Prior to I'll Have Another dropping out of the 2012 running of the Belmont Stakes (and ultimately retiring), I began writing a feature entitled "Will I Be A Fan When This Is All Over?" As editor of SB Nation Bay Area, I'm expected to make sure that all sports relevant to this region in any way are covered. I took over on April 9 and I've been trying to at least get a basic understanding of some of the other sports that I've never followed in the past.
It's not that I outwardly disliked horse racing, it's just something that I'd never followed in the past and something that I dreaded writing about when I was on the Central Newsdesk (providing content for SB Nation Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit). When the Kentucky Derby came around, I was on the desk and I had to cover it. I didn't understand why it was significant, but I didn't even watch it. (Note: while providing the recap, I did watch the video provided by SB Nation to accurately provide a recap of the race ... but like all events I watch after they've happened [even if they're new to me], I was decidedly uninterested.)
I simply put up a basic recap based on stuff I'd found online. All I knew was that a horse named "I'll Have Another" had won and it was apparently pretty impressive how said horse came from behind to best "Bodemeister," whatever that is. So the Saturday of the Preakness Stakes rolls around, and I'm in the same situation.
There's buzz about this Triple Crown thing, and I'm a little interested. After all, there's nothing like a coveted trophy to pique the interest of any sports fan - that kind of thing is universal. Prestige and history are things that we all love and admire - untouchable snapshots of dominance that combine into a catalog of greatness.
At any rate, I have to write the recap but I still decide not to watch the race. Then I hear that I'll Have Another had yet another come-from-behind victory and the ignorance immediately blended with the true sports fan at my core and I was hooked on the story.
Could I'll Have Another really do it? Would history be made while I'm around to care about it and maybe even watch it? I carried the hype with me over the coming weeks. In much the same way that I was incredibly interested in a NASCAR race one time at a bar because some young kid was about to win his first race due to some wrecks earlier on. I don't remember his name any more, and I never have watched the sport again, but for a moment in time I was just as big a fan as everybody there in the stands.
When I woke up to hear that I'll Have Another had been scrapped from the Belmont Stakes, it hurt deeply. It was a blow to my chest, something that is probably well-known to horse racing fans who are no-doubt hardened to the reality at this point. But for me it was like a new favorite fighter in MMA retiring. Or like if Aldon Smith suddenly retired from the 49ers after that rookie campaign. It physically hurt me.
So I was wondering all day whether or not I actually cared about the Belmont Stakes. About thirty minutes prior to the start of the race, I decided that my constant wondering was, in fact, confirmation that I did care and I made the decision to watch the race.
I don't know anything about Union Rags and I don't know anything about Paynter. I knew that Dullahan was the favorite and wondered why I hadn't heard of him when writing a recap for the Derby and the Preakness. But I turned it on and I listened to the pre-race hype. Skeptically, I asked "why bother?" because I'll Have Another wasn't racing, but that was just me being cynical.
And then something happened: the race started.
I was blown away by the horses leaving the gate, and for some reason, I was rooting for Paynter to lose. I guess it's the underdog mentality, but I found myself frantically trying to identify which horses were around Paynter - who was easy due to the blue. I couldn't follow a lot, but something weird was happening still: my heart was pounding.
Now, I'm not sure who I was rooting for but I was definitely rooting. My eyes got wide, my breathing stopped and my heart was pounding as that bastard Paynter was rounding the halfway mark still well in the lead. I hated that horse and I don't particularly know why. At any rate, the final stretch was coming up and all I was thinking was "NO WIRE-TO-WIRE, NO WIRE-TO-WIRE."
Of course, I don't know if that's the right term, but it seems fitting. As Union Rags started pushing and I could see the jockeys frantically pushing their horses. No more letting them run on their own, this was jockey vs. jockey doing their best to pull off that win. But Union Rags kept coming and, as I understand it, did what folks were expecting of the horse a couple races ago.
When Union Rags passed Paynter there was an audible noise I made. Embarrassingly enough it was a half-sigh and half-exultant squeak of some kind. I was ecstatic, and a couple minutes after the race was over I realized how ... thrilled I was. It was an exciting experience throughout, and I'm not sure if it was because of the build-up or not, but I loved it.
Where do I go from here? I'm honestly not sure - I don't know what to look out for next and I don't understand half of the terminology, but I'd say there's a pretty solid chance I handle some of the horse racing stuff here personally going forward. Needless to say, I think I've been missing out on this one.