Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Greatest Thing I Ever Did See

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe..." - Roy Batty, Blade Runner.

I can tell you which teams played in every Super Bowl, and who won.  I poured a beer over my own head when Joe Carter hit the home run that won the World Series.  The picture of me on the right is actually a picture of me next to Terry Bradshaw.  I'm a sports fan.

On June 9, 1973, I was ten years old, and it was the greatest time ever to learn to become a sports fan.  (It's been said that every man thinks the greatest time ever in sports was when he was ten years old.)  I was watching Bobby Orr, and Johnny Bench, and Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, and I would never see their likes again.  But something was about to happen that would change me, and sink deep into my soul, and which would affect the way I look at sport and life and ways of being, forever.

Horse racing was part of the culture in Trinidad, and my family brought it to Canada with us.  My granny was very much a fan of the ponies, and when she would visit relatives in Toronto she would usually take in an afternoon at Woodbine.  Granny's advice was to bet on a horse wearing green racing silks, for luck.  (To this day I scan a post parade for horses in green silks.)  But on that day in 1973, everyone was watching the Belmont Stakes - we at home on our (first!) colour TV - because no horse had won the Triple Crown in a quarter-century.

Orr.  Bench.  Ali.  Now Secretariat.  How could I not root for Secretariat?  He was big for a thoroughbred.  He was chestnut red.  He had three white ankles, and a white stripe down his nose.  He wore clean blue-and-white checkerboard silks, with blinkers.  Big Red was gorgeous, and more importantly, cool.  And he was fast, having already set records in winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, which still stand today.  The horse was like a thunderbolt from the right hand of god, and the sports world had been waiting for him, so the occasion was highly charged.  I knew very little of this, of course, being ten.  All I knew was that he was joining my list of heroes, and I was hoping for him to win the race.

The Triple Crown is a gruelling test for a three-year-old horse, three races run over a span of five weeks each spring, at three different distances.  The final leg, the Belmont, is contested at a distance of a mile and a half, a distance which is not often run, and for which many horses are not bred or fully trained to run.  In the Kentucky Derby Secretariat had broken from the gate last, then run each quarter mile of the race faster than his previous one, not taking the lead till the top of the stretch.  In the Preakness he'd again broken last, then - presumably outraged - gone from last to first around the first turn and never looked back.  He'd already executed markedly different feats of speed and stamina, but none such as what was to come today.

There are some who say a horse should not be considered an athlete.  Utter nonsense.  (Know who aren't athletes?  Poker players.)  Every animal is an athlete, none more so than a horse.  What is the most basic athletic feat one can perform?  To run.  Considering what evolution means in the development of life forms, the physiology of horses has evolved to do one thing better than anything else - move forward over land at a high rate of speed.  To run.

That day, Sports Illustrated writer William Nack was in the barn with Secretariat.  "I had never seen a horse so fit", he later wrote.  "The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat."  He did.  Facing a mere four other horses in the field - Secretariat went off at 1-10 odds to win - he blew out of the gate immediately, taking only his beleaguered competitor Sham with him.  After only six furlongs Sham tired, and Secretariat ran on alone.  What happened next jockey Ron Turcotte would never take credit for, because no reputable jockey would ever ask a horse to do it.

Secretariat got faster.  He widened his lead.  Then - again!  The other horses were no longer on the TV screen.  The horse ran alone, on his own, faster and faster, like an ancient myth.  TV announcer Chic Anderson's iconic call - "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"  He never stopped.  Going faster still, Secretariat hit the wire at 2:24 flat, yet today the standing world record for a mile and half on dirt.  He won the Belmont by 31 lengths.

I have nothing to compare it with, to put it into any perspective.  A car winning the Indy 500 by 50 laps, maybe?  A hockey player scoring 20 goals in a game?  The beauty of it was seeing this animal run a race by himself, not in a walkover, but magnificently.  The mystery of it was in wondering why.  I later heard that horses naturally race.  When they run in the wild, they run in herds, and in the best of them, their instinct is to naturally move to the front.  It's just what they do.  Secretariat, on this day, ran without hindrance, without obstacle, without competition, faster than any other horse ever had.  For no other reason, apparently, than that he felt like it.

Secretariat retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, and lived to sire numerous stakes winners.  In 1989, he contracted laminitis, a painful hoof condition which often proves incurable, and was euthanized at the age of 19.  The veterinarian who performed the necropsy, Dr. Thomas Swarczek, discovered Secretariat's heart to be "almost twice the normal size" of an average equine heart.  "And it wasn't pathologically enlarged.  It was just larger.  I think it told us why he was able to do what he did."

It's now 2012, and no horse has won the Triple Crown in the past 34 years.  Critics of the sport suspect that horses just aren't bred to be able to do these things anymore.

It's now 2012, and I can watch this race again, as often as I want to, on Youtube.  I don't.  It makes me cry every time.

I've seen things you wouldn't believe.  Nicklaus.  Wilt; Bird; Magic; Jordan.  LT, and Sweetness.  But when I was ten years old, I saw something I know I'll never see again.

I'm done now.

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