In 1978, Affirmed won horse racing’s triple crown — the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Since that time 11 three years old horses (the same number as have ever won the three race series) arrived at the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the third. All have failed. In a little less than 3 weeks’ time, I’ll Have Another will go to the post at the Belmont with a chance to win one of sport’s most elusive prizes. For a lot of different reasons, hope most notable among them, I think it will happen. In so many ways, on this day after the Preakness, I feel like it is 1973.
The gap from Affirmed to today is the largest gap between triple crown winners. When Secretariat ran away with the Belmont Stakes in 1973, it had been 25 years since Citation had accomplished the feat. At that point in time, as it is now, racing was down on its luck and in desperate need of a hero. At that point in time, as it is now, so was (in many ways) the country. Secretariat filled that bill. He made the cover of Time and Newsweek. He won his races in dramatic fashion. Indeed, until I’ll Have Another made his run in the stretch yesterday, I have never seen a horse make a move like the one Secretariat made on the backstretch of the 1973 Preakness. As anyone who lived through that time remembers, for a few weeks in the late spring of 1973, a country recovering from Watergate was transfixed by a horse.
I know I was. As a second-grader in the Newton schools, I found an athletic hero who wouldn’t let me down. He didn’t just win, he won by a lot. And he did it with spirit. I also found — through my interest in him — a sport with a history of heroes (like Man O’ War and Seabiscuit) and villains (like Onion, the horse who beat Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes and Allen Jerkens, his trainer). I remember reading all I could about racing — and learning the names of the triple crown winners. Since then, my affection for the sport has continued — although I confess that horror stories of equine abuse have marred my once-starry eyed love for all things racing. Still, as a young boy, I remember nothing as thrilling as watching Secretariat prove, again and again, that the extraordinary was possible and that hope could be rewarded.
So today, while reading about I’ll Have Another’s young jockey, Mario Gutierrez, and his now redeemed trainer, Doug O’Neill, I thought about how hope works. For weeks, Gutierrez has been telling anyone who would listen that “he is an amazing horse.” For weeks, the racing world has focused on horses with more established human connections, like Bodemeister and his trainer Bob Baffert. For the next few weeks, it will all be about Gutierrez and his horse. Watch the tape of his stretch run in the Preakness — only one other race horse has ever moved like that.
As the Belmont Stakes gets closer, the news media (not just the sports folks) will start to pay attention to the possible end of the long triple crown drought and to this amazing horse. And I wonder whether this country, in the midst of economic worry and global concern, will take a deep breath that Saturday and watch the race and hope for what has increasingly seemed impossible. That’s what we did in June of 1973 and we were together reminded of what is possible. So, this sunny afternoon, I remember how Secretariat made my 8 year old heart leap and, you know what, I’ll Have Another. Keep your eyes open — and pay attention — the extraordinary sometimes happens.
1/28/13 — As you may know, I’ll Have Another proved to be unsound and so did not run in the Belmont Stakes last summer.