A quest for excellence on horse tracks and human tracks

May 30, 2006 4:50 AM

The joint belonged to Barbaro last week, with flowers, cards, candy and kisses. And it should have.

The outpouring of sympathy, and the anthropomorphism, attributing human reactions and responses and thinking to the horse, were overwhelming. Even the vets treating him seemingly were convinced he understood everything that was going on.

We’ll never know the answer to that, or whether he would have beaten Bernardini in the Preakness. That horse not only destroyed the Preakness field, but also destroyed the Belmont Stakes when his owners decided to skip that third leg of the Triple Crown. Since they did it for his welfare, feeling he is too unseasoned to tackle the Belmont’s mile and a half this early (the Preakness was only his fourth lifetime start) it is hard to argue with their decision. But the Belmont now is just another Saturday feature without Bernardini, and instead of drawing 125,000 will surprise if it draws half that number.

Although it didn’t seem so reading newspapers since Barbaro’s injury, there were other interesting news stories happening. One of them involved a school you never heard of unless you lived in or near Washington, DC.

The school, Eleanor Roosevelt high school in Greenbelt, Maryland, is an overwhelming athletic power, attracting the best high school talent in the area, and some of the best in the nation. Both its boys’ and girls’ track teams are defending state champions, and its girl’s sprint relay team electrified the track and field crowd at the famed Penn Relays in Philadelphia, setting two of the fastest times ever in the 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 events.

Sean Flynn, writing about this in the Washington Post, said "that alone prompted some to wonder how all four speedsters could end up at one public high school," and noted that Runningmaryland.com, a high school track Web site, virtually ignored the story. When its editor — who happens to be a rival track coach — was asked why, he said the Eleanor Roosevelt team "was not a real high school team”¦it’s an all-star team." The story said the track team has been involved in at least five rules related controversies in recent years, and the track coach recently resigned.

That sent us to the school’s Web site, where a surprise awaited.

First, the school’s site is seven pages long, skillfully done and highly informative. I discovered quickly that Eleanor Roosevelt produced not only exceptional track and field teams, but that its girls’ varsity softball team wound up with a record of 16 and 1; its girls’ rugby team, in its inaugural season, won the local area championship; its tennis team won the regional championship for the second year in a row; its baseball team won the regional championship; its girls’ cross country team finished 11th in the Nike Nationals at Portland, Oregon; its girls’ soccer team finished its season 15 and 0, with 1 tie; its boys’ soccer team was 12-1-1; and the girls’ junior varsity soccer team won the county championship.

Your first inclination, like mine, logically would be that this is one big jocks’s school.

More surprises awaited, however.

Among them, Roosevelt kids studying Japanese were turning in results every bit as phenomenal as the athletes. Seventy percent of the second year students scored as High Novice or higher, compared to 21% nationwide, and exceeded the national norm in every category.

Roosevelt kids were presenting their fourth annual Portfolio/Business Plan Showcase.

The school’s choirs were performing choral music ranging from South African to Bach.

They were staging a Poetry Slam.

They have a Haute Couture Fashion Club.

They have a mock trial legal team.

And Roosevelt’s elite science and technology magnet program draws top students from all over the nation’s capital.

So w hat is the moaning of rival coaches all about, and what is this column all about?

It’s about jealousy at not being able to compete, and about grumbling at a school that has pushed hard, and at times perhaps too hard, for its programs and its pride.

It is about a disappearing quality, a quest for excellence.

And it is about a frightening development.

The protest against Eleanor Roosevelt high school’s desire to excel, in all things, and attracting kids who also want to do so, is part of the dumbing down of America.