Sport is at the mercy of small, small margins. That’s what makes it the life-affirming, heartbreaking exercise it is, with the binary function of yes or no, in or out, first or second ensuring uproarious delight and profound sorrow in equal measure.
Most of the small margins do not change a life. A sumptuous Roger Federer backhand misses the line by an inch; annoying, but Fed strolls on. Gareth Southgate hammers a penalty wide of the target; agony, agony, regret, but look at him now. Dina Asher-Smith loses out on a 100m gold medal by three-hundredths of a second; painful, frustrating, but she’ll win gold in the 200m next time out.
You won’t have heard of US Army Ranger, and that’s the point. If you had heard of him, you’ll have forgotten him, and that’s the point underlined. US Army Ranger was runner-up in the Derby in 2016, and now he is squarely, permanently, irrevocably in the ‘where are they now’ file.
The Derby at Epsom is the greatest test of a three-year-old colt. Win it, and racing immortality is yours, as well as a long career at stud being treated like a prince and, well, you know very well what else. Not every Derby winner is a great horse, of course, but even the lesser ones get the rewards.
The Derby favourite
Rewind four years. US Army Ranger has run twice, won twice, and is favourite for the Derby. He is immaculately bred, trained by all-time great Aidan O’Brien, ridden by the outstanding Ryan Moore. The biggest prize available to him is a mere mile and a half away around Epsom’s twisty horseshoe circuit.
He doesn’t win. He loses. He is beaten a length and a half by Harzand. That’s about ten feet. At the speed they’re travelling, it’s less than a second. In elite competition it’s a substantial margin, but in a wider context it’s negligible, nothing, not even the blink of an eye.
Harzand, it turns out, was no more than an average Derby winner, arguably less than that. Hindsight shows us that it wasn’t a particularly glittering contest that year; the best horse in the race was actually Ulysses, who finished 12th, and who improved considerably over slightly shorter distances the following year.
But Harzand is in the record books, Harzand is standing at stud and will have his first runners this year (if there is any racing this season), Harzand is a made man. Nothing can touch him now.
A different life
Life is very different for US Army Ranger. Hindsight again, every analyst’s best pal, he clearly wasn’t as good as his form intimated. He was a little overhyped, a little underwhelming. That’s racing. But the subsequent fall of US Army Ranger is utterly remarkable for its speed and completeness.
Since that Derby day, when everything seemed gloriously possible, US Army Ranger has changed owners, changed trainers, changed continents. He has been gelded, a rare dishonour for a son of the world’s best stallion Galileo. No-one wants to breed from US Army Ranger, no thanks.
US Army Ranger is still running at the age of seven, but hasn’t won another race. He has been beaten in good races and not-so-good races, time and time again. Harzand was thrashed in his final two starts but no matter, he was a Derby winner. That outranks everything. US Army Ranger was second in the Derby, and that means nothing.
Now US Army Ranger is trained in Australia. Last weekend, he was a 100-1 shot for an ordinary handicap at Caulfield, the rank outsider in a field of 14. He finished 11th. It is hard to see how much further down the ladder he can go.
It is akin to an Under-21 international playing for a Sunday team on Hackney Marshes, with no-one keen to pass him the ball. If US Army Ranger had been the swaggering, century-making, boy’s own idol at school, he is now twelfth man for the local village team, and he never gets a game.
Ten feet the other way, a second and a half faster. A different world. What might have been, the old story of sport, of life.
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