Sept. 5, 2012
On Monday I was reminded of how much time has passed, and how quickly. Some memories are crystal clear and I have some from my only days to be at Saratoga – 40 years ago. It seems like only yesterday. But, for a while, I knew the joys of Saratoga. I have no idea how many of those joys still exist, but I like to think most of them are still around.
Forty years ago, Secretariat won what was then called the Hopeful Stakes. Now it is the Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes. That’s the first sign that times have changed. I have always had special feelings for that race, since, not only was it the site of Secretariat’s third win at that Saratoga meet, but also has been won by eventual Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, and a pair of runners I got to call during my announcing career at Oaklawn, Afleet Alex and Dublin.
Secretariat was bigger than life to me. I was a young, impressionable guy in the racing business. I had started out my career and was working for Daily Racing Form at a little track in western Vermont called Green Mountain. Racing was low-level at Green Mountain, but the little track became the first in the region to race on Sundays, so there were busloads of New Yorkers and others who found their way to Green Mountain for the Sunday programs. Normally the races at Green Mountain were night races, but the Sunday card was raced during the day, making it much more appealing for the racing geeks of that part of the country.
I discovered that there were backroads which would take me to Saratoga Springs, New York, in less than an hour. Once I learned the way I made it part of my routine to stay for the entries at Green Mountain, then jump in the car and head to Saratoga, normally making it just in time for the first race.
I did see Secretariat race three times that summer at Saratoga. It was before he became the long-awaited Triple Crown winner (the last previous was Citation in 1948). Therefore, I knew this was a good horse, but I lacked in insight that I had a real chance to be seeing the eventual Triple Crown winner. When he beat a horse called Russ Miron in a non-winners of two allowance race on opening day of the season at Saratoga, he was odds-on and no surprise. He came back to win the now-defunct Sanford Stakes, defeating a highly-regarded rival, Linda’s Chief. Then he was taking on the best in the Hopeful. Already a come-from-behinder, he had that dramatic flair to his races which he never lost. When he came from last, circled the field, then romped home by five lengths in the Hopeful, he became the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. There was no Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at that point, so he was the big horse for the spring. Of course history shows us that he didn’t let us down, although he did lose to his own stablemate, Angle Light, in the Wood Memorial and ran a strange race in the Preakness before his dramatic and long-remembered win in the Belmont Stakes.
For me the Secretariat story didn’t end at Saratoga. Since I had struck up a friendship with the famed announcer, Chic Anderson, I was on hand at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May, 1973, and got to watch Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby in person from the announcer’s booth. Fortunately I was able to be on hand for Big Red’s final career race, at Woodbine on October 28, 1973.
Weatherwise that was a terrible day in Toronto. My friends, who had a horse named Golden Don in the same race, had invited me to the stable area that morning and we were chilled to the bone as we went to the barn to wish Golden Don the best. Although I don’t remember the field being all that large, the program for the day shows that it was a 12-horse field travelling on Woodbine’s Marshall turf course that day and Secretariat, from the 12 hole, was listed as the 2-5 favorite. Golden Don was 30-1. In other words, he had no chance, according to the morning line maker. Clearly everyone was there to see Big Red.
But the race was on turf and the Canadian champion, Kennedy Road, was in the field. Furthermore Secretariat’s regular rider, Ron Turcotte, was under suspension and, for the first time, Secretariat would be ridden by Eddie Maple. It was quite a story in Toronto, especially with Turcotte being a Canadian. That was before the rule was invoked which allows jockeys to ride in Grade 1 stakes while under suspension. As a matter of fact, it was probably before graded stakes even existed.
For me, being with Golden Don’s owner, Dr. Archie Donaldson, and my friend and trainer, Oscar Dishman, in the Jockey Club at Woodbine was a thrill. I had never seen Mrs. Tweedy or Lucien Laurin close up before. In later years I had the enjoyment of sitting next to Mrs. Tweedy at a Thoroughbred Writers’ event prior to Breeders’ Cup at Belmont Park. But this was big-time for a relative newbie in racing to be there at Woodbine on that awful winter day.
How sweet that Secretariat easily ran down the pacemaker, Kennedy Road, and Golden Don came on to finish third, just losing second to Big Spruce in the final strides.
Now, as I reflect, it was one of my greatest experiences in a wonderful career and even if I have some of the details muddied in my memory over the years, I can still remember the thrill of seeing that horse who I had seen as a two-year-old at Saratoga, win the Kentucky Derby on his way to becoming the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century, then wind up his career with an authoritative win on the turf in Canada. He became to many the greatest horse to ever live. He was the best I’d ever had the joy of seeing in person
Now he stands in my mind alongside Zenyatta as the two most exciting horses of my career. By the time I saw Zenyatta, I had seen many great ones try to rank with those two. We’ve had some great ones races here at Oaklawn like Cigar, Afleet Alex, Azeri and many others. But none of them had the impact of Zenyatta or Secretariat.
Likewise to me, thanks to my age and my newly-discovered love of the sport of thoroughbred racing, Secretariat took that special place that only a first love can have.
It took Saturday’s Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes and a come-from-behinder named Shanghai Bobby to shake those memories. I wondered if there was some young fellow in the grandstand at Saratoga who was moved by Shanghai Bobby like I was about Secretariat. If so, I hope, for his sake, that Shanghai Bobby turns out to be all he hopes. Clearly the owners and trainer don’t really need it. They are well-healed. But the young racing fans of our country could certainly benefit from a wonderful story developing out of Shanghai Bobby and his lady rider, Rosie Naprovnik.
When you get older you discover that you still have many elements of a younger person trapped in an older body. So it is that the younger part of me is pulling for Shanghai Bobby and any young fans who might follow the continuation of his career. That’s what the “Hopeful” part of the Hopeful Stakes is all about. I hated to see Saratoga end in 1972 and I guess, from far away, I hated to see it end on Monday. I haven’t been there in 40 years, but I hope I get to return some day.