Aug 6, 2008


Okay, stupid title. I know, I know. But this weekend the majority of horseracing fans were watching Big Brown's less-than-triumphant return to racing, myself included. To put it kindly I was not wowed. And I loved how Rick Dutrow's response after the race was basically, "Yeah, I wasn't sure he was going to do it there at the end." (I paraphrase, of course.) Because I was sitting there telling my semi-bored husband that there was no way he was going to win. No way. And then, a second later I'm all 'Well, maybe he can do it.' And then, Big Brown basically struggled and pulled a win out of his ass. An awful lot of good riding by the jockey, I might add.

Anyway, about an hour after the end of the race I found out that the Hambletonian was run a day earlier. I could have kicked myself for not knowing about it sooner and watching it.
I have a real soft spot for the idea of harness racing. That's right -- for the idea of it. Because frankly, I will be the first to admit that I know very little about harness racing. Most of the harness racing knowledge I have is from my beloved Walter Farley book, The Black Stallion's Blood Bay Colt. I'm pretty sure that this book was not intended to be a reference source on all things harness racing, but there you have it...

So, imagine my confusion surrounding the running of this race. Well, let me back up for a second here. First, kudos to Deweycheatumnhowe. He ran a great race in an outstanding time (four-fifths of a second off the Hambletonian record) and is the first undefeated horse to win the race. I think this is a pretty awesome story and I will certainly be following him more closely. It's very conceivable he could finally be the horse to break the 1'50" record and that would be super rad. But my confusion lies in the fact that back when Walter Farley was writing -- in the 50s!! -- the Hambletonian and the majority of other harness races (or sulky races, as Farley referred to them) were run in a 'heat' format. Meaning that the horses had to win two out of three heats to officially win the race. It was a test of speed and stamina. Apparently the format changed in 1980 and I was not informed. Just call me a twenty-something still living in the fifties!

Well, anyway, I can't admit that I totally understand this new format. Wikipedia says that two elimination races are held a week before the final. And somehow this helps determine the winner. Obviously, I am still not clear on this. And a trip to has not helped, though they do have a fun, but kinda silly guide to trotting that I enjoyed perusing. Did you know that George Foreman owns harness racers? He has a hand in everything, doesn't he?

Whoa! Okay, I'm wandering off-topic. I'll sort this out eventually and post on my findings, but I admit to being disappointed to learn that few harness races are run in the 3 heat format anymore. I'm sure the new format is easier on the horses, but it seems slightly less exciting. I mean, sure, I fully admit to being baffled as to harness racing strategy -- it seems awfully hard to win a race once the sulkies have hunkered down into a race formation -- so I would think the heat format would help even the field, but what do I know? Not much, apparently.

Regardless, I think what I am trying articulate (badly) is that I have this sneaking suspicion that the real reason the format was changed was less for the horses' well-being and more for the clueless fans and the enticement of new fans. It's tough to keep people's interest in or attendance for an all day event. And TV networks might, just might, air a 2-minute race, but certainly not three 2-minute races, spaced out over the course of an afternoon. There's not alot of appetite for such long, drawn-out affairs of endurance. But that makes me a little sad inside because there's nothing I love more than an athlete that has the drive and determination to reach deep inside and pull out a victory just at the moment that they think they have nothing left to give.

And, hey, writing that just made me realize that maybe I was just a little bit harsh on Big Brown. After all, he just came off a grueling Triple Crown campaign, probably feeling far from recuperated and managed to win a Grade I race in a decent time despite his body very clearly demonstrating that he didn't have it in him to win. But he did it anyway. And you know what? I think I can get behind that. As long as he redeems himself (and his trainer) in my eyes by proving to me that steroids were not responsible for his freakish power.

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