For an encore, Rich Strike will rest. Go ahead and enjoy the Preakness Stakes without him. Maybe he will spend Saturday in his stall watching video loops of his far-fetched Kentucky Derby triumph.
Rich Strike is the rare Derby winner whose trainer decided it would be too taxing to compete in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The concern of owner Rick Dawson and trainer Eric Reed, amid their most joyous moment, is almost as stunning as the upset. They don’t measure success by Grade 1 victories, not if they come at the expense of a horse’s health. Reed may never have another 3-year-old like Rich Strike, but the trainer won’t use that as permission to milk this experience.
“I can’t do anything but what’s best for the horse,” Reed told Sports Illustrated. “If we flop and he gets hurt, they’ll forget we were even there. I’ve got to remember it’s about him. If it starts being about us, that’s a problem.”
It’s a lesson that should be recited before every competition. A sport is only as good as its participants. It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about racehorses or athletes. It’s about them, their bodies and their spirit, both in the present and the future.
Such a reminder shouldn’t be necessary. But the demand for viewing options is high. In many cases, the money is preposterous. And on the other end, in niche sports, there’s so much jostling for relevance. The rhythm of the Triple Crown — Derby first Saturday in May, Preakness two weeks later, Belmont Stakes three weeks after that — is made to seem like a magical tradition when, really, fear of change is what keeps it the same.
What good is a ritual if evidence keeps mounting that the participants can’t handle the physical demands?
Since 2013, 14 horses have competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown. That includes Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018), as well as California Chrome, who won the first two legs in 2014 but finished fourth at the Belmont. So over the past decade, the sport is averaging basically one horse a year whose team feels comfortable racing the five-week gauntlet without history on the line.
Go back to 2012, and I’ll Have Another had a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years after taking the Derby and Preakness. However, the chestnut colt was forced to retire the day before the Belmont Stakes because of an injury to his left front tendon.
And it’s not just a horse racing issue. In all sports, we’re approaching a tipping point. The bodies of today’s athletes keep sending the message that they can’t persist through the rigors of both old customs and new stressors such as longer regular seasons and postseasons. To increase revenue, the NFL added a 17th regular season game and extended the playoffs. The MLB postseason has expanded, too. The pandemic afforded MLB, the NHL and the NBA the chance to think harder about permanently reducing their long seasons, but they sprinted back to normal scheduling.
And so the games are left to do some self-correction. The way teams utilize players, particularly pitchers in baseball, is making significant alterations to the experience. The things players do to take care of themselves, most notably sitting out of more games, detract from the enjoyment.
The remedy isn’t to belittle players and call them soft without considering myriad factors, including overtraining and the effects of physical evolution on some of these uber-athletic players. These are problems that can’t be ignored much longer.
During a news conference last month, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was open about his concern over “a trend of star players not participating in a full complement of games.”
“I’m not standing here saying I have a great solution,” Silver said. “Part of the issue is injuries. One of the things we have focused on at the league office and we’re spending — we had begun to spend a lot of time on pre-pandemic — are there things we can do in terms of sharing information, resources around the league to improve best practices, rehabilitation?
“The other way we can get at it, in terms of player participation, is creating other incentives. The play-in tournament, I thought, was a beginning of creating renewed incentives for teams to remain competitive and be fighting for playoff position. It might be through in-season tournaments and changes in format where we can get at it.”
Silver envisions new models, but that might require altering some long-standing traditions. For the most passionate, fandom can almost be instinctive, and the marketing and presentation of games feed into that. There’s a flow to it all, and the goal is to get people into that zone and keep them there. That’s where a sense of ubiquity has been valuable: games on all the time during the season, so that tuning in and following is like muscle memory. More is supposed to be more fun.
The simple math has always made sense, and the money has always rained down. But these products can’t be stretched any more. If anything, they need to shrink and be structured differently to maximize the drama.
That takes more deep thought and trial and error than people want to commit to right now. But all the while, if you listen to the participants’ bodies, you hear the groans. If you watch the NBA playoffs, you see the growing number of blowouts and the teams trying to work around haggard players.
They aren’t 1,000-pound thoroughbreds whose lives depend upon them staying upright on twig legs. But the example of Rich Strike and his team is an important one to bank.
For a long time, we have mindlessly thrown money into a malfunctioning machine, expecting greatness on demand. Instead of feeding the obsession, sports should take pride in putting their participants in a better position to succeed. It has been about us — not them — for long enough.