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Bosco’s Corner: It’s a lot more than just riding a horse

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A few weeks ago I dedicated this space to the long-standing debate as to what is and what is not a sport and where to draw the line among simple athletic pursuits, recreational activities and the kind of competitive endeavor that should be covered in these pages.

One sport I neglected to touch on was horse racing. And with the Belmont Stakes this weekend and hometown horse Funny Cide the favorite, not just to win but to claim the first Triple Crown in 25 years, I can’t think of a better opportunity to have a little fun with the sport of kings. Besides, with all the rain we’ve had lately, I have had a lot of time to think while driving from canceled baseball game to canceled baseball game.

To refresh your memory and to enlighten those of you (and shame on you for missing it) who never got to read my mini-diatribe, sport is defined by Webster’s New World Dictionary, circa 1995, as “any recreational activity; specif., a game, competition etc. requiring bodily exertion.”

I offered my own take on what is and what is not a sport in the context of importance to someone like me, who gets paid to write about sports for living.

My definition describes a sport as “any physical activity or game requiring physical exertion done in competition,” which is a fancy way of saying that just because you jog doesn’t mean you are actively participating in a sport. That would be exercise. Furthermore, while a jogger may be athletic, that doesn’t make him an athlete in the same breath with Roy Jones Jr.

Horse racing has always been a tough call for me, just like auto racing. Sometimes I drive a little fast, but that doesn’t make me an athlete, just a guy in a hurry. But done in competition I guess car racing would be considered a sport.

The machine does most of the work, granted, but steering a car at 200 miles per hour for 500 miles or so can be a daunting task and far be it from me to cast any dispersions at a sport so beloved by the Bible-thumping, beer-swigging multitude south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Horse racing is sticky, though. If non-sentient quadrupeds were covered by my definition of sport, then sure, it’s a sport. The horse does the running, after all, and it is the horse, by and large, that gets all the credit.

The jockeys, however, have to be qualified as athletes in my book. I interviewed Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte this past week, and after speaking with him for the better part of an hour, I discovered a newfound respect for those little guys in the funky outfits.

Turcotte, who rode Triple Crown winner Secretariat and a host of other horses, told me he always had to watch what he ate, always had to stay in shape. While he would walk around at about 125 to 130 pounds, his best riding weight was somewhere around 113. It is hard enough for an average person to shed 15 pounds, but imagine having to do it when you weigh 130. That’s double tough.

And there is a lot more to it than just being small and letting the horse do the work. Like auto racing or anything else, a jockey has to use his brain during a race, he has to guide his horse to a position where the animal can make its move when the time arises. A jockey also has to pace the horse, making sure it doesn’t spend its energy too early in a race, especially a long race like Belmont.

You also have to tip your hat to jockeys because these guys take their lives in their hands every time they ride. A horse, no matter how well trained, is still an animal and fully capable of causing some damage. Turcotte is just one jockey not to leave the racing game unscathed. He was paralyzed from the waist down after a spill at Belmont 25 years ago.

On the other hand, no matter how good or talented a jockey may be, his success can only go as far as the horse is willing to take him. I think it was former North Carolina coach Dean Smith who once said that no matter how good a coach, he needs the horses to win.

I’ve never been a big horse racing aficionado, I don’t like to bet and can think of a lot of things I’d rather do than watch a pack of thoroughbreds run around in a circle.

Former Queens College student and perhaps quintessential New York comedian Jerry Seinfeld had a great bit on horses, something along the lines of “What must the horses be thinking? ‘Weren’t we just here? You know, if we had just stayed here we would have been in first.’”

I agree, millions and millions of dollars in the country are flushed daily at the race track. And while it may not be my cup of tea, I can still recognize the skill with which jockeys need to perform their duties and all the hard work of the trainers, groomers, owners and everyone involved to get a horse like Funny Cide in the position to make racing history.

So horse racing gets a vote in my book. A sport for sure.

And as impartial as I might want to be, if I were a betting man I’d throw a saw buck down on Funny Cide. Favorite or not, one of his owners, Eric Dattner, lives in Queens and you have to root for the hometown hero.

Reach Sports Editor Anthony Bosco by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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