The Underground Man, two times two, and Justify

So said Fyodor Dostoevsky in his masterpiece “Notes from Underground“:

With the ant-heap the respectable race of ants began and with the ant- heap they will probably end, which does the greatest credit to their perseverance and good sense. But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it.

Since the horses crossed the wire in the Belmont on Saturday afternoon, since the end of the “game” that is the Triple Crown season, I felt dread over having to fill out my NTRA All Ages poll.

The three-year-old poll was obvious, of course, at least as obvious as a poll of opinions can be.  There was, as always, a lot of splitting hairs underneath…but Justify reigned supreme.  Winning a Triple Crown makes that obvious.

But, his accomplishment gave me a crisis of conscience about my All Ages poll.

And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.

Leading into the Belmont Justify was not on my All Ages ballot, and I was seriously considering not putting him on there again.  After all, one thing is positive: he hasn’t faced older horses.  To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best — and on average, “the best” are older horses.  Justify is a freak — but his only foes have been three-year-olds.  How can I rank him better than the older horses if he hasn’t been tested against them yet?

With that question, the thought of putting Justify on my all-aged poll at all makes me sick to my stomach.

It makes sense to base my votes on things I know.  Twice two makes four.  Older horses are, on average, more developed, stronger, better than three-year-olds.  Justify may be the exception, may be more developed than some top-class older horses, but how do we know, if he’s only ever beaten three-year-olds?

Anyway, man has always been afraid of this mathematical certainty, and I am afraid of it now. Granted that man does nothing but seek that mathematical certainty, he traverses oceans, sacrifices his life in the quest, but to succeed, really to find it, dreads, I assure you. He feels that when he has found it there will be nothing for him to look for. When workmen have finished their work they do at least receive their pay, they go to the tavern, then they are taken to the police-station — and there is occupation for a week. But where can man go? Anyway, one can observe a certain awkwardness about him when he has attained such objects. He loves the process of attaining, but does not quite like to have attained, and that, of course, is very absurd. In fact, man is a comical creature; there seems to be a kind of jest in it all.

But, on the other hand?  My search for anything approximating mathematical certainty in the older division has eluded me.  Since “six furlongs on the turf” is a little too specific a niche to be a division (sorry, Disco Partner!), the closest thing any division has to a clear leader is the open sprint division, with Mind Your Biscuits.  His Golden Shaheen (G1) victory was a triumph.  The Met Mile (G1) was a defeat in which he lost absolutely nothing: he missed by just a nose behind lone speed, going a distance longer than his best.  He’s a superstar, but he hasn’t had an unprecedented kind of season.  Heart to Heart has emerged best in the middle-distance turf division, Accelerate is the top of the handicap division…but how far above the rest do they loom?

They’ve had good seasons so far, but none of them have done anything that, if portrayed in a work of fiction, would cause you to roll your eyes and murmur that it couldn’t happen in real life.

Justify has.

If you tried to tell me a horse would go from unraced three-year-old to Triple Crown winner in under four months, I’d have told you that would never happen.  If you handed me a book about a horse whose star rose so fast, I’d have scoffed at the implausible plot.  Yet, I’ve now seen it happen with my own two eyes because Justify did it.

But yet mathematical certainty is after all, something insufferable. Twice two makes four seems to me simply a piece of insolence. Twice two makes four is a pert coxcomb who stands with arms akimbo barring your path and spitting. I admit that twice two makes four is an excellent thing, but if we are to give everything its due, twice two makes five is sometimes a very charming thing too.

Is Justify better than the older horses?  Will he beat older company later this year?  We won’t know until he tries.  In that sense, I’m still not quite happy about my choice to put Justify on my All Ages ballot at all.

But, he has changed my definition of what it’s possible for a racehorse to do, and has done that while racing a grueling Triple Crown schedule.  I’m more certain of the fact that Justify has done something truly difficult than I am about anything in the older horse landscape right now. When so little elsewhere is stable maybe it’s not such a bad thing to break my rule, surrender begrudgingly to the wisdom of the Underground Man, and let twice two be five this time around.

our chapter

eleven names have always hearkened back
to what the books of history have said
mute tones of sepia and white and black
accented with blue checks or devil’s red
illuminated manuscripts of old
bring illustrated tales of hero steeds
though yellowed leaves fall short of making bold
the full extent of witnessing those deeds
our generation clung to history
the only path to that elusive prize
resigned to think that we would never see
the pinnacle of sport through our own eyes
three days, five weeks have coloured the next page
a Pharoah for our place and for our age

in defense of Martha Claussen

The new NTRA poll came out this afternoon.  American Pharoah was one vote short of unanimous atop the Top Thoroughbred poll, and this fact has broken Twitter.

Hold your horses, everyone.

Would I have voted American Pharoah on top or not if I had a vote?  I can’t say — I do not have a vote, and saying what I would do now, one way or the other, would be the writer’s equivalent of redboarding.  The deed has been done, the poll is out, and my pontification on What I Would Have Done would not matter one iota.

Do I think the people who voted American Pharoah on top of their all-ages poll erred?  Of course not.  His ability to sweep his age group as impressively as he has in five starts this year, his ability to gallop home so strongly at a mile and a half after three races in five week, and four races in eight weeks, his ability to perform a feat that only eleven other three-year-old Thoroughbreds in America have performed?  These all speak to the greatness of American Pharoah, and provide a logical argument for voting him as the top horse in the country.

But, is there an argument for not putting American Pharoah on top?  You bet: all those fine races happened against his own age group.  He has not yet faced older company.

If a voter had not put American Pharoah atop the three-year-old division after sweeping the Triple Crown, I would be baffled.  I would even, despite it being a question of opinion, say that voter was wrong.  He was impressive on the Derby trail, impressive through the Triple Crown, and performed a feat no horse had performed since Affirmed in 1978.  He had done everything asked of him at the highest level, and no other three-year-old has a better claim in the age group than American Pharoah has.

However, do we know American Pharoah would beat the likes of Shared Belief, Honor Code, Moreno, and Tonalist?  He may: he is a fast horse, a consistent one, and his stride could not be smoother.  All signs suggest that the Triple Crown champion should stack up against the best of any age.  However, we do not know for sure.  That remains the one thing American Pharoah has not yet proven on the track.

The mob needs to take a breath, enjoy the Triple Crown for what it was, and stop vilifying any voter who takes the principled stance that three-year-olds must prove it on the track against older before getting a vote in the all-ages poll.

soundtrack to a Triple Crown

when you’re thinkin’ you’re a joke and nobody’s gonna listen
to the one small point i know they’ve been missing around here

Yesterday, I was more excited about seeing a horse race in person than I was about seeing the Goo Goo Dolls in person for the first time. I was more excited about catching a glimpse of Keen Ice or American Pharoah than I was of seeing Johnny Rzeznik.

Fifteen-year-old me would have been appalled.

Read More »