Commentary

'Lucky' was best even before Haskell

Updated: August 5, 2010, 1:09 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Out with the blah, in with the ah! That's the way of the world. Nobody gets their Dockers in a wrinkle for a Joe Paterno-led, four-point victory where you play the back-up quarterback the last two drives to provide the kid some experience. Today's sports fans want Urban Meyer piling on the stats and winning by four touchdowns instead of three, giving his kid this week's Heisman Trophy front-runnership.

We saw that same philosophy come into focus last Saturday at Monmouth Park when Lookin At Lucky rose from merely part of the discussion to a blazing headline all to himself. His four-length beat-down of the Haskell Invitational field, which included Kentucky Derby one-two finishers Super Saver and Ice Box and dual-classics placed First Dude, finally vindicated Lookin At Lucky as the best of his generation.

But it shouldn't have taken this long.

All he had done going into his Jersey Shore foray was win 7 of 10 starts and bank more than $2 million. Erase everything else you know about the horse and focus solely on the record. Lookin At Lucky had won 70 percent of his races prior to the Haskell, far ahead on career percentages than horses like Skip Away (47 percent), Pleasantly Perfect (50 percent) or Silver Charm (50 percent), arguably three of the best horses of the past two decades. Of course he's not in their stratosphere yet, don't fire off those emails, but the point is: It ain't easy winning 70 percent of your starts at a top level. For a 3-year-old to have banked $2 million before August without winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes is almost unfathomable. You can't have too many misfires when you're dragging home $200,000 per start on average.

Lookin At Lucky tipped his brilliance with a visually stirring victory at Hollywood Park last summer that put me on to him as the horse to beat when the Del Mar stakes tide rolled in. If you didn't then think his Del Mar Futurity win was impressive since it measured only one length, let us not overlook now that those he beat last summer included eventual Kentucky Derby fourth-place finisher Make Music For Me, Grade 1 Bing Crosby winner Smiling Tiger, Grade 1 Acorn winner Champagne d'Oro and Grade 3 Derby Trial victor Hurricane Ike. Not a bad field for dirt or synthetic 2-year-olds in late summer, eh?

So what if Lookin At Lucky had never won by open lengths prior to Saturday's Haskell? Sports fans in this drive-by era of excess need to remember what makes great racehorses -- heart, not hype. The great Alysheba was a 10-time stakes winner and retired the richest horse of all-time in 1988 with $6.6 million earned. But only one of his 10 career stakes wins came by a margin more than three-quarters of a length! Are you here to tell me that Alysheba's defining moment came in the 1988 Strub because he won by three lengths over Candi's Gold and On the Line? Of course not.

Ferdinand never won by more than 2-1/4 lengths in his remarkable career, while the final 28 (yes, 28) wins of the legendary John Henry's career never saw him pour it on by more than 3-1/2 lengths on dirt or turf. Criminal Type was 1990 Horse of the Year behind 6 stakes victories that ranged between winning margins of a head and 1-1/2 lengths. Silver Charm's 11 career stakes wins came by a combined margin of approximately 11 lengths.

The truth of the matter is that Lookin At Lucky has been a special horse for a very long time. He's a Grade 1 winner on Polytrack, Pro-Ride, Cushion Track and natural dirt (twice). In an era of excuse-mongering and a deathly fear of your horse perhaps being even once-beaten, who can boast that? That's Zenyatta-like, and of course it's unfortunate that you can't live in an eastern time zone like I do and still respect these kind of horses without someone falsely accusing you of residing in the 90210.

If someone other than Bob Baffert trained Lookin At Lucky, he'd probably still have to prove himself to many east coasters by winning the Travers by the length of Saratoga Springs' Union Avenue. Heaven forbid he would be trained by Alexis Barba or Myung Kwon Cho on the West Coast. Baffert has earned the East Coast's respect because he's regularly traveled that direction and beaten their horses like a drum. And even his horse had to wait this long to win the minds of far too many.

We all know why Lookin At Lucky took so much time to land his long-due respect. He had to outrun his false label as a West Coast synthetics bum, and to do that he had to drill, not just beat, horses on dirt within a stone's throw of New York. Thank goodness New Jersey is the Big Apple's biggest suburb.

Like it or not, that's the measuring stick today. Those of us with an open mind to horseflesh and without a preconceived notion of geographical superiority welcome you to the bandwagon. Let's just enjoy this fantastic racehorse, as well as all the truly great ones we're blessed to have in our sights in 2010.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website HorseplayerNOW.com. You can e-mail Jeremy at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.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.