Commentary

Rachel's church and state

Updated: August 7, 2009, 6:00 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Our American forefathers had enough wisdom between their powdered wigs to address such nation-building notions as the separation of church and state. In that, the government would have no ability to infringe on the liberties of our religious beliefs. But the brilliance of Jefferson and Washington and Madison has escaped America's sports fans ever since.

For us, after all, it's been an impossible love-hate relationship with separating the church and state of our sporting pillars.

The church is easily defined in this analogy as the team or individuals to whom we endear and near-worship. The role of state is played by the human interests who govern the paths of our rooting interests. For as much as you love the Yankee or Cowboy way, can you stomach the reigns of George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones?

The passion and almost religious embrace to which we hold our sporting past times cannot be disputed. Whether you give your heart and spirit to the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Dale Earnhardt Jr. or the Los Angeles Lakers, it's the same everywhere. The same goes for die-hard horse racing fans of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta today, or Secretariat and Easy Goer of yesterday. There is a bond that goes with our sporting favorites that supersedes rationality and importance. We all know we should spend more time watching CSPAN than ESPN, but we don't.

Depending on how you're wound, separating the church and state of sport can turn out different ways. For me, I find it incredibly difficult to not acknowledge both equally. For every wonderful sense of "team" or "success" I get through my sporting escapes, I find myself personally wanting them to be accountable on all fronts. I don't want my team winning with steroid-enriched players, social miscreants or tyrannical owners who think their personal interests are bigger than the league or game of which they are part.

For others, it's less philosophical and strictly about what's only on the surface. Just catch the damned ball, right? Somewhere soon, a fan is going to cheer wildly, excited to see Michael Vick jog back onto an NFL field wearing his or her favorite team jersey. After all, he could be the missing puzzle piece that gets the favored franchise to a coveted Super Bowl. Closer to home in horse racing, just one year ago, many fans clamored for a Triple Crown winner of any kind, even one who delivered truckloads of shady characters on his Big Brown shoulders.

I get it. I really do. We're all different people, and different things make each of us tick. If we were all the same, what fun, or how intellectually even, would life be?

So if you prefer to take your sports escapes at face value and not care about the "church and state," that's fine. It's just not how I'm wound, and I'm guessing there are others like me. Certainly I recognize others look at it far, far differently, and don't think one approach is right or wrong. And, I was not always this way.

Reshaping opinions

Once upon a time, I loved the "Just win, baby!" philosophy of Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders. Today, I cannot stand Davis or the Raiders, for that matter. Maybe it is middle-age setting in, who knows?

As a cub reporter almost 20 years ago (perhaps there's more to that middle-aged line than I thought when I typed it), I got a big lesson in my personal church and state of sports. I sat down with a wonderful older gentleman who was taking on the role of public address announcer at the University of Oklahoma. James Jennings explained in our Q&A about how he had recently been relieved of his duties with the Dallas Cowboys as part of Jerry Jones' broad-brush approach to rid the franchise of its history. Legendary coach Tom Landry had been fired, asked to hang his fedora elsewhere, and Jones wanted a complete overhaul of the past, including the tones heard throughout Texas Stadium. My new-found feelings for Jones forever changed how I looked at the team. It proved to be the last time in my life that I got warm and fuzzies for the Cowboys, and this from a one-time kid who revered the blue star, Roger Staubach and Randy White.

Without a doubt, the modern-day racing church that is Rachel Alexandra has many followers, of which I am one. The hair stood up on my arms as I leaned along the outer rail at Churchill Downs and watched her gallop past me 20 lengths in front of the Kentucky Oaks. It was the easiest victory I had ever witnessed in person, or on television. It must have felt like Secretariat's 1973 Belmont Stakes to his observers. Since then, Rachel Alexandra has done absolutely nothing to discredit her greatness, and she IS great. The Preakness, Mother Goose and Haskell not only solidified her greatness, they stacked many levels of bricks and mortar to it.

Some have questioned my respect for Rachel Alexandra because of the once-held opinion that Zenyatta was the superior racehorse. As I wrote a few months ago, a lot can change between now and the fall, and that neither superstar horse's ceiling would be known in the interim. Would one tail off, both, or would both continue to wow us all and actually improve? The performances of the Mother Goose and Haskell strengthen my convictions in Rachel Alexandra, even with Zenyatta continuing to marvel me with every start. I'm not so fast today to say that Zenyatta would be the superior racehorse as I was a few months ago. In fact, I'm not willing to make that statement at all. Advantage this moment goes to Rachel Alexandra.

But, again, it's a long way to the fall or a potential matchup, if ever at all. Fillies and mares are fickle; ask any trainer. One day they wake up from their straw beds and just decide they don't want to do this anymore. Great fillies and mares have gone from 60 to zero in the blink of an eye, if you get my drift.

Frustrating state of mind

Rachel Alexandra has me in her church, make no mistake. But the "state" of her affairs just continues to baffle me. Every time part-owner Jess Jackson trumpets a decision, I scratch my head. First, let's not forget part-owner Harold McCormick, whose money spent very nicely, thank you, when helping Jackson purchase Rachel Alexandra; yet he gets no attention and sends out no press releases.

Jackson reiterated before the Haskell that he was worried about Rachel Alexandra getting a soft-tissue injury on the all-weather surface at Santa Anita, and, thus, continues to offer no change in his plans to bypass the Breeders' Cup.

Soft-tissue injury? Really?

Are we expected to buy that story after Jackson opted to run Rachel Alexandra on a quagmire of a racetrack at Monmouth on Sunday, one that eight races prior to the Haskell precipitated a horrendous spill that took the life of a fellow racehorse and put jockeys in peril? This, the same Monmouth track that just two years ago on a sloppy mess of a Breeders' Cup Day hosted Jackson's co-owned Curlin winning the Classic mere seconds after one of the world's most popular horses, "Gorgeous" George Washington, broke down nearing the wire and had to be euthanized. The thrill of victory for Jackson and his crew's post-race celebration was mired by horrified racing fans watching the game's most awful side.

So we're to believe soft-tissue injuries like pulled gluteals and bowed tendons are too risky, but watching sloppy dirt tracks take the lives of quality, stakes-class animals are somehow safer? How short-term is Jackson's memory? Two years ... eight races ... or just long enough to make him the center of a public and political firestorm?

Rachel Alexandra is the best horse in America right now, and it does not bother me to say so; but until they start paying off races in carrots and oats instead of money, I find it hard to root for the guy who benefits most from her success. For me, it's too hard to separate the church and state here, even if I agree that she's the most incredible filly to come down the pike in years.

That's probably my problem more than Jackson's. I get it. I really do. But I'm not alone. Just look at how Jerry Jones has polarized the Dallas Cowboys. It's love or hate. No matter how many Super Bowls they win, he has made haters out of many. If Jackson wants Rachel Alexandra to be the most loved and revered racehorse of modern times, he needs to step back, take out the grandstanding garbage, and let the filly do the talking. The way I see it, she hasn't misspoken yet.

You don't need a powdered wig to figure that one out.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the managing partner of the handicapping website Horseplayerpro.com. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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