NEW YORK, May 13, 2013 - It was the voice for posterity that spoke for the horse of the ages.
CBS-TV announcer Chic Anderson made that emotional call as Secretariat drew off to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths.
“Secretariat is widening now…He is moving like a tremendous machine…”
Can you hear it now? Will we see the likes of this ever again?
Grown men still cry when they remember that day when Big Red wrapped up the Triple Crown in a performance unrivaled in any sport.
Seldom has a promise been so magnificently fulfilled. God Himself must have stopped to admire this spectacle.
But are we getting ahead of ourselves?
Orb won this year’s Kentucky Derby in a powerful surge to the wire, and here comes part two, this Saturday’s Preakness, and it’s almost automatic that he’ll repeat — though never bet the house. Anything can happen in the running of a race. In 2006, Barbaro carried the dreams of millions from Louisville into Baltimore. He was expected to be our first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed did it in 1978.
We won’t forget this moment, either.
Picking up speed in his run for the second jewel of racing’s most coveted coronation, Barbaro’s right hind leg snapped, and he went down, hobbling up on three legs. The nation collectively gasped in horror. His Hall of Fame rider, Edgar Prado, quickly jumped off the saddle, tried to steady the colt, and did everything else he could to save his stricken mount.
There is talk along the backstretch that since that incident seven years ago, Prado has never been the same.
Still, we dream. The thought of a Triple Crown winner fascinates Americans.
All things being equal, Orb should be the one. He won the Derby true to his lineage, which dates back to Bold Ruler, one of the greatest sires of all time.
Horses are not created equal. Some are meant to be peasants. Some are meant to be kings. Thoroughbreds are ruled by genetic consistency.
Their bloodlines tell the story. Fortunate is this colt to have the classy Phipps-Janney-McGaughey-Rosario combine as his connections.
Orb was bred to be a king and he won the Derby coming from behind, dashing out of the clouds the same way Secretariat usually did it from one race to the next – except for the Belmont, where Secretariat hooked up in a killer speed duel with Sham until he finally prevailed in that breathtaking romp. Secretariat’s sire was Bold Ruler.
Why is it that from season to season we yearn for a particular horse to get it done? Here’s a guess. For all their power, horses represent innocence. Mark Twain wrote, “If horses knew their strength we should not ride anymore.” Thoroughbreds are the good guys in a world so corrupted. In them, we see ourselves as we could be on our finest day.
General George S. Patton summed it up simply enough: “America loves a winner.”
Seabiscuit won nearly everything except for the Triple Crown. This colt came along just in time, during the Great Depression, when America needed it most – a hero.
This Man o’ War offspring was “the small horse with the big heart” at a time when America felt small and needed a big heart.
Legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons gave up on the colt, who was thought to be “lazy.” He lost his first 17 starts.
Tom Smith took over, and it clicked. Seabiscuit began trouncing the competition from racetrack to racetrack, even onward to Pimlico, where he prevailed over the aristocratic Triple Crown champion War Admiral. Some 40,00O, back on Nov.1, 1938, watched it happen from the stands and from the infield, and 40 million listened to the head-to-head “Race of the Century” on the radio.
Time after time comes a horse to claim our full attention, simply to astonish us with their guts and valor in the stretch and for their toughness in the clutch.
Often enough, in racing and in life, the margin is slim between winning and losing. In racing, a nose at the finish line can make the difference.
In life, it was a flip of the coin that got Penny Chenery the win for Secretariat over Ogden Phipps. He won the toss but chose wrong.
This time around his son, Ogden Mills “Dinny” Phipps, can make amends if Orb is as true as Secretariat, cited by many as the king in the Sport of Kings.
But some name 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation as the greatest thoroughbred of all time. He thrilled the nation with 16 major stakes wins in a row. Eddie Arcaro was his regular rider, but Steve Brooks was on him when he became the first horse to earn a million dollars, at a time when the purses were much smaller.
At the end of his Hall of Fame career and down to serving as a stable-hand outside Philadelphia, Steve Brooks told this writer for The Horsemen: “Yes, I was on Citation July 14, 1951 for the Hollywood Gold Cup, the $100,000 race that the made him the first equine millionaire. Best horse I ever rode. But Secretariat is the greatest horse that ever run.”
Others will argue in favor of Man o’ War, who lost only one race from 21 starts right after World War I. He was owned and bred by August Belmont, Jr. Belmont, the measure of old money blue blood, was 65 when he enlisted in the Army to fight overseas. While there, a foal came along back home. Belmont’s wife named him Man o’ War in honor of her heroic husband.
The term Man of War originates in the Book of Exodus. This, the song of Moses, celebrates Deliverance.
Will it be Orb to deliver us the long-awaited hero? Can you hear it now…?
[Ed note: Jack Engelhard wrote the classic inside book on thoroughbred racing, 1974’s The Horsemen, cited by New York Post racing writer Ray Kerrison as “the best, sharpest, most vivid portrait of life around the racetrack ever written.”]
Jack Engelhard, a novelist for such moral dilemma bestsellers as The Bathsheba Deadline, The Girls of Cincinnati, and the classic Indecent Proposal, his memoir Escape From Mount Moriah, and Slot Attendant – A Novel About A Novelist, Engelhard’s partly autobiographical expose about the trials of making it as a writer, brings his words to the Communities page covering all topics, with special focus on the absurdity of human behavior and reaches around the globe.
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