Jim Thorpe was one of the greatest athletes of all time. In the 1912 Olympic Decathlon he placed in the top four in all 10 events and scored 8,413 points — a record that stood for nearly two decades.
Thorpe played professional football, professional basketball and professional baseball. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963 and is also a member of the College Football Hall of Fame and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame.
In 1950, an Associated Press poll of nearly 400 sportswriters and broadcasters voted Thorpe the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
Yet, like the fictional Pedro Cerrano, it’s been said that Jim Thorpe couldn’t hit a curve ball.
Thorpe played during what is known as the “Dead Ball Era” in baseball when home runs were about as scarce as a gregarious Kristen Stewart (a guy named John “Home Run” Baker led the American League in round-trippers for four consecutive years from 1911-1914 and totaled 42 home runs during that time), so Thorpe’s seven homers over a six-year MLB career can probably be forgiven.
But his .252 lifetime batting average is a little harder to pardon.
So, why, you may be asking yourself, am I prattling on about Jim Thorpe when the Preakness Stakes is just two days away? It’s to emphasize the point that professional sports invariably finds the holes in one’s game — whether they are mental, physical or a combination of both.
I think Always Dreaming is a splendid racehorse. The pace figures he earned before and in the Kentucky Derby itself have been spectacular, even if his speed ratings leave something to be desired. By nearly every metric, the Derby champ should reign supreme in Maryland:
- Since 1932, when the order of the Triple Crown races was, for the most part, set, 33 of 76 Kentucky Derby winners also triumphed in the Preakness, producing an 11.32-percent ROI.
- Of the six Derby champs that met the pace par in Louisville (-10 early speed ration or less) since 1932, four triumphed in Baltimore.
- Half of all Kentucky Derby winners that were favored in the Derby went on to capture the Preakness.
But, in the back of my mind, I still remember Super Saver.
Super Saver was trainer Todd Pletcher’s first Kentucky Derby winner and a horse whose performance at Churchill Downs convinced me he was something special. Yet, Super Saver’s eighth-place finish in the 2010 Preakness Stakes was one of the worst fade jobs since Christopher “Kid” Reid.
And, at least at the time, I blamed Pletcher and modern-day training techniques. In fact, I even produced a neat little chart that showed how the top trainers at the time sucked at bringing horses back on short rest in graded route races.
Two things about this chart stood out to me then and continue to capture my attention today:
- The very few times that top trainers of the day even attempted to bring a horse back on short rest. In 2,629 graded route tries in a five-year period ending May 17, 2010, the ten leading money-winning trainers at the time wheeled their charges back in two weeks or less just 55 times, or 2.1 percent of the time. For perspective, the great Citation raced on two weeks rest or less 14 times in 45 lifetime starts, or 31.1 percent of the time.
- The complete lack of success that nearly every trainer not named Baffert had on short rest was/is stunning. An overall success rate of 17.1 percent in graded route races was nearly cut in half with horses wheeling back in 14 days or less.
After viewing the data, I was so disillusioned that I proclaimed, “… barring radical changes in the game, the Triple Crown will never be captured again.”
Of course, I was wrong, as American Pharoah — trained by that Baffert fellow — swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 2015.
But something else has happened in recent years too — something that has made me more optimistic, not only about the future of the Triple Crown, but about the future of the Sport of Kings in general. Trainers seem to be easing back on the ridiculous notion that horses need weeks and months between races. Whether that’s been forced on them by dwindling North American foal crops (down 40 percent since 2005), scarcer opportunities (fewer and fewer races have been carded every year since 2004) or other factors, I don’t know.
What I do know is that the statistics on the trainers competing in this year’s Preakness Stakes look a lot better than they did seven years ago.
Yes, conditioners are still avoiding short rest like a veggie tray at a kids’ birthday party, but at least they are winning — often at generous prices (in part, no doubt, to the aversion that even bettors have to horses coming back quickly). Heck, even Pletcher’s stats are markedly improved.
Granted, none of these numbers are definitive — they weren’t in 2010 either — but they are, at least, encouraging.
I guess we’ll find out for sure on Saturday whether or not Pletcher has learned to hit the curve ball.