May 21, 2013
First the body goes, then the brain is slow to follow. So goes my personal description of the aging process. Most of us who have passed sixty have experienced some form of that process. Where did all the time go? Or, as they used to say in Latin class, “tempus fugit."
Clearly time does seem to pass way too quickly and it is disturbing to see folks younger than me in the obituary column. On the other hand it is disturbing to think that I am reading the obituaries these days and celebrating that mine is not there.
So it is, that racing has very much aged along with the times and what once was heralded as the Sport of Kings and took the headlines along with boxing, has descended to the point where there were a number of writers noting that racing will now be out of the mainstream of American sports until the first Saturday of May, 2014. A racing geek like me takes offense to that attitude, but I admit that there’s a lot of that out there.
This year’s Triple Crown series has been a salute to the older generation of horse racing fanatics as it has turned into a kind of Seniors Tour. “Shug” McGaughey, 62-years-old, and winner of the 1978 Apple Blossom Handicap with a mare named Northernette, won the Kentucky Derby and is followed on the Triple Crown stage by 77-year-old D. Wayne Lukas in Saturday’s Preakness.
In winning the Preakness, Lukas, who has won more Triple Crown races than any trainer in American racing history, gained a measure of revenge for the results of one of the most dramatic races I’ve ever seen, the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff. McGaughey trained the filly Personal Ensign, who caught the Lukas trainee and Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the final strides to keep alive what was to be the greatest record ever posted by a top class filly or mare in America. Personal Ensign retired undefeated through 13 starts.
When McGaughey started out here in Arkansas, he was training for a lady named Ann Dunigan, who had a Texas farm called Bacacita Farm. Shortly thereafter, he had made his trek to New York and was hired to be the private trainer of the extensive Phipps family horses. The most memorable of the Phipps horses to me was Easy Goer, who staged a number of memorable events against his arch-rival Sunday Silence. Pat Day rode Easy Goer and crushed his rival in the Belmont Stakes after Sunday Silence had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
For Lukas that period of time was considerably more rewarding, although he had found something of a dead spot in major races until he hooked up with the new owners of Calumet Farm, another icon in the sport, in the last year. Calumet is now owned by Brad Kelley, who bought the farm, but not the colors. It is difficult for a traditionalist like myself to see Calumet horses in anything other than devil’s red and blue.
Oh, by the way, both of Lukas’ and Calumet’s wins on Preakness Day (they won both the Dixie and the Preakness, the two featured races) came with the same jockey, Gary Stevens, a 50-year-old athlete who once retired, became a movie star and tv narrator, then returned to the saddle. It never ceases to amaze me how jockeys tend to peak in their 40s and 50s, long after most athletes have retired to golf courses and speaking engagements.
Ironically Stevens won the George Woolf Award in 1996, then played the famous rider in the movie Seabiscuit, before he returned to the racetrack, first as a narrator and now as a top jockey. He is still just a bit short of 5,000 wins in his career, a mark accomplished earlier this year at Oaklawn by Calvin Borel. Gary began his riding career in the late 1970s in Washington State and has won the Arkansas Derby twice, in 1985 for Lukas aboard Tank’s Prospect, then again in 1990 for trainer Ron McAnaly on Silver Ending. He rode Winning Colors on the day she lost to Personal Ensign. He was also her pilot when she became the first “modern day” filly to win the Kentucky Derby.
Here we are in 2013 and we’re heralding some of the sports “old timers." It is right and just to do just that, but it may not be good for racing in the long run. I love seeing old friends do well and I now number myself along with the senior citizens who are re-living the good times. We don’t party after a win like we used to. We’ve been there before. But, I doubt the younger members of the racing fan clubs remember these guys in their hey-days like they often don’t know who the Beatles were.
It occurs to me that, in facing the Belmont Stakes, handicappers may need to fall back on the old racetrack tradition, the “Holy Ghost” system. There may not be a Triple Crown this year, but there may be a different kind of triple to salute the ages of the trainers involved. No sense in picking a horse to win whose trainer isn’t old enough to apply for Social Security.
At the end of the Oaklawn meet and also during the Horsemen’s Park meet, where I was calling the races, we saluted yet another of the old guys, 76-year-old Jack Van Berg. I am so comfortable with this crowd. We’ve all been around the block together. This year we are celebrating our own version of The Seniors Tour.