Monday, June 09, 2014

The Favorite Underdog

Have written here a few times over the last several months about how Vera Valmore and I made a move and now live on a farm where we keep a couple of horses. Vera rides dressage, and in fact competed in a show not that long ago where she rode well in a musical freestyle for which she devised the music. Cool stuff.

So we’re horse people, although not really horse racing fans. The sport intrigues us somewhat, but Vera doesn’t like the way the horses sometimes get exploited and mishandled in a mercilessly competitive, high-dollar industry, which necessarily tempers our excitement whenever the Triple Crown races come back around on the calendar.

But we watch them, and were watching on Saturday to see if California Chrome could do what no other horse has done since 1978 and manage to win the Belmont Stakes after having won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.

I was absolutely ambivalent about the outcome. Nor did I bet on the race -- which, illogically, I can legally do while I cannot play online poker except on sketchy, unreliable “rogue” sites located offshore.

But I was still fascinated by how the great majority of others were pulling for California Chrome to pull it off. We ended up watching a lot of the lead-up to the race, and without exception everyone who appeared on camera seemed excitedly to be pulling for Chrome, too, with all of them -- without exception -- predicting that Chrome, who ultimately set off as a big 4-to-5 favorite, would win the race.

I mentioned to Vera just before the race began how it was weird, in a way, that in this case the favorite had everyone’s support whereas in sports it is more often the case that the underdog gets more love. But she pointed out to me that I was miscalculating. Even though Chrome was the favorite odds-wise (which, of course, are dictated by the betting) and perhaps might even have been the horse with the best potential to win the race, 36 straight years of no horse winning the Triple Crown necessarily gives the impression that any horse is going to be an underdog to accomplish the feat.

In other words, in this instance, pulling for the nominal “favorite” was in a funny way like pulling for an upset.

It reminded me a little of what I was writing about last week with regard to Vanessa Selbst’s WSOP win and how we tend to be surprised even when “favorites” win at poker. Sure, a given player might be a favorite versus another (or all of the rest, even), but such a player will always be a dog to win a big field tourney.

Then Chrome lost, with Tonalist winning, and Chrome’s owner Steve Coburn swiftly destroyed a lot of good will and support with his complaint about the other horses taking “the coward’s way out” by not racing all three legs of the Triple Crown. Very Hellmuthian, that rant.

It’s a tough spot, I guess, being so favored while an underdog.

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