11/24/2011 1:36PM

Hovdey: There are records and then there are records

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Citation, with Eddie Arcaro riding, wins the Belmont Stakes as part of his 19-victory 1948 campaign.

That crunching and groaning heard ‘round the North American racing world this week was the sound of fans and media bending over backwards in an attempt to place the 20-race win streak of Rapid Redux into sensible context.

So let’s get the qualified encomiums out of the way up front. Rapid Redux has found a stage upon which he can perform, race after race, at the pinnacle of his talents. Where those talents fit in the big picture is grist for debate – no one is suggesting he’s playing La Scala, or Tanglewood, or even Off-Off Broadway – but certainly he deserves high praise for his extended success in a sport that offers far more ways to lose than win.

In his case, the chances for losing have been reduced by the level of competition he faces. He is clearly blessed with a sound and healthy constitution that must be the envy of horsemen everywhere. And in the true spirit of a pack leader, his success has helped pay for the ongoing upkeep of lesser horses owned by Robert Cole.

A dedicated skeptic might look at the pedigree of Rapid Redux and wonder why he hasn’t achieved more, at least in terms of quality. As a son of Pleasantly Perfect he comes from a powerful sire line tracing in short order to Ribot, one of the breed‘s Big Daddies. The female family of Rapid Redux kicks off with mares by Storm Cat, Tom Rolfe (by Ribot), and Forli, and ends up wandering around in the same gene pool that gave us Northern Dancer, Halo, Tosmah, Cannonade and Stephan’s Oddysey.

It’s a tough game, though. Sometimes you can breed the best to the best and come up with nothing more than a headstrong saddle pony. Rapid Redux, for all the hopes and dreams his bloodlines might have encouraged, has been an over-achiever by most reasonable measures, eminently worthy of his locally heroic status. He can’t help it if hungry bloggers trolling for comments and track publicists desperate for site hits have elevated his achievements beyond reason.

Blame it on the suggestive power of raw numbers, and the quick-twitch intellect of the human species that has been trained on smoke signals, telegrams, headlines, texts, and tweets. Detached from the reality they represent, numbers of scale – 20, 100, 1,000 – take on a self-justifying life of their own as in, “He must have done something good. He did it 20 times!”

No one has made a case that Rapid Redux could warm up Zenyatta, Cigar, Buckpasser, or any of the other win-streaky names in the history of the sport. But there they are anyway, popping up in the same paragraphs, conflating away as if the achievements somehow relate.

His justifiably proud trainer, David Wells, did not help matters much when he said, in the wake of RR’s 20th straight last Monday at Charles Town, “We’re still eyeing Citation’s record.”

I hope they enjoy the view.

The “record” to which Wells referred is the 19 wins of Citation in 1948, when he started 20 times. Rapid Redux, in the midst of his 20-race winning streak, has 18 of them in 2011.

Beyond the coincidence of the numbers involved, the only thing any records Citation and Rapid Redux would have in common is the fact that they were established in a counter-clockwise direction. Let’s set aside for a moment the piddling string of bargain basement starter allowance races won by Rapid Redux – and bless those racing secretaries for magically making those races fill – and take a moment to unpack the career of Big Cy, who made his first start for Ben and Jimmy Jones on April 22, 1947.

Citation won his first five starts then finished second to Calumet stablemate Bewitch (a Hall of Famer in the making) in the 1947 Washington Park Futurity. Citation won his next seven starts and then lost the 1948 Chesapeake Trial in the mud at Havre de Grace to Saggy, who later sired Hall of Famer Carry Back. To date: 14 starts, 12 wins, 2 seconds. Not bad.

On April 17, 1948, five days after his loss in the Trial, Citation won the Chesapeake Stakes by 4 1/2 lengths and followed with 14 more victories that year. The streak included the Triple Crown, the American Derby, the Jersey Derby, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and a walkover in the Pimlico Special. Among the major stakes winners Citation beat that year were Delegate, Vulcan’s Forge, Phalanx, Better Self, Eternal Reward, First Flight and his Hall of Fame stablemates Coaltown and Armed.

After that, Citation needed a year off to deal with ankle and tendon issues. He did not lose again until Jan. 26, 1950, when he was beaten a neck by Miche in an overnight handicap at Santa Anita. The fact that Miche went on to win the Santa Anita Handicap two years later was of little consolation to most fans, who thought Citation’s streak would go on forever. But those closest to him knew better, including the man who did the vet work for the California division of the Calumet stable, Dr. Jack Robbins.

“He was still very good, but he wasn’t the horse he was as a 3-year-old,” Robbins said this week from his home in Rancho Santa Fe. “He had a low bow, and Jimmy Jones managed him pretty well. Dealing with that bow, all he could do was keep him in ice packs and be careful how many times he ran.”

Citation made 15 more appearances in 1950 and 1951, which included a memorable cluster of tough beats while giving weight to a future Hall of Famer, Noor. He retired with a victory 60 years ago in the Hollywood Gold Cup as the game’s first millionaire, having won 32 races, finished second 10 times and third twice in 45 starts.

But then, those are just numbers.

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