Running with the Horses
“If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses?”
I grew up next door to my grandparents down in Homestead and indeed, there are many fond memories of those days. None however are nearer and dearer to my heart than those of the first Saturday in May, for it was on that afternoon each year – for as long as I can remember – that my grandmother and I sat down to watch the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. Two weeks later we would be in front of the TV in her living room to watch the Preakness Stakes from Baltimore and three weeks after that, the Belmont Stakes from just outside NYC – the final and most grueling test of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing. My grandmother’s love of the sport was not fired at all by the idea of wagering. She would not have so much as bet on the sun coming up in the east each morning, but my how she loved thoroughbred racing! And, since I loved doing things with my grandmother, I became a huge thoroughbred racing fan as well. How strange it is now at this stage of my life – nearly 50 years after watching my first Kentucky Derby – that I’ve been on the back of a horse one time in my entire life and haven’t placed a wager in more than 30 years. My grandmother has been gone a good many years now and yet my passion for the Derby and the two Triple Crown jewels that follow is as passionate as ever.
Memories of years gone by still stir my soul. I recall vividly the stretch run of the Florida-bred Carry Back in the 1961 Derby. A slightly-built Ocala-born horse, Carry Back was 100% heart and he showed it by coming from near dead last in a 15 horse field to win that day. That horse knew far more about pace than a lot of runners I know. (You know who you are ….) He followed that up with a win in the Preakness only to be denied his place in horse racing superstardom by the long shot Sherluck in the Belmont. The Triple Crown that was denied to Carry Back went to the great Secretariat in 1973, who became the first to achieve that feat in 25 years. In a strange sort of statistical anamoly, Seattle Slew won it four years later in ’77, as did Affirmed in ’78.
Thirty two years have now passed and though some have teased us with wins at the Derby and the Preakness, none since the great Affirmed have accomplished the grueling task of beating the best 3-year old thoroughbreds in the world three times over a 5 week period each spring.
Though Carry Back’s performance will always be my favorite, it was the 1978 series of Triple Crown races that brings back the greatest memories. Yes, Affirmed won them all but it was the three-time runner-up Alydar who captured the hearts of horse racing fans forever. Three times in five weeks Alydar engaged Affirmed in a grueling stretch run, only to come up short. I think Tony Guillen probably can relate to how Alydar must have felt.
For all of my love for the sport, until last weekend I’d not been to a track since moving to Tallahassee in 1980 and had never even been to Louisville, KY – the site of Churchill Downs and “the greatest 2 minutes in sport.” It took an opportunity to run the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon (and Peg’s chance to run the half) with Fred and Laura Johnson to draw me there. It goes without saying that the day before the race I dragged Peg out to Churchill Downs to visit the Derby Museum. Opening day at the track was the next day and the place was alive with activity. It was rainy and chilly but after touring the museum and watching a video replay of Carry Back in 1961, we followed a tour group out to the track alongside the stretch and just down from the finish pole. How many times I had looked at that scene on TV and wished that I was there! The next day would be even better for at mile 7 or so I would get the chance to actually run through the infield of those hallowed grounds.
The Derby Marathon would not be my first tie-in with running and horse racing, however. You see, my brother and I had set up a little XC loop course that encompassed my grandparent’s 5 acre citrus and avocado grove together with our house next door. It had one purpose and one purpose alone: to give us a means of re-enacting the Derby, Preakness or Belmont race that we had just watched with my grandmother on TV. My brother was and is a really nice guy and besides always letting me win playing wiffle ball against my grandfather’s barn, he always let me play the role of the winning horse. If the race was a head-to-head duel such as the ones that Affirmed and Alydar carried out, then we would run side-by-side and I would edge him at the finish. If it was akin to Carry Back’s relentless charge down the Churchill Downs’ stretch in 1961, then he would run way out front and I would catch him just prior to crossing the finish line at the mailbox. Now that I think of it, my brother Rod and Tony Guillen could probably share some similar feelings though Tony never has and never will get beaten by Gary Griffin!
Saturday morning greeted us with a steady rain – a day that was sure to have the track conditions over at Churchill Downs labeled as “muddy.” In lieu of “My Old Kentucky Home” we sang the “Star Spangled Banner.” Being one who likes to run the course tangents, I assumed an inside post position in hopes of saving ground against the field of some 15,000. It was a good clean start for the most part and for the first 5 soggy and somewhat hilly miles I tried to just run like Carry Back, saving my strength for the stretch run that would bring us back from Indiana and over the Ohio River Bridge into downtown Louisville. There was one problem with that plan, however. No one told me that as we came into Churchill Downs that some fellow in a white van with the back wide open and speakers blaring would be playing the audio of the 1978 Derby stretch run between Affirmed and Alydar.
Until last Saturday, whenever talk turned to the best running experience of my life, I was pretty much set on the times that I had run past the young ladies at Wellesley. Until last Saturday, that is. I thought and felt like I was in some sort of dream world for as long as I could hear the call of that race. I’m sure my pace dropped significantly and I was caught up in the emotion of running with the horses! It wasn’t long thereafter that Fred and I found ourselves running side-by-side, pushing one another along as we had done so many times before. I gotta believe that Affirmed and Alydar were drawing on one another in that same way back in the unforgettable spring of 1978. (By the way, if you want to see something incredible, look at the You Tube video of the 1978 Belmont Stakes. You won’t have to go to intervals on Tuesday for your heart rate will have mimicked a hard 800.)
At the end, I was Alydar. I ran as hard as I could but was beaten out for the age group win by a fellow from Baltimore, fittingly the home of the Preakness. I’ve never met him and never even knew that he was ahead of me but I’ll bet he’s a horse racing geek as well.
In 1981 Dan Fogelberg released his tribute to the Kentucky Derby, “Run for the Roses,” the greatest horse racing song of all time. In the chorus he sings,
And it’s run for the roses as fast as you can.
Your fate is delivered. Your moment’s at hand.
It’s the chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of
Chance. And it’s high time you joined in the dance.
Fogelberg saw the beauty and the challenge of it. The prophet Jeremiah foretold the meaning of it: we should strive to run with the horses.