The equine Olympics: the Triple Crown

Kenny can only think of one other event in sports that equates to horse racing's greatest challenge.

Updated: March 25, 2003, 2:51 PM ET
By Kenny Rice | Special to ESPN.com

I don't expect to see a torch being carried from Louisville to Baltimore to New York, or a wreath replacing the blankets of roses, Black-Eyed Susans and carnations. The top three finishers could never stand on platforms of varying heights to designate their place in the race.

From Athens, Greece to Athens, Georgia and Athens, Kentucky, no one is demanding Thoroughbred racing become an Olympic sport. But the Olympics are the best example to explain to outsiders what makes the Triple Crown special in the wide world of sports.

How many times in sports does an athlete have years of preparation to get only one shot, no return engagement, no mulligan? And even an Olympian isn't limited to only one try, but for most that is all they will get after all the hard work and sacrifice over the years. And the two legged and four legged athletes have to compete in the glare of a global spotlight that will never be equaled in their careers.

Maybe a driver will have only one Indianapolis 500 experience, or a college basketball player will only play in one NCAA Tournament game in four years, but at least every season they will have the opportunity to qualify for these events.

For the 3 -year-old equine athletes, there is this one moment and it will never be duplicated. Point Given never won the Kentucky Derby and couldn't get another chance even after his Preakness and Belmont victories. An outstanding runner who failed in that single lifetime moment.

To get a horse to the starting gate for the first Saturday in May is at least a four-year process from selecting the mating to the foaling to either the auction ring or breaking the yearling at the farm. That's why a four -and- a half furlong winner at two suddenly brings hope to his connections that this colt might be special, even if it's unrealistic.

That's why there are always far more pretenders than contenders on the tracks across the country in late winter and early spring. But there just might be a 9-1 Peace Rules who surprises in the Louisiana Derby and goes on to better things in May and June. Or we might not think about him again. That too is an Olympian reality, that there are the great ones who win because they are truly the best and there are others who weren't blips on the radar screen who come up full force for a few minutes to gain the gold or the blanket of roses.

The graduation from juvenile season to three is a quantum leap. Injuries, flashes in the pan, and simply bad luck all factors in. Injury has already sidelined the top 2-year-old of 2002, Vindication; his chief rival Sky Mesa hasn't run this year because of a bruised foot. Even Sky Mesa's trainer John Ward has asked Churchill Downs to put the colt in the field for the second pool of the Future Wager for fear he won't have him ready for the only chance he'll get. With that in mind, can anyone ever then blame a trainer or owner for running a healthy three-year old with just a remote possibility of attaining an equine gold medal? At least there is the opportunity to compete. The Jamaican bobsled team spirit try.

Trainer Nick Zito, a two time winner of the Kentucky Derby has frequently and accurately stated, "It isn't about having the best horse, it's about having the best horse on the first Saturday in May."

Of the Triple Crown races, the Kentucky Derby is the most Olympic like, the one everybody remembers and the one that is most encapsulated in The Moment It can't even be argued that the best horses haven't won over history, and certainly not over the last couple of decades even. The list of horses that performed better after Derby failures exceeds that of Derby winners. Lil E. Tee, Go For Gin, Sea Hero, Grindstone, the much heralded Fusaichi Pegasus are all part of racing history, not for being tremendous, but because over a span of around two minutes on a late May afternoon in Kentucky, they excelled at a moment. Only two Kentucky Derby winners, Sunday Silence (1989) and Unbridled (1990), have ever won the Breeders' Cup Classic the same year they took the Derby. This doesn't diminish the achievement of winning the Derby however, of beating the odds of even having that try.

That's why 99 percent of trainers, jockeys, breeders and owners I've interviewed over the years talk about their feelings on either winning a Kentucky Derby or at least getting the chance. I'm sure 99 percent of hurdlers, pole vault specialists, skiers, skaters, discus throwers and swimmers would say the same. It is the one time for all the work, all the wins at other venues of importance but lesser recognized by the public, that an athlete can gain immortality.

Anyone, who is even casually acquainted with sports, understands there is a special pride, a part of athletic history to hear someone say, "I won an Olympic medal" or "I won a Triple Crown race."