That's tough


Achieving feat shouldn't come easily

On Triple Crown


If Big Brown gets upset today at the Belmont Stakes, we'll have gone 30 years without a Triple Crown winner in horse racing.

Many great horses have fallen short, sometimes by little more than a nose or a head bob, and the sentiment seems to be that it's time for the drought to be over.

The world is rooting for Big Brown, the same way they were rooting for Smarty Jones four years ago. Horse racing needs this, we keep hearing. If Big Brown can't do it, then maybe it simply can't be done. Three races of varying lengths in the summer heat might be too much to ask from a horse over the course of six weeks. Maybe we need more rest, a longer break between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Maybe modern breeding techniques put too much stress on horses. Maybe it's just not going to happen as long as we have distance specialists like Casino Drive.

What we forget, in all that thinking, is that real transcendence in sports is supposed to be hard. It's not necessarily a bad thing that we've gone 29 years without a Triple Crown winner. In fact, you can argue that it's going to be that much more special if it does happen today specifically because it has taken so long for a horse to repeat Affirmed's 1978 feat.

People throw around the phrase "records are made to be broken" so often that it has become a nauseating cliche. When we think that way, we don't end up appreciating records as much as we end up expecting them.

Take Tiger Woods, for instance. In 2001, he accomplished one of the most amazing feats in the history of sport, winning the last of four consecutive majors. Woods is so talented, we forget how truly difficult that was to accomplish. Now, each time Woods wins a major championship, it reignites talk of the Grand Slam. We never take into account how much went right for Woods in 2000 and 2001, how dialed in he was with the putter, and how each of the courses (Pebble Beach, St. Andrews, Vallhalla and Augusta National) played to his strengths. He wasn't just playing his best golf, everyone else around him seemed to be unable to summon theirs. He had zero distractions and off-the-chart focus. Now, we not only want to see him win every major championship; we expect it. He did it in 2001, right? Why can't he do it again?

Well, because it's hard. One tiny pebble, one bad read, one red hot round by a hungry and fearless opponent, and Woods' quest is foiled, just like Big Brown's could be. And that's the way it should be. You not only have to be talented to pull off one of the greatest feats in sports, the stars have to align as well.

This kind of thinking happens in other sports, too. In many respects, our desire to see Roger Maris' home run record fall clearly made us ignore the obvious signs of just how prevalent steroids were in baseball in the late 1990s. We wanted to see records fall, and we wanted to see them fall each year. Michael Phelps may never equal his performance at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne, Australia, when he won seven gold medals and set four world records, but that's what people have come to expect each time he dives into the pool.

Big Brown has a shot at history at Belmont, but if it doesn't happen, that's OK, too. Because someday, a horse will come along and win the Triple Crown. And maybe someday a golfer will win four majors in a calendar year, and a clean slugger will hit 62 home runs in a single season. And when that happens, we'll know it's special. We'll know it was worth the wait.

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