Kane Webb: Sports Mash-Up – When Horse Racing Meets SEC Football


What if SEC football programs were horses

competing for the Triple Crown?

By Kane Webb

A Triple Crown is on the line Saturday in the Belmont Stakes, barring another cruel turn of fate from the racing gods. (Honestly, what did they have against Smarty Jones?) After that, we’ll all turn our attention to the regional religion — college football. But this Razorback-red state is horse country, too, ya know. Which got us to wondering . . . what if Southeastern Conference football programs were horses (or horse-racing operations)?

Alabama — Multiple-time Horse of the Year, always dangerous. Regally bred and coveted by all as a weanling. Top trainer may be prickly but no one doubts his skill (or the impressiveness of his mane). Owned by a stable flush with money, tradition and insanely high expectations. Perpetually underrated crew of jockeys at the ready — indistinguishable except by name — but, really, anybody could pilot this one home.

LSU — Enormously talented, versatile runner who competes at the highest levels. Sometimes suffers from erratic training. Can run green. Dominates lesser competition through sheer ability. Bloodlines as good as any.

Arkansas — Former hard-knocking handicapper who occasionally jumps up to compete well in graded-stakes competition, although rarely stacks together victories against top-flight peers. Still-new trainer had nice record with previous barn but may not be a fit here. Plodding running style often results in too much ground to make up. Does best when saddled with premier jockey, an infrequent occurrence.

Georgia — Talented but historically disappoints on the largest stage. Trainer can’t win the big one. Tradition-bound stable with demanding owners often antsy to make changes.

Ole Miss — From a storied stable of yesteryear that’s struggled of late (i.e., last few decades) from a skill deficit and run of mediocre handlers. But the latest trainer seems to have refilled the barn with speed and ability. Could be the horses are drawn to the high-class tailgating just outside the barn. Still, may be a cut below stakes class at this point.

Auburn — Up-and-coming whiz kid trainer stole a few victories last year with this recent plodder who changed running styles. New emphasis on deception, speed and agility. Would benefit greatly from continued development of top-notch pilot. Often overshadowed by more-lauded runner (see above) at the barn next door.

Tennessee — Hard-trying lower-level allowance horse from a once championship-caliber stable that’s fallen on hard times. Several trainer changes over the last few years haven’t helped. Latest “coach” holds promise, but his current charge doesn’t have the talent yet to win at next level. Peyton Man o’ War ain’t walkin’ through that barn door.

Vanderbilt — Well placed by former trainer against lower-level handicap competition led to a string of impressive season-ending victories. Trainer has since moved on to a bigger barn. Smallish operation almost always makes this one an underdog in a loaded field.

South Carolina — Slow to develop under Hall-of-Fame skipper but now among the top tier, thanks in part to stable star and physical “freak” who has moved on to major-league outfit. Needs a new, skilled hand on the reins.

Florida — Former gold-standard barn now has tin touch under third-year trainer who starred as an assistant for several legendary conditioners. Talent always available from winning base of operations. Impatient owners won’t hesitate to make a change.

Missouri — Surprisingly consistent a year ago in second outing at highest level. What to expect now? Longtime handler usually has ’em primed to compete hard, showing speed right from the gate, but this one just may not be good enough to hold on in stretch.

Mississippi State — Perpetual under-achiever handicapped by location, history and being second or third call for top jocks. Capable of springing an upset but may not be consistent enough to keep stable from making another trainer change.

Kentucky — More donkey than horse.

Texas A&M — Lost stable superstar after smashing back-to-back seasons. But hot trainer has knack for restocking. Money and resources no problem here. Nor is fan interest. Patience among deep-pocket set thinner than autograph paper. 

But seriously …

As for the race itself, this time it feels different, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s because California Chrome has the air of a throwback, a horse who actually races as often as he does well — a rarity in the era of lightly run, here-today, gone-to-stud tomorrow “superstars.” Maybe it’s because his trainer, 77-year-old Art Sherman, appears about as nervous and anxious as a man just up from a nap. Or maybe it’s because, as one handicapping friend so astutely pointed out, California Chrome — like Belmont champions who’ve dominated this marathon of a race (Secretariat, Risen Star, Point Given, Afleet Alex, Easy Goer) — seems to be getting better in every race while running in each leg of the Triple Crown.

Or maybe the racing gods are setting us all up for another deflating day. But this time, I don’t think so. California Chrome won’t save horse racing, which is beyond saving except for a couple of racetrack outliers (Saratoga, Oaklawn) and three weekends a year, but he’ll win Saturday. The best horse usually does.

* * *

Kane Webb, a longtime Arkansas journalist and former sportswriter, recently returned to his home state from Louisville, Ky. He is currently working on a book.

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