On Track with Johnny D: How Great is ‘Great?’

The word ‘great’ often is used to describe everything from summer vacation, to last night’s dinner, to an episode of The Night Of, to any number of athletes and performances.


Perhaps, the word ‘great’ is over-used? As worn-out as a pair of favorite sneakers, holey, bottom and top, but comfortable as heck. Unfortunately, the word seems to have lost its effectiveness.


Everything and everyone can’t be great, can they?


In the last week alone, I’ve heard and even used the word ‘great’ in reference to the following: Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, Beholder, American Pharoah, Ramon Dominguez, California Chrome and Songbird.


During that timeframe, I also may have referenced Muhammad Ali, Mark Spitz and Nadia Comaneci as Olympians who were or became ‘great.’ Frosted, too, should be included. Or, at least, I may have used the word in question to describe his Met Mile and/or Whitney scores.


Of course, in Ali’s case, he eventually became ‘The Greatest.’ An important distinction because it separated Ali from the pack, stuffing one less athlete into the already crowded ‘great’ bucket.


How, exactly, does one earn the label ‘great?’


By definition, the word covers a lot of ground. According to Google, ‘great,’ like many athletes it’s used to describe, is versatile. It can serve as adjective, noun or adverb.


As adjective its definition suggests: “1. of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average. 2. of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above normal or average.”


As noun: “1. a great or distinguished person.” (Don’t you just love it when they do that…use the word to be defined in the definition?)


As adverb: “1. excellently; very well.”


  1. Now I’m confused. I thought ‘great’ meant ‘GREAT’. You know, way, way better than anyone else. A standout. A star. A seldom-in-a-lifetime occurrence. For example, Haley’s Comet. Now, that’s great!


Perhaps I give ‘great’ to much credit?


“Considerably above normal or average?” That’s not nearly as dominant as I assumed ‘great’ suggested. By that definition isn’t every Olympic athlete ‘great?’ They’re certainly ‘considerably above normal or average.’ I mean, have you seen ‘average’ lately?

Same goes for any horse that wins a graded stakes race. By definition they’re ‘great,’ too!’ Disagree? Back ‘average’ in a graded stakes field and kiss your money goodbye!


Saturday’s Pacific Classic at Del Mar, by any definition, figures to be a great race!


California Chrome, Beholder and Dortmund will be joined in the starting gate by six others searching for Grade 1 honors and winner’s share of a $1 million purse. As always, any one of the nine can win the race. However, those who are paid to do such things predict that the winner of the 2016 Pacific Classic will come from among the previously mentioned trio.


Requiring no additional intrigue, handicapping the race became more even more interesting following the post position draw, when California Chrome, the definitive favorite that prefers to race outside of foes, drew the number one post position. As disconcerting as that news was to ‘Chrome’s connections, backers of Dortmund, installed as morning-line second choice, were all smiles at having drawn post eight of nine. Beholder, the mare eligible for but not yet collecting Social Security checks at age six, drew just inside of Dortmund in post seven—not ideal, but not disastrous either.


One might wonder why, in a mile and one-quarter race with an opening stanza longer than the entire Del Mar stretch, would post positions be so critical? Normally, they aren’t. However, with the race’s first two choices fresh off a recent mile and one-sixteenth slugfest now switching inside and outside positions, strategies are affected.


From the rail, with virtually no speed to his outside, except possibly until Beholder in post seven, jockey Victor Espinoza must let California Chrome run early to maintain position. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens probably plans to settle Beholder a bit, just behind a potential ‘Chrome-Dortmund tussle. Last out, breaking from the rail in the Clement Hirsch Stakes, Stevens let Beholder go to the lead. She was hounded on the outside the entire way and eventually succumbed to Stellar Wind late.


Jockey Rafael Bejarano, riding Dortmund from the outside, can either stalk or hook ‘Chrome. The pair traded body blows from start to finish in the San Diego Handicap until ‘Chrome, on the OUTSIDE throughout, edged clear late. This time, the positional advantage switches to Dortmund. The guess from this chair is that Bejarano will press ‘Chrome from the start. Bob Baffert-trained runners seldom ‘take back’ and usually are fit enough to fight early and survive late.


Based on that analysis, California Chrome is a poor wager from the rail with cantankerous Dortmund to his outside. ‘Chrome might win—he’s still one of the best in the world on dirt–but he’ll need to fight Dortmund early, middle and late, as well as repel any other challenges that might surface. That’s a tall order at what figures to be a short price–never a beneficial combination.


Does this mean that Dortmund will win the Pacific Classic? Not necessarily. So far, he hasn’t quite lived up to his potential. Maybe Saturday will be his afternoon to shine, but he’ll need to run the race of his life.


If, following her loss to Stellar Wind, the public has cooled sufficiently on Beholder, she might be worth a wager at around 3-1. She’s got a number of positives.


First: Her loss to Stellar Wind was not a backward step. Based on Thoro-Graph speed figures Beholder actually ran faster in losing this year’s Hirsch than she did in winning the race last year! Remember, she then returned to take the Pacific Classic in style.


Second: She adores Del Mar–four wins, two seconds in six tries at the seaside oval screams home-field advantage.


Third: She is one of only three race entrants to have won at the distance of a mile and one-quarter. ‘Chrome is four-for-six at the trip, and Hard Aces is one-for-six.


Fourth: As a mare she will enjoy a five-pound weight break from all rivals except for Dalmore, a 3-year-old toting one pound less than Beholder because of an age allowance.


Fifth: Following the disappointing Hirsch, Hall-of-Fame trainer Richard Mandella theorized that he had treated his queen…well, too much like a queen and not enough like a racehorse. He thought he might have gone too easy on the champ heading into the race. Not this time. Since the Hirsch, she has had two Del Mar works: a solid, second-best-of-44 at the distance :59 and a second-best-of-24 at the distance :47. Both works garnered rare ‘B’ designations from official track clockers signifying a ‘breezing’ move, accomplished without urging.


When the winner of the Pacific Classic crosses the finish, racing fans around the nation will agree that it was a ‘great’ race. If the battle lives up to the hype, I’ll need to figure out a more suitable word to describe it.


Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: How Great is ‘Great?’

On Track with Johnny D |

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