Thursday, June 03, 2004

a surprisingly long post regarding, of all things, horse racing

This Saturday, the undefeated horse Smarty Jones will be trying to win the Belmont Stakes, which if he does will make him the first horse in more than 25 years to sweep the Triple Crown horse races. I have two unrelated things to say regarding this, neither of which requires any particular sports fandom on the part of the reader. The first is pragmatic, the second supernatural. The second is more interesting.

1. A few days ago I posted that I reading a book about the process by which companies come up with names for themselves and for new products. Part of the book's raison d'etre is that the selected names can matter a great deal to how the company/product is perceived and so to the company/product's success. Smarty Jones's feats have been receiving a ton of press coverage, and this coverage, for a sport-in-decline like horse racing, has been considered profitable for the entire sport as well as for the owners of this specific horse. Smarty Jones seems to be receiving much more coverage for having a chance of sweeping the Triple Crown than did the five other horses that in the past ten years have won the first two races of the Triple Crown and then tried (and failed) to win the third. Part of the reason for this might be a renewed interest in horse racing as a result of the book and movie Seabiscuit. But seemingly another big reason is that "Smarty Jones," like "Seabiscuit," is a wonderful name for a racing horse, especially for marketing a horse that is smaller-but-spunkier than its peers. Smarty Jones, it turns out, was originally named Get Along but then immediately renamed because of some confusion where an owner had/was promised to name a horse after a recently deceased grandparent, who was named "Smarty" Jones. My assertion is both that Smarty Jones would not be getting nearly so much coverage if he was named Get Along and that this is relatively obviously so.

If that's the case, why isn't there more of an effort to have marketably appealing names for potentially star horses? Like even going so far to rename horses that show strong promise in their early races. I mean, I understand why the NBA or NFL don't manuever to try to come up with optimally marketable names for its rising stars, since these players are human beings who have had the names for a couple decades or so and may be attached to them. (And, yet, even then, there are various examples of athletes whose endorsement income was likely aided by having a good nickname, and many South American soccer players do indeed change their names to more appealing/marketable monikers). The two horses expected to give Smarty Jones the biggest challenge on Saturday are named Purge and Rock Hard Ten. These are lame names for the media try to set up an archenemy angle. Typing "Purge" just now makes me think alternately about bulimia and Stalin, while typing "Rock Hard Ten" makes me feel mildly embarrassed.

2. When I was growing up, my parents and I would usually watch the Triple Crown races on TV. In 1979, when I was eight, Spectacular Bid (a great name, BTW) won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and was so was one race away from winning the Triple Crown. One morning, several days before the Belmont Stakes, my father announced that he had placed an envelope on top of the television set. He said that it contained a prediction, and he instructed us not to open it. He wouldn't tell us what the prediction was, or even what it was a prediction about or when it would be time to open the envelope. But there it sat, on top of the television. My dad, while fond of making predictions, had never done anything like this before, or since.

In the Belmont Stakes, Spectacular Bid went off as a heavy favorite (indeed, Smarty Jones is now the biggest favorite to run in the Belmont Stakes since Spectacular Bid) but ended up third. Afterward, the story was that Spectacular Bid had stepped on a safety pin in the stall and hurt his left front foot; the trainer said afterward that they had considered scratching Spectacular Bid but decided they needed to try for the Triple Crown.

My father had not been home for the race, but was immediately curious about the result when he returned. Turns out that the prediction in the envelope was that "Spectacular Bid will not run in the Belmont Stakes." That was all that was written on the sheet of paper. My dad's explanation for it was that he'd had a dream where it was as though he was right there in the stall on the morning of the race and he could hear people talking about how Spectacular Bid had hurt his foot and wasn't going to be able to race. My dad even claimed that the foot in the dream was the same as the one that had actually been injured. Certainly, my dad only provided this account of his dream after he was told what had actually happened. Even so, and even though I am about as skeptical as one can be about all things otherworldly, I have to admit that every year around the time of the Belmont Stakes, I think back to this episode and wonder.

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