Guest Column: Asterisks

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“The Last Shall Be First.” 

Matthew 20:16

I always feel kicking off a column with a bit of the scriptures tones up a piece, don’t you? I have no hard evidence that Matt wrote that line with this year’s Belmont Stakes in mind, but I feel confident he did. I’ve heard he was a bright and farsighted guy. The only thing he forgot to mention was that “the longest shall be the shortest.”

In fact, the Belmont, traditionally the last and longest of the Triple Crown races, is now the first and shortest.

We all know why this happened. And honestly I would find it hard to fault any of the decisions that had to be made. But it’s making for a wonky year in racing. 

And a very frustrating one for me. You see, last year I had the privilege of working as an intern, for The Saratoga Special. I loved the experience, and I learned a lot, thus giving lie to the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” For at the age of 75 I guess I have to count myself in the “perro viejo” category. 

At any rate, after last year I am able to deliver slippers by carrying them in my mouth and write a passable race recap. So when Tom Law, The Special’s managing editor, asked me if I’d like to do a second year’s internship, I quickly said yes.

Then the problems began. 

During the offseason, I live in a small town in the mountains of Mexico and I was there when the coronavirus plague started its run. While down there I had been self-inoculating by drinking at least one, but often more, Coronas each day. To me it made a lot more sense and was a lot more fun than drinking Clorox. (And I believe science has proven that the two are equally effective in warding off the virus.) 

Our town had not had a single case of the virus, and I was prepared to wait it out in our home there. But then they started saying the restrictions might last into summer and I began to worry about getting to Saratoga for my internship. Plus my wife expressed a preference for going through a plague in a place where we understood the health care system instead of in a corruptigarchy. 

At this point the airlines started canceling flights and my wife started making escape plans. It wasn’t easy, but she’s good at this stuff and finally after nine(!) itinerary changes and a forced overnight stay in Dallas, we made it to New York – “the epicenter of the pandemic!”

I’ve been “sheltering in place” for more than 10 weeks now, doing the same thing everyone else is doing: reading, writing, watching Netflix, washing my hands more than Lady MacBeth and trying to make some sense of what the 2020 racing season is all about.

Right now the Triple Crown races remind me of the final layout in 3-Card Monte game. The cards have all been shuffled about and jacked out of place so you aren’t sure what or where anything is. 

Is it still “The Test of Champions” if it’s only a mile-and-an-eighth?

Will we ever get used to calling the Derby the second jewel in the Triple Crown or the Fall Classic?

Are Black-Eyed Susans still in bloom in October?

And what about the great East versus West rivalries? Two weeks ago I watched Honor A.P. beat a very good field (including Authentic) in the Santa Anita Derby. 

In a normal year, this would set up a great Triple Crown series against the New York-based Florida Derby winner Tiz The Law. But because of altered stakes dates there’s no way Honor A.P. can relocate East and compete in the Belmont on two weeks’ rest.

And the Travers? Will it be moved earlier in the Saratoga season and become just a Derby prep? In the same league as, say, the Fountain of Youth Stakes? 

I sure hope not. Yes, I admit to being Saratoga-centric but I’ve always thought the Midsummer Derby to be a more important race in terms of tradition and the history of racing than that derby they run in May (or sometimes September), and you have far fewer drunk fraternity boys in their first seersucker suits to deal with.

It’s all so confusing that maybe we should give the whole racing year an asterisk. The way we mentally do any time someone mentions a Barry Bonds home run record or Donald Trump’s college degree. 

Except . . .

The other day out of desperation I watched a television racing show that opened with an undercard featuring a $20,000 maiden-claiming race from Churchill Downs. It was the first racing I’d seen all year and within minutes my pulse had quickened and I was yelling at Corey Lanerie to boot home the winner. I didn’t have a bet on the race, I didn’t know a thing about any of the horses until I watched the post parade, but I was hooked. It was like a visit to a methadone clinic.

Which leads me to the only thing I can say with absolute certainty about this year’s Triple Crown races: If they put a field of beautiful Thoroughbreds in a starting gate and they run the race, well, I’m going to be watching. 

Terry Hill spent the summer of 2019 on the editorial staff of The Saratoga Special, and watches racing from wherever he is on the planet.

Download the June 20 issue of The 2020 Special