Sports

On Your Mark: Saddle up ... it’s time to make a run for the roses

Nyquist (13), with Mario Gutierrez up, wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Unlike Pharoah-phever a year ago, Nyquist-mania hasn’t yet struck in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby. It might by next Saturday night if the undefeated colt ends up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs.
Nyquist (13), with Mario Gutierrez up, wins the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile horse race at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky. Unlike Pharoah-phever a year ago, Nyquist-mania hasn’t yet struck in the days leading to the Kentucky Derby. It might by next Saturday night if the undefeated colt ends up in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. AP

Eleven months out of the year, a large majority of sports enthusiasts could care less what goes on in horse racing, leaving such interest for those heavily invested what occurs at the race track – whether through ownership of the athletic equines or simply due to betting interest.

But over the span of five weeks, such apathy is trumped by an enthusiasm borne simply out of the potential of being able to witness history.

The pursuit of a Triple Crown begins Saturday, with the best three-year-old thoroughbreds making a “Run for the Roses” at the Kentucky Derby. Aptly described as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” the race has been held every year since 1875 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

Without the first jewel, there is no way a horse can grasp the Triple Crown – a title given to the winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

Over the course of 141 races, a bevy of legendary horses have trampled through the 1 1/4-mile dirt track. However, in such hallowed company resides only 12 iconic equines – the gold standard of American horse racing.

Sir Barton was the first horse to earn what is now known as the Triple Crown in 1919. It took 11 years for another thoroughbred to join him in Gallant Fox.

In the 18 years that followed, six more horses would go on to acquire all three jewels of the Triple Crown – Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation – a true who’s who in the annals of the sport.

Following a quarter-century drought, the 1970s would offer three Triple Crown winners:

▪  Secretariat: His dominance in 1973 placed him in such high esteem that some historians have him as the greatest thoroughbred to ever live;

▪  Seattle Slew: Sold for just $17,500, his story of rags to riches – and a Triple Crown in 1977 – isn’t possible even in the wildest of dreams;

▪  Affirmed: The gap between racing royalty and being a footnote in history is rather slim, confirmed by three slim Triple Crown wins over Alydar in 1978.

I’m sure for those able to experience three Triple Crown winners in six years, the notion of one became somewhat of a birthright. With that said, one could only imagine the angst and anxiety over the course of the next 36 years, as countless horses drew so close to earning the sport’s gold standard.

In a span of three years there was Silver Charm, Real Quiet and Charismatic, followed by a bevy of names including War Emblem, Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Big Brown and the heartbreaking tale of I’ll Have Another.

Guess that’s what made American Pharoah’s ride to the Triple Crown so beloved by the masses last year. For even those without a passive interest in the sport, the Belmont Stakes was must-see television.

And with a 5 1/2-length win – fourth-largest for a Triple Crown winner at the Belmont – he did not disappoint.

With American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win still somewhat fresh, the question now becomes “Who’s next?” As was stated earlier, it all starts with the first jewel.

A pair of horses in this class of three-year-olds immediately come to mind. Undefeated Nyquist comes in as the early betting favorite, this after wins in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and more recently the Florida Derby, where he bested second choice Mohaymen.

But don’t discount the likes of Brody’s Cause, Exaggerator or Mor Spirit – trained by the same man who helped steer American Pharoah to Triple Crown glory in Bob Baffert.

No matter what horse you choose, one bet is an even more likely one – most eyes will be focused on Churchill Downs once the clock hits 6 p.m. on Saturday.

Of note...

In what’s been dubbed “Motivation Monday,”a bevy of local baseball and softball teams look to stave of elimination when they take the field Monday evening. Fifteen area programs are slated to play, with 11 of them potentially staring the end of their season square in the eye. Four more are playing second round games. However, three other area teams have moved on to host their respective district finals Wednesday evening – Carolina Forest baseball, as well as Aynor baseball and softball. ... While baseball and softball playoffs are well involved, soccer and boys tennis begin their postseason journeys this week. ... Spring football practice also kicks off this week around the Grand Strand. It’s a brave new world for teams locally as well as throughout the Palmetto State, as coaches and players start preparing for the new five-class system... With the last of the NBA first round series now a wrap, the cream is starting to rise to the top in both basketball and hockey, with each shift and possession more and more precious. ... After a rough go of things this past weekend against Georgia Tech, Coastal Carolina continues its spell of road games with a three-game series at Liberty. The series begins Friday in Lynchburg, Va. ... The Myrtle Beach Pelicans will spend the next week on the road, heading to Winston-Salem for a three-game set beginning Monday, before making their way to Wilmington for a four-game series starting Thursday.

Joe L. Hughes II: 843-444-1702, @thejournalist44

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