ELMONT, N.Y. -- The thing about the Belmont stakes is that as the third and final leg of the triple crown, it can mean absolutely everything or absolutely nothing. without the winners of the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness running in the field, the Belmont's relevance was certainly in question.
But then a funny thing happened. Just as the sport prepared to disappear from the consciousness of the casual fan, a small horse named Jazil crossed the finish line first yesterday, creating a long-shot proposition that could serve as damage control for horse racing's brutal year.
No one is going to mistake any of yesterday's thoroughbreds for Barbaro, the mighty horse who routed the field in the Kentucky Derby but then saw his career shatter two weeks later at the Preakness. It sure felt like a knockout blow for a sport that was already lying belly-up on the mat.
The best that could have happened was for the Belmont, the Travers Stakes and the Breeders' Cup to come and go as quickly as possible. Fans needed to move on. The sport needed to move on. But then along came Jazil and his very important bloodline.
Actually, forget the horse's bloodline. I'm talking about his owner's: Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum. Because you're surely up to date on Dubai royalty, I don't have to tell you that Sheikh Hamdan's brother is Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum - the owner of Bernardini, this year's Preakness winner.
That's right: Each of the brothers owns a horse that won a jewel in this year's Triple Crown.
If we can forget Barbaro for a second, forget what could have been and forget the fact that the world's best 3-year-old is still fighting for his life in a Pennsylvania veterinary hospital, let's daydream for a bit. Allow me to make a modest proposal.
Bernardini vs. Jazil.
Sheikh vs. Sheikh.
Bin Rashid al Maktoum vs. bin Rashid al Maktoum.
A match race is what this sport needs. It would salvage something for the casual fan, the one who can't shake the image of Barbaro hobbling across the track at Pimlico. It would inject intrigue into a once-great sport that has slipped far onto the fringe. And it would give us all something else by which to remember 2006.
You could focus on the long list of obstacles if you'd like: the fact that the Dubai duo does most of its business overseas; the fact that match races are as trendy as the mullet; the fact that the seasons and careers of modern-day thoroughbreds allow little wiggle room for impromptu events; and the fact that a sibling rivalry of foreign blood would struggle to attract an American audience.
Those are all great reasons, but not a single one of them comes close to addressing the sport's crisis state.
There aren't a whole lot of ways to repair this disastrous season. Anything short of Barbaro's appearing at the Breeders' Cup and winning a race on crutches forces the sport to pick up next year running the popularity race uphill.
You've got to remember, modern-day horse racing was built off the intrigue of match races. It's one thing to see a dozen horses at the starting gate, but when there are just two, it polarizes the audience as well any political debate or boxing match.
As two of the top 3-year-olds, there's certainly a chance that Jazil and Bernardini will line up near each other in the same gate. But unless it's just the two of them, only railbirds and gamblers will pay any attention.
These two need a spotlight. They need Don King. They need a nose-to-nose fight poster.
Do you remember five years ago when golfers Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam teamed up to face David Duval and Karrie Webb on prime-time television? You're telling me that has more audience appeal than a two-minute horse race with proper promotion? And don't get me started on whether anyone would actually watch it. Poker is a television phenomenon. ESPN is broadcasting Rock, Paper, Scissors on one of its channels next week. I think a pair of horses is still a draw.
Today's trainer would scoff, and today's owner would wonder where the funding would come from, but there's certainly precedent. Man O' War squared off against Sir Barton in 1920. Seabiscuit famously faced War Admiral in 1938. Nashua sought revenge against Kentucky Derby winner Swaps in 1955. And more recently, Ruffian raced against Foolish Pleasure in 1975 (and memorably was euthanized as a result of injuries she suffered in the race).
The sport needs something. The memory and images of Barbaro pulling up in pain at the Preakness will linger until something else happens on a racetrack to replace them. And barring an unscheduled race or a medical miracle, that isn't likely to happen anytime soon.
Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog
]Points after -- Rick Maese
Track record: Of course, Jason Grimsley, the former Oriole who spilled his juiced-up guts to the feds last week, was already a famous cheater. You'll recall that in 1994, he shimmied through an air-conditioning duct to retrieve Albert Belle's confiscated bat from the umpires' dressing room. It was a fun part of baseball lore, though now we all know that Grimsley himself was twice as corked as Belle's bat.
June madness: Just flipping through the channels, there's the Belmont Stakes, the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup playoffs, the World Cup and the French Open. I'm probably in the minority, but it makes me think of one thing: When does football season start?