Racing to Become the Best Ever

I grew up in a town blanketed with livestock where it wasn’t unusual for families to own, or have access to chickens, cows and other furry feasts. We even had a local 4-H, a club with a history of encouraging kids to be involved with agriculture. During the summer, the horse farms up the hill from us were illustrious, yet musty domiciles. They became icy covered pillow tops in the summer. I loved horses, and I grew to love horse racing.

Initially, not so much for the thrill of the event, or even the beauty of the animals involved. A good day at the track meant french fries, crispy, salty fried chicken and a strawberry shortcake dessert from Roy Rogers. Granddaddy had a penchant for the Off Track Betting (OTB) tucked away in a plaza next to the now sparsely located KFC competitor. We made the short 15 minute drive for him to make what he always promised to be a “quick” bet at the window. I must have been somewhere between nine and eleven, and in those days people were allowed to smoke anywhere a roof was present. I wasn’t allowed in, but standing barely over four feet tall, I often wandered around the joint looking for something to bother.

Though not as outright destructive creative as Nings, I was a precocious kid all the same. To me, OTB was a club where adults went to do the things they told kids not to do. There were squares of paper crumpled all over the floor, and cussing. There was always plenty of cussing. Every now and then I’d run into a child my age to play pretend jockey with during the broadcast calls. Eventually, Granddaddy would take me on a trip to the Saratoga Race Course. Also known as the Graveyard of Champions, the track is nicknamed for historic defeats including Secretariat’s loss to Onion, after winning the Triple Crown at Belmont. I’ve never been to Belmont, but if I had a choice, I would’ve been in any seat, anywhere around the track on Long Island for this weekend’s race. All eyes were fixed on American Pharaoh to see if the three-year-old could capture the Triple Crown. In doing so, he’d be considered one of the best ever.

On the same weekend Tiger Woods was competing in The Memorial, a course created by famed golfer Jack Nicklaus- the man Tiger has been chasing into the history books. Jack has earned 18 majors and Tiger has 14 to his name. Tiger shooting 85 this weekend juxtaposed to the Triple Crown is an interesting look at the quest to be the best ever. Please, please, please don’t go thinking I’m comparing a man to a horse. I’m taking a look at the journey. So, stop it. Anyway, Woods has played just five times this year, his best finish a tie for 17th at the Masters. The former world No. 1 shot 85 on Saturday. Ironically, he had his worse showing as a pro at Jack’s tournament. “This is a lonely sport,” Woods said. “I’ve had times like this in my life where I’ve gone through these periods, but you just have to fight through it,” he added.  He’s battled injury, image and other “personal” issues since 2009.

Which brings me back to The Belmont. Being the best ever can be a lonely climb. It’s rare that we speak of the best team, or best group ever. The title is more often bestowed on an individual. It takes commitment. It also takes consistency. Tiger has hired a new coach almost every year since 2010. On the Thoroughbred’s way to winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, American Pharaoh ran quarter-mile splits of 24.06, 24.77, 24.58, 24.58, 24.34 and 24.32. That’s reaalllllllllllly consistent.

Becoming the best ever requires perseverance in the face of adversity. You know the moment when you ache from your guts, and every breath you take is followed by the thought to give up? That’s when participants morph into champions- and not everybody has it. Tiger’s having this moment in a very public way. While he continues his chase of the elusive page which will hold the picture of the man with the most majors, American Pharaoh will be a stud in a glorious field befitting of the best ever. I’ll be watching either way. Folks, sporting events are the greatest reality shows on television.

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