Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tales of the Triple Crown

Many people have asked me over the years, how was it that I became so enthralled with horses? Was it family? No. Was it friends? Well, sort of. What really helped you to love horses? That answer is simple; it was ABC and Jim McKay.

I followed the Triple Crown of horse racing because year in and year out it was the only horse sport on television. And each year I would start trying to follow the televised races sooner. I would absolutely love to say that I remember Secretariat, but I don’t because I wasn’t even 2 yet! Now I do remember Affirmed winning the Triple Crown in 1978. And I recall the fervor that followed him as he progressed from Louisville to Baltimore to Belmont. I suppose it’s appropriate in a way that my memory starts with the last Triple Crown winner.

I can still recall some of the oddly captivating stories behind each Derby, Preakness and Belmont contender over the thirty two seasons of racing that has passed between. I remember the glory of the watching Genuine Risk defeat the boys and how happy my mother and her friends were. I still remember the newscast detailing Swale’s untimely death. I watched, as most did, at the amazing rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. And yet the glory of the connections as each gleaming coated winner swept under the wires has transfixed me for years. Every race, every blanket of flowers adorned, each moment of victory, and yes even some defeats felt like my own. I still can’t watch Real Quiet’s Belmont. I have the tape on VHS and every time I pick it up I want to cry.

Over the years my family usually watched the races in the TV room together. And so of course we’d root for our favorite horses. By the time the gates would pop my family would be rooting for every runner in the race. And more often than not we would have the winner and second place finisher backed by all of us at the end. (Jumping ships mid race was allowed by some in my household) My greatest coup was the 1990 Belmont stakes. A new entrant from Europe was coming in, “Go and Go” an Irish bred trained by Mr. Dermot Weld and ridden by Mick Kinane. Dad thought I was nuts to like him, I kept screaming “But dad he’s Irish, a mile and a half is nothing over there!” Dad didn’t buy it. He stuck with Unbridled, the Derby winner. As they came into the turn Unbridled made the beginning of a huge move up to Go and Go as they sat behind the two front runners. And then he stopped. Go and Go kept on and sailed down the lane to steal the show. Dad tore up the ticket I had made for him and looked at me as mom smiled, “You know she might just have been learning all these years.”

And so now we come to another exciting year and we’re in Derby week! Sadly Mr. McKay has long ago been replaced, and more and more people are covering the sport of kings, and more and more horses are being run for the roses. One of my dad’s favorite songs still is Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses” and I can’t think of Louisville in May or the Derby without entwining the great melody and my constant handicapping nemesis from the TV room of old. But this year will be different. For the first time ever I get to go to Churchill Downs and stand where millions of horsemen, horse lovers, gamblers, and yes even politicians and royalty have stood. I feel a bit like the little girl version of “Virginia” being given a trip and a tour of the North Pole. (Though I doubt those elves there curse as much if Rudolph can’t beat Dasher in a 5 furlong sprint!)

If it’s not clear from my earlier writings, I believe in a lot of stuff. Hollywood has no trouble getting me misty eyed in almost any film. So already I am imagining the walk through Churchill, seeing the track before me for the first time and feeling a bit like Costner in Field of Dreams, Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, Tom Burlinson in Phar Lap, and so many other great people who conveyed with alacrity the awe that befalls people when you actually stand in a place or a moment you’ve only dreamed of.

Now to get to this, I have some buses to ride, some fancy clothes to throw on, and yes a grand hat to perch on my head. But to really glance back and see how I got here, well I see all the people I initially denied credit for this: My father, my mother, my sister and all my friends who have understood over the past 32 years that for three Saturdays my butt would be parked in front of a television, daring to dream that anyone can win.

I wish all the horsemen, horses and fans a lot of great luck and grand racing. Look for me in the big pink and green hat with the million dollar smile!



  1. Have fun Emily! This Saturday will be wonderful for you, no matter who wins because it's a dream come true.

    Coming from another whose family knew that there were three Saturdays in Spring when the tv was reserved and dinner would be late, and who does remember Secretariat, was as overwhelmed as anyone by the Belmont win, but who always rooted for Sham.

  2. Kewl! Have fun! Churchill Downs is SMALLER in real life than its press...wild turns! Lad says watch out for the mint juleps...