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April 15, 2024

The Greatest Horse in Racing

By Sand Pilarski

I was waiting out the interminable three weeks this year between the Preakness (which Funny Cide won in a romp, as they say, ears flopping in utter relaxation until he passed Peace Rules and made an ass of him, surging away like the hot pace of the Preakness was nothing) and the Belmont and thought I recalled an entry in Uncle Edgar's memoirs about seeing the best Triple Crown races of his lifetime. So I pulled his book from the shelves, and let myself sink into his memories of 1973...

"Now we weren't much into betting at all, [said Edgar, in his memoirs] being as how we became baptists after the revenue agents found Pa's still and cut him a deal after they tasted the stuff. But damn, I always loved to see the horses run, and after we moved to the east end of the state and got a television that worked, I watched the Triple Crown races like some men watch the hooch dancers.

"I'd sit as close to the TV as I could see it, and study those horses. I never wanted an A in a class in school as bad as I wanted to see the winner in the parade of horses to the gate. I wasn't going to win any money by my guess -- but there's just something about being able to pick out a good horse from the way he's shaped and the way he moves. I was able to pick out Win-Place-Show horses most times, looking for the horses with a nice square conformation for the Derby, a light, nervous horse for the sprint of the Preakness, and a big, long horse for the Belmont, because that race needed more power and stamina than the others.

"Now I watched those races every year -- it was a better treat for me than any of the football games -- but I tell you there was no year than was better than 1973, when that horse Secretariat made the world sit up and watch.

"I'd had the pneumonia that spring, on account of getting up there in years and also due to falling in the creek getting a specially wayward trout in the net. My own dad used to call it piss-nammonia so he could remember it began with a "p" and because it used to piss people off when they got it in the spring, because they might die of it and ruin their summer.

"But on account of being sick, I didn't keep up with the news much that year, so when the horses were being led to the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby, I didn't know anything about them. And even today, I don't know anything about them, except that 1A horse carrying a jockey in blue-and-white checkered silks. He was a big, big red horse, with a sensible square head and perfect proportions, and when I saw him, I knew he would be the winner. That horse was as different from the field as if the rest of them were donkeys. You just can't imagine how that horse looked compared to the others. He was taller. He was broader. He was longer. It was like you were looking at the other horses through the wrong end of the binoculars, and they were just smaller images of that big horse, except for his attitude. He was downright cocky.

"The announcers said as they were watching the post parade that Secretariat had won seven of his first nine races, and that's a good percentage, but not necessarily a solid bet on winning a Derby. A horse can run his heart out for seven races and just lose interest from there on out, you know.

"And then they were off, and that big, beautiful horse was just lost in the back of the pack. I was embarrassed for thinking he'd win. There is an upper limit on size with running horses, when they can get so big they can't drag all that meat along with them. Those are the ones that get sold off as jumpers or dog food.

"Then the big boy started moving up like the other horses were going lame.

"When he pulled up alongside the leader, and then passed him, I couldn't even cheer, I was so astounded. Secretariat was still accelerating when he crossed the finish line, and all I could think was 'There's your Belmont horse.'

"Two weeks later, when the sprint race (a mile) of the Preakness was on us, I was sweating like a kid before a math test. A big horse like Secretariat matching a hot pace with the littler, nimble horses? Even with a good post position, Number Three, that horse could have lost, and I don't know if he stumbled, or what, but he was just about dead last as the Preakness started. I figured that was the end of the race for him, but then he just started flying, and everybody in the stands was screaming, and so was I. Secretariat went from nowhere to win in galloping strides that were like magic.

"He won that race, and might have set a record for speed like he did for the Derby, except the track clock be-buggered itself and no one knows for sure how fast he ran that measly mile track.

"When the time for the Belmont came, there wasn't anyone who really thought there was a chance for another horse to win. Well, if there was someone, it was Jimmy Woostenberger, my barber -- good thing he knows how to cut hair and doesn't have to rely on the ponies. That fool head-shaver said he thought Secretariat wouldn't have the staying power to go the full mile and a half of the Belmont. Thought that the mile and a quarter of the Derby was a last-ditch effort, and the sprint of the Preakness was about the horse's best.

'''Huh-uh,' I told him. 'I saw that horse move at the end of the Derby. He's a distance horse.'"

"Secretariat wasn't just the odds-on favorite to win the Belmont, he was somehow like he'd got to be everybody's pet horse. Maybe it was his ears-up face-the-crowd attitude, or maybe it was because he'd won those first two Triple Crown races from behind. I don't know, but the Belmont was Secretariat's race, not just a horse race. No one cared who won, not unless it was that big red colt.

"This time, when the bell rang, he didn't lag at dead last or struggle for position. He was there, and the jockey just let him run, didn't try to hold anything in or 'save him' until the end. Go, boy, go.

"And Secretariat went. He hit the front of the herd in no time and just kept on running. When he got 16 lengths ahead of the former leader, people got quiet instead of screaming, and when he hit 23 lengths, they started crying. I did, too, and still do, when I watch them show reruns of that race, when Secretariat finished 31 lengths ahead of the next fastest horse. Further than a football field apart.

"That horse was led into the winner's circle, sweating but not tired at all, and ready to run and act up like he was fresh out of the barn. The whole time they were putting the blanket of carnations on him, he was prancing and fighting. I swear, Secretariat wasn't even breathing hard.

"After the Triple Crown there was a lot of talk about how it would be unfair to pit a horse like that against 'regular Thoroughbreds', and how Secretariat's offspring might be unfair to race against. 'Superhorses', they suggested. Well, Secretariat himself put all their fears to rest. He never sired a colt or filly anything like himself. I guess he was just what you call a 'sport', something unique. I read, after that horse died, they did an autopsy, and found he had a heart twice as big as a normal racing horse.

"I've watched every Triple Crown race since then, and with the exception of Seattle Slew, who was one hell of a racing winner, all the races have been boring as a long sermon on a hot day. But then, Slew was just one hard-working racer, with a gold soul and a spirit to win.

"Secretariat was a super-hero. Maybe, as some sour-grapes losers say, he was a freak, but if you had seen him run, you'd wish you could have been his jockey, Turcotte, and set him free to take the lead by the biggest margin in Belmont history. Musta been like dying and going to heaven."

I don't, in my heart, think that the Belmont Stakes will be such a rout as Secretariat pulled off thirty years ago, but I'm wondering, after the powerful pull-ahead move that Funny Cide made in the Preakness -- will he be the next Triple Crown winner if he powers ahead in the last quarter mile?

And having read Uncle Edgar's story, I know that I will always be looking at the post parade for another horse like Secretariat.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-06-02
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