Boss' horse isn't `Funny,' or even `Smarty'

April 26, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

WE HERE in horse country can't afford to go much longer without working out our psychological stance on a very important matter. 'Tis, after all, the season.

On the third Saturday in May, the Preakness will follow the May 7 Kentucky Derby and, unless the governor of this great horse state of Maryland sees fit to immediately push the second leg of the Triple Crown to the more bucolic and someday-slots-approved Laurel, then we must consider this real and startling possibility:

George Steinbrenner could limo into Baltimore to see his 3-year-old colt, Bellamy Road, take a crack at racing immortality. Unless, of course, The Boss is too tied up writing a news release aimed at his New York Yankees, should they lose to the Mets that afternoon.

The Boss' horse is the overwhelming favorite for the Derby, with speed numbers off the charts and a field of challengers who seem flatly not up to the challenge. Horse writers who sometimes double as baseball writers have been positively giddy in relaying Bellamy Road's blistering win in the Wood Memorial, where he broke the stakes record and equaled Riva Ridge's 32-year-old track record with his 17 1/2 -length trouncing of the field. His other race this year was merely a 15 3/4 -length victory.

Translated, Bellamy Road has Derby win written all over his pinstriped silks. (Actually, Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable issues royal blue and brown silks.) But if they were pinstripes, then, at least, the horses and the jockeys could be called "True Yankees," unlike his ball team.

"Enough is enough. I am bitterly disappointed, as I am sure all Yankee fans are, by the lack of performance by our team. It is unbelievable to me that the highest-paid team in baseball would start the season in such a deep funk. They are not playing like true Yankees," The Boss wrote after the Orioles' sweep of the Yankees.

Good thing horses can't read.

Does it not already portend to be a rainy day at Old Hilltop, with the threat of Hurricane George headed to Pimlico?

Steinbrenner is the odds-on favorite to get a ton of air time with NBC commentator Charlsie Cantey, should his horse hold up to the precedents set with horses who have staked such huge wins in Derby prep races.

As I said, this presents certain issues, since the owner of the Yankees has to be one of the most unsympathetic horse owners ever to send a Derby favorite to the gate - and that's saying something in a sport of kings populated by robber barons, ne'er-do-wells, sheiks, heiresses and playboys.

What's really saying something is that racing has enjoyed a buzzy little bump from Derby- and Preakness-winning horses (and their connections) that are decidedly not from the upper crust of society. The sport of kings has more recently been the sport of upstate New York high school buddies in yellow school buses and air-tank-toting, car salesmen septuagenarians from a gritty little track outside Philly.

The Whitneys and Mellons and other bluebloods were bumped in rollicking favor of the blue collar, proving that the romp of a great racehorse can have a mesmerizing, exhilarating and galvanizing effect on we the people, even if only for a few heady springtime weeks.

We need not turn back the history pages further than the past two Triple Crown seasons to understand that: Funny Cide, whose Kentucky Derby and Preakness wins coincided with popularity of the book and movie Seabiscuit, and Smarty Jones.

It probably would have been better had either one or both of these horses of the people had won the most coveted title in racing. However, their twin shortfalls in the long 1 1/2 -mile race at Belmont helped underscore the lovable status of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones.

They weren't underdogs, but coming from backgrounds and with connections that were more proletariat than Secretariat, a poignancy and popularity was swiftly attached to these two champions. Proof was in the ratings bounce NBC got from airing the unfolding sagas of these two horses.

It matters little that Sackatoga Stable marketed its horse in a capitalist fashion aggressive and ubiquitous enough to make Steinbrenner proud, hawking everything from books, T-shirts and Funny Cide chardonnay. What's next, the YES! Funny Cide Network?

Likewise, Smarty Jones' owners Roy and Pat Chapman took a terrible image beating last August after they sold Smarty Jones for syndication for $40 million. That's about one-third of Jason Giambi's contract, but the kind of money in horse racing to turn a few heads - and raise some ire.

The sport that needs new and enduring stars was not ready to approve of the Chapmans' move, with racing officials unwilling to believe that Smarty Jones' injury was severe enough to require his retirement, especially with a steady stream of eager mares - and equally eager owners and breeders - keen on Smarty's stud services.

Indeed, the owners of the past two stars of the Triple Crown series fell off the lofty pedestal of public adoration, but at least they held that perch for a while. Enthusiasm for Smarty Jones and Funny Cide was like the roaring thunder of hooves down the backstretch: palpable, heart-racing.

In Bellamy Road, we the people find the specter of owner Steinbrenner too alarming to anticipate swooning through horse racing's greatest season for a third consecutive spring.

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