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Phil-osophically Speaking: May 31, 2013

It’s Been A While

It would have been nice to see on Secretariat’s 40th anniversary of winning the Triple Crown that another horse would have captured that ever elusive achievement. It’s been 35 long years since another horse has won such glory. With three Triple Crown winners in the 1970s, it appeared that accomplishing such a feat might even become routine. Like a cadre of Voltaire’s Candides, we had become demented optimists.

History should have precluded such a roseate worldview.  It would not have behooved the sport to have Triple Crown winners being as common as the rain. Expectations should not be as certain as the changing of seasons, for history is replete with examples in discouraging such a sanguine outlook. Reality has a rather obnoxious habit of intruding upon cheerfulness and it’s important we keep our fondest hopes in proper perspective. The record book shows that 25 years separated Citation’s and Secretariat’s Triple Crown victories. The three winners of the Triple Crown in the decade of the 1970s would have been seen as aberrational if not for the rose-colored glasses plastered against our faces.

But 35 years mock the generally sound idea of delayed gratification and guarded presumptions. The hopes of racing fans soared after Orb’s sensational come from behind victory at the Kentucky Derby, colored with the human interest story of Orb’s trainer Shug McGaughey, one of the game’s most respected gentlemen who had never won even one of the legs of the Triple Crown. Orb seemed to the handicappers to be a sure bet when the fates cruelly intervened. On a windy day in May at Pimlico track, Oxbow, at 15-1 odds, despite the slow pace, easily defeated Orb, who only managed a fourth place finish. D. Wayne Lucas, Oxbow’s trainer, who celebrated his 14th win in a Triple Crown race, jauntily noted that he “gets paid to spoil other people’s dreams.” Gee whiz, what a way to make a living.

Oxbow’s upset win takes some of the wind out of the Belmont, although I’ll be tuning in to watch the rematch between Orb and Oxbow despite the fact that there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. Until there is another such winner, horse racing fans can bask in the warm, amber glow of nostalgia’s soft, dreamy catacombs. I was a young teenager when I watched Secretariat’s final triumph at Belmont race track. Big Red, as the horse was called, dominated the field as completely as Babe Ruth did to major league pitchers when he single-handedly out-homered the entire American League or when basketball player Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a single game. Watching Secretariat come down that stretch, more than 31 lengths ahead of his nearest competitor, some 1,200 muscular pounds in poetic motion, was perhaps the most unforgettable sight I have ever witnessed in sports.

At that time, despite living a half mile away, I had never been to Belmont Park and I had watched the race on television. My friend Don managed to jump the fence and crouching out of site he positioned himself near the final stretch for a narrow glimpse of the mile and a half track. He saw Secretariat go by in a flash and after what seemed to be a nearly interminable interval, he finally saw the other horses in hopeless pursuit.

Neither before nor since has any horse come within two seconds of Secretariat’s winning time. It was a once in a century performance for possibly the greatest racehorse in history. “Blood Horse,” the leading source of Thoroughbred horse racing in the U.S. as well as Sports Illustrated Magazine, put Secretariat just a nose behind the great “Man o War.”  Secretariat’s incredible achievement that year (he still holds the record time for not only the Belmont but also for the Preakness and the Kentucky Derby) is enough to buffet these bitter winds of perennial disappointments.

Some 6,500 years ago, nomadic tribesmen first domesticated the horse. For thousands of years these magnificent animals were used as beasts of burden. It’s not exactly certain when they began to be bred for speed, but we do know that horse racing was an Olympic event as far back as 638 B.C. The Roman Empire reveled in the sport. It was Hernando Cortes who introduced the horse to the North American continent and in the process terrified the Aztec tribes. Never before having seen such a regal animal, much less with an armed man riding on him, they mistook these massive four legged creatures as giant dogs. Like elsewhere in the world, these animals were soon bred for speed and it was Colonel Meriwether Lewis Clark Jr., grandson of William Clark of the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, that gave us the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting 2 minutes in sports.

The Preakness and the Belmont would soon follow. In roughly more than a century, only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown, Affirmed being the last in 1978. A whole generation has been born and bred without seeing a Triple Crown winner. There is an inborn prejudice that informs the older generation that things were better when they were growing up. I won’t subscribe to that kind of sentimentality, but there is no denying that horseracing, while no longer the Sport of Kings, was clearly better and so, by God, was Secretariat.