“The times change, and we change with them.”
-Old Latin adage
In everything we do, humans strive to find greatness in people, places, things, and events. Great leaders are revered; great events are commemorated year after year. It is our genuine nature to debate amongst ourselves which of these is the greatest, and horse racing is no exception.
What constitutes greatness in our sport? Is it the surface beneath those pounding hooves or how far those spindly legs need to carry a rider? Does gender or age matter? Is it a perfect record, or is it valiance in a crippling defeat? Which era was the best? Who is the greatest equine athlete for all eternity?
We will never have a static definition for greatness in the sport of kings, for the idea of a great horse has shifted from generation to generation.
The 18th century conditioning methods for the newly created Thoroughbred breed would be considered outdated – even barbaric – by modern training standpoints. These animals were pushed to the breaking point, exercised and sweated to their very leanest, and then were given riders heavier than today to compete over several grueling four mile heats.
To those horsemen, a great horse showed great speed over a long distance. He had stamina – the ability to outpace his rivals even after running sixteen miles that day. He was lean, tough, and long-strided. He was Flying Childers, Eclipse, Highflyer…and in that century, the people certainly had their handfuls of champions.
As distances have grown dramatically shorter and the age in which a horse races for the first time has dropped, people have started to put a lot of stock in precocity. The two year-old debutante who blitzes five and a half furlongs on a hot summer day at Saratoga is said to be “the next great.” The last to first winner of the Kentucky Derby is the new hero of the game. Of course, there are skeptics – there always will be – but, by and large, the traits we value in today’s modern Thoroughbred are much different than what we valued 250 years ago.
What is greatness? Is it the young son of a juvenile champion who breezes an eighth of a mile in near-world record time, then goes on to fetch several million at the sales? Is it the gritty gelding, who, after setting nearly impossible fractions on the front end, somehow finds a reserve of energy, deep down, to hold off his nearest rival? Or is it even the broodmare who never even saw a racetrack but has managed to produce three or four graded stakes winners?
The mindset that sparks so many debates over supposed greatness is our tendency to use the past as a yardstick. The best horses of the past often raced over a distance, so shouldn’t our modern greats be able to hold their own at twelve furlongs, too? If a horse struggles over turf but glides over a dirt track, can he really be considered a true champion? These horses, and their humans, are constantly viewed through the public microscope, which is often unapologetic and almost caustic in its scrutiny.
The past needs to be treated as an old lover; learn from it, never forget it, but do your best to let it fade backwards into that incredible concept we call time. Use your eyes, not your head for figures, to determine greatness in front of you.
Forget that Frankel never went for the Triple Crown; instead watch that powerful stride of his carry him further and further into the distance against some of the best in the world. Forget that Black Caviar only raced in sprints and appreciate just how she defeated her rivals, swiftly, almost mockingly, her dark tail floating behind her like a cape. Remember Zenyatta for her thrilling late finishes; don’t let her less than ambitious campaign sour your memory of her. Forgive Curlin for his blunders over turf and synthetic and instead remember his complete domination of the world’s richest horse race.
What is greatness? I believe greatness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Greatness can only be seen and sensed, not analyzed. Greatness is not a statistic; greatness is a mindset and an intrinsic part of someone or something. It cannot and should not be dictated by history, but, rather, by the here and now.
There will be great horses until humans cease to partner with them in competition. Until then, never worry about what is great; let yourself stumble upon it and enjoy it while it lasts.