Blog

Novak Djokovic, California Chrome and the quest for transcendence

 The grave of Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed for the 1978 Triple Crown, at Calumet Farm, Lexington, Ky. Photograph by David Paul Ohmer.

The grave of Alydar, who finished second to Affirmed for the 1978 Triple Crown, at Calumet Farm, Lexington, Ky. Photograph by David Paul Ohmer.

Well, I’m officially 0 for 3, having thought the Rangers would at least split in LA, picked California Chrome for the Belmont and the Triple Crown and thought that Nole would finally dethrone Rafa at Roland Garros. So much for my prognosticating skills.

But I’m more interested in one of my favorite obsessions, which is Why do some transcend while others don’t? Why didn’t Chrome join the 11 who’ve won the Triple Crown instead of the 12 who came up short in the third leg? Why did Nole, who, after all, has beaten Rafa in every match they’ve played since last year’s US Open, come up short at the French?

Was it nerves? (Nole appeared to vomit before the start of the fourth set and said afterward that he wasn’t feeling well though he didn’t offer that as an excuse. One thing about him, he never makes excuses for himself.) Were the competitors fresher? (Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn certainly had a point about horses skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown to play spoiler at the Belmont, although that point was lost in two days of sore loser tirades. He could take a page from Nole, who after Roland Garros was counting his blessings, which include his forthcoming marriage to Jelena Ristic and the birth of their first child at the end of the year.)

Is it that some two- and four-legged creatures rise to the occasion while others shrink? Or is it that some are just more talented? I’m reminded here of Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown, and his great rival, Alydar, whose story is retold in Linda Carroll and David Rosner’s new and highly recommended “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry.”

The two faced each other 10 times with Affirmed besting Alydar seven. In the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont, Affirmed won by a length, a head and a nose respectively. With each race, Alydar gained on Affirmed. But Affirmed refused to yield.  And Alydar – who some believe was killed in 1990 for the insurance money, a horrible thing – remains the only horse to finish second in all three Triple Crown races. But for Affirmed, he would’ve been a Triple Crown champ.

Is Nole the Alydar to Rafa’s Affirmed, the Frazier to his Ali, the one who might’ve been king save for one?

I think of that great line from a not-so-great movie, “The Phantom Menace”: “There will always be a bigger fish.” Which is not to take anything away from those of us who finish second – or third, or fourth. We still have to run our races.

Alydar was a great horse.