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Are Race Horses Athletes? You Bet They Are!

8 June 2005

It's an argument that surfaces every now and then among sports fans: "Are race horses athletes?"

Sports purists, not surprisingly the vast majority of whom have little or no knowledge of horse racing, invariably take this position:

"How can a horse be considered an athlete? A horse is an animal with no mind of its own. They are trained to run and race, but they haven't the ability to reason why they do it or for what purpose."

The biggest blow to the purists came more than a quarter of a century ago when Sports Illustrated named Secretariat its "Athlete of the Year" in 1973 for becoming the first thoroughbred since Citation in 1948 to win America's Triple Crown.

The most recent argument against the stance of the purists, however, was delivered in the last Preakness Stakes at historic Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland.

How can anyone who watched the race and saw Afleet Alex stumble to his knees when interfered with by another horse on the far turn, then recover and regain his poise to go on to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown in convincing fashion believe that race horses aren't athletes?

Take it from someone for whom horse racing has been a passion for 38 of his 54 years: Race horses are indeed athletes. Their innate desire to avoid danger and injury is overruled by the intense competitive spirit which burns within them, the same as it is with human athletes.

Afleet Alex had every reason to stop trying after he nearly fell while in full racing stride and the stretch run imminent. But he didn't. He regained his composure not only to keep trying but to go on to score a convincing triumph in the 1 3/16 miles classic test.

If anything, the frustration of the incident appeared to make him try even harder, to become even more resolute in accomplishing what his heart dictated.

The gallant thoroughbred's young jockey, 26-year-old Jeremy Rose, was at the mercy of his mount's keen athleticism and agility for those fleeting seconds of near disaster. Had Afleet Alex fallen, Rose would have been thrown to the track and into the paths of the oncoming horses. He could have been seriously injured, if not killed.

Which bring us to another point: Jockeys, in spite of their diminutive physical stature, are every bit the athletes that professional team sports players and Olympians are. Pound for pound it can be argued they are the best.

Jockeys are highly skilled, supremely coordinated and deceptively strong bundles of sinew and muscle with minds capable of executing ever changing plans of strategy and making split-second decisions. Very seldom do jockeys have the luxury of making a game plan work. For them, every race is a series of audibles.

Bear in mind that when Afleet Alex went to his knees, Rose had only his instincts and his supreme sense of balance upon which to rely. A racing saddle is merely a strip of leather from which the irons (stirrups) are suspended. Jockeys balance themselves with only the very tips of their boots in the irons. Their bottoms rarely touch the saddle. The foundation of their skills rests on the strength of their legs and arms.

When you get right down to it, horse racing is the ultimate team sport. Horse and jockey complement one another, seemingly becoming a single entity as their respective motions blend to create fluid energy with one goal in mind: Winning the race.

Of the 30,000 or so thoroughbreds that are foaled every year, only a small percentage of them ever make it to the races. The rest become pleasure horses, riding horses, show horses and jumpers.

How is this different from the small percentage of human collegiate athletes and minor league baseball players who ever make it the big leagues?

Furthermore, race horses are not machines. They are flesh and blood living things who have aches and pains, good days and bad days. They have unique personalities and traits which must be recognized in order to bring out their keenest athletic ability. They all have a competitive zeal, a flair, which clearly and without a doubt makes them athletes.

In many respects, race horses occupy a unique pedestal in the sports world. Whereas a majority of their human counterparts are allowed to compete with prescription medications of varying degrees in their systems, equine athletes enjoy no such luxury.

If the spirit to excel, the desire to win, and the ability to overcome adversity defines an athlete, then the very definition of the word should include a photograph of Afleet Alex winning the Preakness.

John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp

John G. Brokopp
John G. Brokopp's gaming column appears in Chicago Sun Times (Chicago, Illinois), The Times (Northwest Indiana), The Quad City Times (Davenport, Iowa), The Courier News (Elgin, Illinois), The Gazette (Southwest Suburban Chicago) and Senior Wire (Denver, CO). He's also a regular contributor to The Colorado Gambler, Midwest Gaming & Travel, Casino Player and Strictly Slots. John possesses 28 years of experience as a professional handicapper, publicist, freelance writer, and casino gaming correspondent. He is also the author of two very popular books, The Insider’s Guide to Internet Gambling and Thrifty Gambling.

Books by John G. Brokopp:

> More Books By John G. Brokopp