After Lord Avie rebounded from an earlier defeat to win the Florida Derby, trainer Danny Perlsweig was asked in a post-race press conference if he had ever lost confidence in his colt.
"No," he said. "The only person who ever lost confidence was a writer from Washington." Perlsweig seemed to be glaring in my direction while he spoke.
I sense that this is going to be another long Triple Crown campaign. It was only last year that the owner of the Belmont Stakes winner publicly presented me with a T-shirt reading, "Temperence Hill Is Not a Dog," reminding me of my assessment of that $1 million colt.
For some reason, owners and trainers tend to take it personally when you suggest that their prize thoroughbred is a slow, overrated bum who is winning his races by default or accident and probably ought to be relegated to the Alpo factory. Readers seem to take offense too. Everybody loves a winner, and anybody who knocks a winner is considered churlish, negativistic or just plain dumb.
Before the 1981 Triple Crown season begins in earnest, let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a churl. I am a horseplayer and, more than any other sport, racing demands of its fans critical judgment rather than rah-rah enthusiasm.
When a football team wins a Super Bowl, even if it happens to win a badly played game ina flukish manner, there is nothing to do but hail the champ. Negativism would be pointless. But whenever a horse wins a race, handicappers have to judge just how well he ran, because that judgment will be the basis of future betting decisions.
The Teletimer helps us identify those fields where several horses ran exceptionally well, and an also-ran might be worthy of respect. It also helps us spot the races where nobody ran well, and the winner won only because some horse has to win every race.
But whenever a horse does win a major stakes race while running slow, the rah-rah instincts will overcome many fans. They will rationalize away the time -- Howard Cosell likes to say that time matters only when you're in jail -- and suggest that the winner's capacity may be limitless.
It was perfectly obvious what happened in the Florida Derby; Lord Avie ran slowly but won by 4 1/2 lengths because all of his opposition fell apart. Yet after his performance I heard people yelling, "What a race! That's a super horse!" A recent press release from Hialeah described the colt's stretch run as "cyclonic."
Every year I get incensed by these hyperbolic assessments of the horse of the moment, not only because they are ignorant but because they cheapen praise for the horses who truly deserve it.
Of the horses in this year's 3-year-old crop, Cure The Blues has run consistently fast and won his races with such ease that he could be a genuine superhorse. Noble Nashua, in New York, and Lemhi Gold in California, have won sensationally fast races recently and they, too, may be exceptional thoroughbreds. There is no need to whip up artificial enthusiasm for horses who don't deserve it.