Happy Delusion Season. May the delusions of the season enchant your household and leave every little heart aflutter with delusional delight. May you and yours revel in the real fellowship of unreal delusions.
Delusion Season has begun as it does most years, even though in some years it seems more tepid than others and more tepid than this. It tends to begin on the first Saturday in May at the wire of the Kentucky Derby, except for those times when it seems to begin during the stretch, before the wire, as it did this past Saturday. During Delusion Season, the sliver of society so inclined begins yammering about the Triple Crown even before the Preakness field gets set and even after 35 years of disappointments have shouted that the task is steep and the mouth should rest.
So Delusion Season is a testament to the indomitable human spirit. It persists improbably even after so much reality. The English-language sentence, "No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978," has gone through birth, the early years, the teen years, the college-age years, young adulthood and almost into middle age, still truer than ever at 36. That doesn't deter us. We're buoyant beings.
No sooner had California Chrome stomped ahead at the top of the Kentucky Derby stretch than the thought started welling: Could he win the Triple Crown? Could this son of an $8,000 mare and a $2,500 stallion sustain his clear superiority against his fellow 3-year-olds? Could this horse of one-horse owners win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to treat the country to a full-on springtime of magic? Might he go from proletariat to Secretariat?
By now, the answer ought to go like this: No!
No, he can't!
In this of all pursuits, we ought to practice the art of pessimism that fuels happiness, maybe even an innocuous form of the kind of pessimism that contributes to Denmark's dynasty as the happiest nation on Earth. We should know that pessimism means you're never disappointed and occasionally even pleasantly surprised. Yet instead of poor-mouthing, we start hoping. We did it last year with Orb, the versatile Kentucky Derby champion who wound up fourth in the Preakness and third in the Belmont, a not-so-bad showing now that you think about it. It has started up now with California Chrome even if some of that owes to competition deemed lackluster.
The Preakness hasn't even begun to happen, but the Belmont Stakes alone ought to quash all hope. Twelve times since 1978 a horse has gone to New York with a chance at the Triple Crown across the mile-and-a-half, and 12 times he has not-won in various ways. Race announcer Marshall Cassidy, 1979: "It is Spectacular Bid in command by three!" Cassidy, moments later: "It is an upset now; Coastal has the lead by three." Dave Johnson, 1987: "Perret looks over his shoulder and there isn't anybody within six lengths of him!" That was Craig Perret, on Bet Twice, way ahead of fourth-place Alysheba, Derby and Preakness champion. Johnson, 1989: "Sunday Silence appears beaten!" Easy Goer romped.
Johnson, 1997: "And down the stretch they come, three of them in a line, Silver Charm at the rail!" And 1998: "Real Quiet takes command! A roar from the crowd as he bounces away by three-and-a-half lengths!" And 1999: "Now five of them and Charismatic takes the lead! Charismatic between horses! But on the outside there goes Lemon Drop Kid, rushing to contention!" Touch Gold overhauled Silver Charm. Victory Gallop hurried in one frantic closing chase to get a nose ahead of Real Quiet. Lemon Drop Kid easily beat third-place Charismatic.
Funny Cide ran out front for a good while in 2003 but faded to third behind Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted. No such contention came from War Emblem in 2002, Big Brown in 2008 or the scratched I'll Have Another in 2012. If you watch the broadcast of the Belmont in 1981, you might catch the remarkable sight of Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder asking Pleasant Colony trainer John Campo, pre-race, if he had any regrets, and Campo saying, "John Campo never second-guesses himself." Pleasant Colony ran well but got third.
Then, in probably the most painful of all the near-makes, we heard Tom Durkin in 2004: "And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of a hundred and twenty thousand!" And: "The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It's been 26 years! It's just one furlong away!"
And then: "Birdstone surges past ..."
And the great voice trailed off through the words, "Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes ..."
It all started with Spectacular Bid about to become the third Triple Crown winner in three years in 1979 -- and the fourth in seven years -- such that the achievement had begun to seem a notch less than special. By now, after time after time and call after call, there has been so much reality that the achievement has come to seem far-fetched and the hopes have congealed into delusions. The least we can do is celebrate them.