Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral, Nashua vs. Swaps, Affirmed vs. Alydar. Now those were some rivalries. The battles between those horses captivated the nation as they were going on and they now live in equine history. The great rivalry is something that is missing from Thoroughbred racing currently and it might be something you never see again. As a matter of fact, it has been twenty years since the last really great rivalry we had between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Those titans met four times (in the four most important races I might add) with Sunday Silence winning three and Easy Goer winning one.
Sunday Silence raced fourteen times in his career and was never worse than second in any of those races. He was trained by Charlie Whittingham and owned by Arthur Hancock III, both names of prominece in racing. In his matchups with Easy Goer, he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Breeders' Cup Classic. His only defeat came in the Belmont Stakes, which was run on Easy Goer's home track. The 1989 Preakness still ranks in my book as the greatest horse race I have ever seen, and I am old enough to have seen the 1978 Belmont Stakes. Sunday Silence and Easy Goer battling all the way through the stretch until Sunday Silence just managed to prevail at the wire by a scant nose.
Easy Goer was also of regal stock, ironically Sired by Alydar, owned by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey. Certainly, no slouches on that list either. His lone win in the four-race series was actually the most impressive of the lot, an eight-length tour de force in the 1989 Belmont Stakes. His record is also staggering, starting twenty times and never finishing worse than third in any of them. Had he come along in any other year (much like Alydar), it is likely he could have been a Triple Crown winner.
So, where have all the rivals gone? Why has it been twenty years since the last great battle? It might be partly our fault. Horse racing had only started to take a backseat in the national conscience at that time and nothing has been able to stop the slide. Yes, I know the movie Seabiscuit and Smarty Jones stopped the bleeding momentarily, but the sporting public still doesn't stop the way it used to for a big race. President Franklin Roosevelt stopped a cabinet meeting to listen to the Seabiscuit/War Admiral match race, for heaven's sake.
I also think the racing connections of these horses nowadays are to blame. Lately, the only horse guaranteed to go on to the Preakness is the Derby winner. Even then, he will have to face several "new shooters" there. A horse can have five weeks rest between the Derby and Belmont if he does not go on to Pimlico, much like Birdstone did in 2004 when he ran down Smarty Jones. I don't know if there is a great rivalry brewing this year, but wouldn't it be tremendous to see I Want Revenge and Friesan Fire (as an example) go at it three times this spring, maybe again in the summer at the Travers in Saratoga and Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, and culminate it with an epic Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall? It is nice to think about.
For right now, I am Gone...GOODBYE!
Photo courtesy of sundaysilence.net