April 27, 2009
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brad-eastland5By Brad Eastland, t.s.p. (as in ‘The Sports Philosopher’, get it?)

       I was out at Santa Anita on Sunday.   It was closing day.   Truth is I really wasn’t much in the mood, but old habits die hard.   Plus my girlfriend wanted to go.   Roxanne.   She loves excitement.   And finally, they do run a very special race on closing day at Santa Anita, a spectacular, mile-and-three-quarters grass marathon called the San Juan Capistrano Handicap.   The ‘Capistrano has always meant a lot to me.   (I’m nothing if not sentimental.)   So out to the track we went.   

      To the untrained eye, this year’s ‘Capistrano no doubt seemed the very essence of Sports pageantry.   It was a brilliantly beautiful day, it could have been a by-god postcard, the San Gabriel Foothills in the distance forming the perfect picturebook border.   And as for the race itself, the early stages of this long-distance affair featured a fine four-year-old colt called Midships, a handsome gray son of Mizzen Mast, bounding along on an easy lead and looking magnificent in the process.   I studied my girlfriend’s face as she watched the ‘Capistrano field file past us the first time, with a mile still to go.   Her rapt, smiling face and the gleam in her untrained eye clearly bespoke the notion of how beautiful everything was, how special the ‘Capistrano is, how magnificent these horses were.

      But she didn’t know what I knew.

      And what I knew is what I have known for several years now.   That horse racing in general, and the horses in particular, just aren’t nearly as good now as when I was, well, younger.

      Time for a history lesson.    In 1980, twenty-nine years ago and counting, a runty, misbegotten gelding called John Henry captivated the racing world by winning the ‘Capistrano in heroic fashion, and so inspired a twenty-four-year-old fiction writer that he would write and later re-write an entire novel revolving around the homely quadruped’s exploits.   Why use a horse as a hero?   Simple.   John Henry was a racehorse.   A REAL racehorse, not one of these over-hyped pretenders I saw sully this race on Sunday.   He would go on to win ‘Horse Of The Year’ honors twice, bank about $6.5 million dollars for his owners (back when you could actually get by on $6.5 million), and he was not merely the finest racehorse in America but a bona fide local legend as well.   Those are the kind of horses that raced and graced the San Juan Capistrano back then.

      But on Sunday this colt Midships, in setting the pace, ran the first six furlongs (which is three-quarters of a mile) of one of the most storied stakes races in America in a pedestrian one minute and seventeen and thirty-seven hundredths seconds.   That’s 1:17.37.   As a racing fan and long-time supporter of the “Sport of Kings”, I was embarrassed.   Cheap claiming horses could have gone faster.   And I wasn’t the only one who noticed.   There was genuine contempt in track announcer Trevor Denman’s voice when he droned, “they’re going along in little more than a canter”.   Poor Trevor.   I could tell he was embarrassed too.   A six-furlong split of 1:17.37?   If his knees didn’t bother him so much all the time, YOUR LOYAL CORRESPONDENT could have run the first six furlongs in 1:17.37! 

      Let me put it another way.   All ardent racegoers, all track hacks of the first order (like your loyal correspondent, for instance) know the tried-and-true track axiom that in horse racing a fifth of a second is worth a length of distance.   In other words, a horse travels roughly five lengths’ worth of ground per second, and therefore, if one horse is timed a fifth of a second faster than another horse he probably beat him by one length, if he goes a whole second faster he beat him—or would have beaten him—by about five lengths, and so on.   John Henry ran the first six furlongs of his ‘Capistrano in a blistering 1:09 and four-fifths.   That’s what real racehorses do.   That’s eight full seconds faster than Midships ran his first six furlongs.   Eight seconds equals forty fifths of a second, right?   Which means if they had been competing in the same ‘Capistrano, after six furlongs John Henry would have been barreling by the stands the first time with a 40-length lead.  

      That’s what I said, a 40-LENGTH lead.  

      Now then, let’s talk about the final times of both races.   John thundered home in 2:46.80.   Midships staggered home in the slowest time for this race in twenty years, 2:49.26.

      Ergo, if John Henry circa 1980 had been in Sunday’s ‘Capistrano he would have trounced Midships by a mind-blowing 12 lengths.   And that’s despite setting a pace that would have made a Kenyan marathoner gasp for oxygen….  

      Which means, to sum up, that if John Henry were racing against Midships the other day, Midships would have “closed” (quotes for irony and sarcasm) from 40 lengths behind to still lose by 12 lengths.  (For those of you confused by the mathematics of racing, let me assure you this is all way beyond embarrassing.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.)

      And you can’t blame the condition of the turf course.   It hadn’t rained, it was 94 degrees out, the course was doubtless rock-hard.   They should have been breaking track records on Sunday, not inducing old-timers like me to pine away for the good old days….

     But you know what?   We shouldn’t be surprised.   None of us should ever be surprised at the decline of standards and performance in any and every walk of life.   Because this overall decline in virtually everything has been going on ever since I can remember.      

     Let me prove it to you by asking a few simple questions:  Is there any actor working today with half the star power of Gable, Bogie, Tracy, Cooper or Cary Grant?   Wouldn’t Beethoven and Mozart laugh till they cried if forced to listen to grunge, new age, heavy metal, hip hop, or Rap music? (Rap isn’t really music, but it makes my argument stronger if we pretend it is.)   Wouldn’t Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck be confused watching people go into bookstores and head immediately for the Romance  Novels section, and then emerge wearing expressions of panting lust having purchased those “books” as if such “books” (twice in one sentence, o blessed irony) actually had any value?   Do our national leaders measure up to Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, and FDR?   Isn’t “Reality TV” the saddest thing I hope you’ve never seen?   Aren’t we less safe than at any time since Pearl Harbor, aren’t everyone’s manners markedly worse, aren’t gas prices ridiculous, since when does a gumball cost a quarter, and can I ever, ever, ever get a decent parking space??? 

      That’s what I thought.          

      So I guess I shouldn’t be too upset that Midships was allowed to walk out of the gate and then stroll home to win the 2009 ‘Capistrano in 2:49.26.   Unless of course it’s symbolic.   Unless it’s a clue to a far greater problem.  

      Unless it means that the Apocalypse is finally upon us.

      So what I’m left with is this.   Does anyone out there think and feel the way I do about the decline of civilization?   Or is it just me.

      Seriously.   Is it just me?

 *note: click this link to learn more about John Henry and the once-great sport of thoroughbred horse racing:

Also, to view John Henry’s historic 1980 San Juan Capistrano victory, click on the link below:




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  1. I was there at the 1980 San Juan… Was one heck of a race. Good Article.

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