There are no teams in thoroughbred racing. Or rather, everyone who follows racing is on the same team—at least for a few weeks in the late spring, when the three races are run that make up the Triple Crown.
The lack of partisan fandom in racing has something to do with the brevity of its stars' careers. No sooner have you heard of the three-year-olds that run in the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont, than they retire to the stud farm. So those of us who wanted to see a Triple Crown this year did not want it because we had grown up cheering for Zayat Stables' American Pharoah (who was born practically yesterday). We wanted, this year as every year, to behold athletic greatness for its own sake.
This is a pure and a simple desire, to which the Triple Crown is oddly consecrated. The Triple Crown differs from other sporting laurels, in that we don't know whether it will be conferred in a given year—or a given lifetime. (Whereas we know that every year there will be some national champion in college football; every year someone will win the Masters; at every Olympic Games each medal will go to somebody.) We cannot know when or whether one thoroughbred colt will win all three of the toughest three-year-old races, in only five weeks, finishing with the brutal mile-and-a-half at Belmont Park.
It is meant to be an improbable feat. Prior to Saturday, it hadn't been done since Affirmed in 1978! Some had questioned whether it was even possible. Perhaps thoroughbreds had been bred so much for speed, that none would ever again have sufficient durability or endurance. “There are no superhorses anymore!” Ye of little faith.
But certainly, the winning of a Triple Crown is a matter largely beyond human divining or devising. It requires a superhorse—and there is little we can do, apparently, to hasten his advent. Thirty-seven years we wandered in the desert! Before there were breeder, trainer, and jockey, there was (is) One greater—nature, or nature's God.
The athletic performances of brute creation can be sublime, as human athleticism cannot. Like grand scenes in nature—the ocean, the Alps—powerful animals make us feel small. I am thinking here not of American Pharoah, but of Secretariat's annihilating Belmont—which if you haven't seen, or seen lately, please click here now. Hearken to announcer Chic Anderson, as he sounds a wonderment overlaid with bafflement. Almost plaintively, he cries at the final turn: “But Secretariat is all alone!” (I.e. “Can someone confirm/clarify/correct this?”)
Secretariat was a (super)natural freak—a “tremendous machine,” in Anderson's immortal call—graciously vouchsafed to us. After his death, we found out that he had a massive heart—a “huge engine,” said the vet at the necropsy. God made a racehorse. People in the Belmont infield wept as he came, “all alone,” down the backstretch—partly because they were seeing athletic greatness, sheer and pure. This was Addison's sublime, “an agreeable kind of horror.” (Partly, too, because the (super)natural ability of the superhorse offered them an escape from the human scene of annus horribilis 1973—Watergate, Vietnam, Roe.)
Human athletes do not inspire this agreeable kind of horror. They represent to us, not human vulnerability before nature, but human ascendancy over it. In marveling at a Michael Phelps, say, we may call him a freak of nature and employ the cliché “God-given.” But we do not credit either nature or God with Phelps's umpteen Olympic medals. We congratulate human power—admiring his discipline, his training, his swimming laps even on Christmas morning, his mastery of nature in the form of his God-given flesh.
This is increasingly what human athleticism means for us—especially as athleticism becomes ever less separable from the manipulation of the flesh by technological means. Human athletes cannot compete at high levels without their various performance enhancements: their supplements, dietary or hormonal; their chemical manipulations, licit or illicit. The more their feats become feats of technological ascendancy over (our given) nature, the farther human athleticism gets from the sublime.
Which is why it is not incongruous that Bruce Jenner was a decathlete. Jessica Diehl, style director for Vanity Fair, submits that Jenner transitioned so nicely because (s)he can make his/her body do what (s)he wants: “She's an athlete, so the muscle tone is incredible.” Olympian athleticism can reside on a spectrum with transgendering, as forms of human power over against nature. This is a disagreeable kind of horror.
The Triple Crown winner, for whose coming some of us had pined these thirty-seven years, recalls us to our proper smallness. All the tricks the racing industry has employed in the manipulation of horseflesh have largely been for nought, as far as the only laurel anyone cares about is concerned. Chemical enhancements there surely are in racing, and a clumsy form of genetic manipulation (Secretariat himself was a lousy sire!). For all our human labors, the crown for which we run the race is one we cannot confer at will. Only nature's God can make a superhorse, and He doesn't do it very often.
Julia Yost is a Ph.D candidate in English at Yale University and an MFA candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.