BALTIMORE -- Few things related to the consumption of sports have changed more in the last decade than their measurability. The fan (or the writer) knows more now about what he has seen than ever before. This is a deliciously good thing, an endlessly clickable supply of statistics to better define performance beyond the final score and the often duplicitous eye test. But in the end, sports are still a zero sum operation, where somebody wins and everybody else doesn't. That's the simplest statistic of all, yet it occasionally gets lost.
Consider the May 5 Kentucky Derby. Late on that Saturday afternoon, I stood at the outside edge of the track with a group of writers, just inside the rail, and watched first as the field of 20 thoroughbreds rumbled past the clubhouse, fans in full throat, and then on the infield video monitors as the horses circled the huge oval. (From track level, you can't see the backstretch or far turn, because of the hospitality tents on the infield; but in order to snag postrace interviews, you have to be near the finish line. That's the way it works).
Bodemeister was in the lead almost from the gate. This was a mild surprise. Bodemeister had won the Arkansas Derby on the front, by 9½ lengths, but the Kentucky Derby is notorious for spitting out early speed on the far turn. Jockeys put horses on the front at their own peril. Plus there were fast horses in the race who seemed likely to want the lead more than Bodemeister. The foolishly entered Trinniberg, a sprinter, and Blue Grass Stakes winner Hansen, a hard-knocking white horse who doesn't like getting slowed by a rider.
But trainer Bob Baffert had told Bodemeister's jockey, Mike Smith, "Don't take him out of his game." When Bodemeister put Smith on the lead, he stayed there.
And that's where the numbers come in. Bodemeister hit the first quarter mile 22.32 seconds and the half mile in 45.39. Only four horses had gone faster in the 137-year history of the Kentucky Derby, and not only had none of them won the race, none of them had finished better than 13th. Bodemeister went through three-quarters in 1:09.80, fifth-fastest in history and then a mile in 1:35.19, also the fifth-fastest ever. No horse since the formidable Spend A Buck in 1985 had gone so fast and held up to wear the roses.
Then it got better. Just at the point where Bodemeister should have collapsed, after the mile in such blazing fractions, he opened up a three-length lead. It seemed like we might be witnessing something historic.
Alas, we were not. Bodemeister held the lead until the final 100 yards of the race, before he was passed by I'll Have Another, who pulled away to win the Derby a length and a half. Bodemeister held on for second. In my small world of racing writers, jaws dropped at the finish, and most of us had the same reaction:
Why did I -- why did so many -- feel more connected to Bodemeister's second-place performance than I'll Have Another's victory? Speaking for myself, it was at least partly because Baffert was a sentimental story: he had survived a heart attack a few weeks before the Derby and the horse was the first that he had allowed to be named after his son, Bode, 7, who was in turn named after skier Bode Miller, who I've covered, often frustratingly, for more than a decade. (Bode Miller was at the race: I watched him in the paddock beforehand, bend over to speak to Bode Baffert. Kinda cute).
But it was also partly because Bodemeister was out there, winging along, offering the possibility of greatness. Post-race coverage,
But here is the thing: in simplest terms, he lost. He ran fast, became exhausted, and another horse passed him before the finish line. Columnist Jay Hovdey of the
Back to the numbers: The statistics of the Derby tell us that Bodemeister did some amazing things. Almost everything that was acutely measurable about the race underscores this truth. But the final chart tells us that I'll Have Another won the race. On Saturday afternoon at Pimlico Race Course on the north side of Baltimore, they will face each other again, in the Preakness. If I'll Have Another wins again, he will go to New York for the June 9 Belmont Stakes and try to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner in 34 years. If Bodemeister wins, there will be no Triple Crown, but a lot of people will say/write/blog/broadcast that winning the Preakness validates the brilliance that Bodemeister showed for most -- but not all -- of the Kentucky Derby.
It makes for an interesting rivalry, potentially reminiscent of Affirmed's with Alydar, when Affirmed won that last Triple Crown in 1978. Purists out there: easy, easy. I'm not saying in any form that I'll Have Another and Bodemeister are in the same class as Affirmed and Alydar. So call off the Blasphemy Police. But here is the similarity: after Affirmed won the '78 Kentucky Derby over a fast-closing Alydar (
There are fundamental differences. I'll Have Another and Bodemeister had never raced each other before the Kentucky Derby; Affirmed and Alydar had raced six times previously (Affirmed had won four). Strategically, it was the frontrunner who won the Derby in '78, whereas two weeks ago it was the frontrunner who faded in the final strides. But this much is the same: there is a fascination with the loser, and a palpable buzz that the better horse did not win the Derby.
Another parallel would be 1989, when Sunday Silence beat the less-nimble Easy Goer in the Derby and Preakness, but Easy Goer romped in the Belmont Stakes. These turnarounds are not uncommon in the Preakness. In 2005, there was a strong sense that Afleet Alex had been the best horse in the Kentucky Derby (he finished third) and he won the Preakness, spectacularly. Or two years later, with Curlin, who also won the Preakness after finishing third in Louisville. One significant difference: both Afleet Alex and Curlin had horrific trips in the Derby; Bodemeister had the lead to himself.
The Preakness occupies an odd position. Whereas the Derby presents 20 storylines, the Preakness generally has just one:
This year we have a potential rivalry. Some will argue that a rivalry would be "Good for racing,'' which is specious at best. The best thing for racing would be a time machine that would transport the entire sport back to 1938, when it was hugely relevant on the national stage. The second best thing would be a Triple Crown winner, which would give horse racing a few weeks' buzz, but certainly won't shove aside the NBA playoffs or NFL minicamps. A rivalry? Meh. It's not about that. Too many keystrokes are typed and too much oxygen expended attaching larger significance to any single year's Triple Crown. Racing is a struggling niche sport whose average Derby television viewer was 60 years old. Nothing will restore the glory days. Survival is enough.
This Preakness is a single, fascinating sporting event. Tactically, Bodemeister appears to be the only horse in the Preakness with true speed, which is often a recipe for a wire-to-wire victory. The Preakness is 1 3/16 miles long, 1/16 of a mile less than the Derby, and Bodemeister began to seriously crumble with just about 1/16 of a mile left in the Derby. But Doug O'Neill, I'll Have Another's trainer, insists that his horse has plenty of speed to stay closer to Bodemeister if necessary. "How could you not like Bodemeister?'' O'Neill says. "Bob [Baffert] has such a great record at Pimlico [five wins]. But my horse can be close [to the lead]. I wouldn't trade places."
O'Neill's brother, Dennis, who picked out and bought I'll Have Another for owner J. Paul Reddam, told me Wednesday, "He has plenty of speed to be right there pressing Bodemeister." This much is absolutely true about I'll Have Another's talents; he has been near the front in all of his races, excepting a disastrous run in the sloppy Hopeful last August at Saratoga; even in the Derby, he was never far back, always within range.
In the Kentucky Derby, the Michael Matz-trained Union Rags broke poorly from the gate and was a hopeless 18th after less than a quarter mile. "I'm sure Michael Matz had a strategy until the gate opened," says Baffert. "I've got a speed horse. The break is really important." It's not inconceivable that another horse could win the Preakness. It's a horse race; three years ago Mine That Bird won the Kentucky Derby and historians will be analyzing that one for years.
Largely, the Preakness is the story of two horses. One can move within range of history. One can prove himself worthy of better than second place. And the numbers are meaningless.