folklore. Heroes become superheroes. Stories of Man o’ War and Seabiscuit and Secretariat become tales told in front of the fireplace on a snowy winter night, just as the Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague became living breathing legends to millions of children.

But that may never happen again. Because of the lure of the megabucks thrown out there by major breeding operations that have become stallion collectors, trainers and owners are now afraid to lose for fear of decreasing their horse’s value, so they race them sparingly and rake in the big bucks from inflated purses and early offers from breeders while avoiding exorbitant insurance premiums. As a result, as popular as today’s equine heroes become, and as talented as they may be, their names soon begin to fade, replaced by other whirlwind talents with abbreviated careers.

So instead of proving their greatness on the track over a period of time they are simply called great as if that makes them great. But the true greats were put in a position to get beat, whether by racing often, facing the best competition, racing under any kind of conditions, or carrying high weights. Owners and trainers were not afraid of their horses losing, and as a result defeat was not held against them. What mattered was what great feats they accomplished and how many. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “A great man is always willing to be little.”

It must be mentioned that in racing we are talking strictly about males. Because our “great” colts are retired way too early at age 3 due mainly to financial reasons and are not given a chance as older horses they can never be elevated to the next plateau. Now it is the female that dominates the sport in the history books and is able to elevate themselves into the realm of all-time greats because they are given the chance to prove their greatness over a period of time. We are talking about legends like Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Beholder, who have followed the likes of Ruffian, Lady’s Secret, and Personal Ensign into racing’s pantheon.

This all may sound condescending to some, especially younger fans who embrace their heroes with the same fervor the older generation did to theirs. That is not what this column is about. This is about the word “great” and, yes, “all-time great,” and how they are thrown around haphazardly without really knowing or appreciating the incredible achievements that enabled the horses of the past to receive such recognition.

Even the majority of recent “great” fillies like Azeri, Royal Delta, Havre de Grace, Blind Luck, Princess Rooney, Monomoy Girl, Sky Beauty, Bayakoa, and Paseana excelled at 4 and/or 5. Imagine if Songbird and Rags to Riches had gone on to have championship campaigns at 4.

This was a long way to go to make a point. But in short, don’t become a prisoner of the moment every time a horse runs an outstanding race and don’t use the word great ad nauseam and strip it of the power we have always placed on it. If we continue to run it into the ground until it has lost its meaning we will have nothing with which to replace it.

If we continue to diminish the impact of the word, one day a horse will come along and leave jaws dropping like Flightline has, but over a substantial period of time, and we will say, “Now that horse truly is a great horse.” But it will no longer mean anything.

Illustration courtesy of Pierre “Peb” Bellocq – Riva Ridge & Secretariat ’73 Folio


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