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Communal good prevails after Preakness plot ends

THE nearly event along the US Triple Crown trail this week - a plot on the part of two owners to block the filly Rachel Alexandra from competing in tomorrow's Preakness Stakes - quite rightly was abandoned. But it made compelling viewing, in a sort of reality television way (the plan and its reversal were revealed on racing channel talk shows) while it lasted.

The whole episode brought back something I'd read recently - a review of a book on how to raise children. The book*, co-authored by the British government's so-called happiness tsar, takes as its launch pad the 2007 Unicef report ranking Britain at the bottom of a childhood well-being scale covering the 21 wealthiest countries. The root cause given for this sorry state of affairs, according to the review, is "excessive individualism", a belief in individual accomplishment as paramount.

There are a lot of excessive individualists in racing. We welcome them, because they tend to be the ones who have enough money to afford keeping racehorses, especially at the higher levels. Also, there is no doubt that we live in a society (where do our children learn these things, after all?) that celebrates and rewards excessive individualism.

Yet racing also has a very strong sense of community in each of its local jurisdictions. There are reasons for this - it is a relatively small community, for one, and it is bound by its own peculiar language. The American backstretch, where horses are stabled and much of the stable staff lives, is a unique environment with some of the strongest communal ties in the country. While as a populace Americans have roundly rejected the idea of ‘socialism', on the backstretch you can find no end of subsidised social programmes, from child care to substance abuse counselling to English language classes.

Racing is also bound by a sense of history. This is especially true in Britain, where the most important contests are steeped in the lore of the sport's aristocratic founders. Sheikh Mohammed has been among the biggest disseminators of this sense of history, adding an Arab angle and naming his two global operations, Godolphin and Darley, after the founding stallions from ancient Arabia. Racing also gains its ‘snooty factor' - the sense that only those with the right background can gain a certain type of entrée - from this privileged history.

There is, in the upper echelons of racing, a dual tug for newcomers - to prove oneself the most successful individual (which was, in essence, the purpose of the sport to begin with) while at the same time gaining acceptance by the historically minded community. Without the sense of history, after all, the Kentucky Derby is just a bunch of horses racing around a dirt oval, while the Guineas is nothing but an indistinct cavalcade coming at you from a mile away.

So it was interesting that one of two individuals involved in the Preakness affair -Ahmed Zayat, who owns Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile - chose to cite community good in his attempt to explain why he would thwart Rachel Alexandra's entry in the Preakness.

"I decided I would do what was in the best interest for all of us," Zayat told HRTV, a US racing network.

On the other hand, Mark Allen, co-owner of Derby winner Mine That Bird, straightforwardly attributed his decision, to enter a maiden whose record is 0-9 in the Preakness in order to fill the field, to a goal of personal attainment. "My decision to enter Indy Express in the Preakness was strictly business," he said in a publicly released statement, after reversing his decision on Monday.

The child-raising book, as I understand it, recommends cultivating a sense of belonging to something larger and more meaningful than oneself as an antidote to the culture of excessive individualism. The chance to participate in a history that one values could be seen as part of that sense.

For adults, there is another way. Revelation of the plot let loose a slew of negative reaction from the racing community. Having reversed his decision to enter the extra horse in the Preakness, Allen said he had done so after consulting both his father and his co-owner. "Their advice to me was just to do what's right, because arrogance and greed isn't right," he said.

For his part, Zayat said: "After talking to the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, I have decided I don't want to be seen as not being a sportsman, so I am happy not to block her for the good of the game."

It looks like we can thank peer pressure for Rachel Alexandra's presence in tomorrow's race. May the best horse win.

*A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age, by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn

 

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