When I was 9 years old, barely over 4 feet tall and weighing 60 pounds with my shoes on, I knew I would be a jockey when I got older. I was the smallest boy in my class, and I figured that if I did not grow anymore, I could always ride horses for a living.
Racehorses fascinated me. To see the jockeys riding a thousand-pound animal, bobbing along with their hands on the reins, their feet high in the stirrups and their head buried in the horse’s mane, coaxing them, pleading them, and sometimes whipping them into riding a good race, stirred something in my soul.
I believed that the horses listened to their jockeys, understood them, and gave it their all, and that only the strongest, most intelligent and competitive horses won; like an Olympic athlete, some just had the will to win. They were almost human in their determination.
I read every one of Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books. I watched my first Kentucky Derby in 1977 at the age of 8, when Seattle Slew won the second of three Triple Crowns (winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year) during the 1970s.
In what would become an annoying and frustrating habit over the years, I chose not to pull for the favorite, opting instead for the horse with the best name—in this case, Run Dusty Run, whom I liked because my cat’s name was Dusty. However, Run Dusty Run did not run fast enough, failing to catch Seattle Slew at the wire and taking second place by 1 3/4 lengths.
Still, I was hooked. I watched the next two races of the Triple Crown on television, and when the Crown had been decided, Seattle Slew the holder and along with it a place in immortality, I counted down the days until the next Derby. My bicycle became my steed, and I raced invisible horses on my way to and from the library when I checked out Walter Farley books. I stalked imaginary front-runners before making my move down the homestretch, which was the road I lived on; the finish line was my neighbor’s driveway.
A human-like quality
The horses I saw on television—in north Georgia I was too far from any racetrack to see them live and up close—did seem human at times, reacting to horses passing them, putting in the extra effort and drive down the homestretch. And from time to time, a superathlete would emerge with a heart and drive that equaled the best human athlete. (ESPN even named Secretariat the 35th greatest athlete of the twentieth century.)
I believed that these horses wanted to win, wanted to make their owners and trainers proud, and when they did win, they would prance about with the strut of a winner, knowing that on that day, no one was their equal. And that is true. You can watch the competitive nature of Thoroughbreds when they are foals—they try to outrun each other, try to establish dominance.
Jockeys will swear that when a horse comes alongside another horse, in a race or in practice, they will eye one another and try harder to outrace each other. The better horse eyes the other down, and the defeated horse succumbs to a broken heart, sliding back and giving way. Even stallions, always placed in different paddocks because of their tendency to fight each other, will race each other down the fence line. “They fall out of their mothers wanting to beat you,” says Michael C. Cameron, a trainer from Paris, Kentucky. “That’s what they are. They’re bred, born, and raised to be world-class professional athletes.”
In my TV racing world, when the starting bell clanged and the horses sprung out of the gate, I was at a loss to know where my horse was, as we still owned a small black-and-white television. I had to rely on the race announcer to find my horse, and then squint hard to keep my eye on him or her as the pack thundered into the first turn. My level of anticipation grew as they entered the far turn as I knew that the race was ending soon.
And as they came out of the turn, Dave Johnson’s announcement of “And down the stretch they come!” sent chills down my spine: I knew I was about to see the most exciting 30 seconds in sports, a sprint to the finish where anything could happen. A front-runner could valiantly hold off his challengers, or another horse could come from out of nowhere and explode past them all, going under the wire in first place, sometimes at the very last second.
Picking ’em by their names
Each year I looked forward to the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is always run, and again, like many horse racing fans, I chose my horse not by record or pedigree, but always by his name—Believe It in 1978, Super Moment in 1980, and Flying Nashua in 1981. I believed that the horse’s personality came through in his name (I knew nothing of bloodlines, conformation, dosage indexes, training regimens, and other aspects of racing to which bettors paid attention), and a great horse would have a great name—Man o’ War, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Citation, Secretariat.
Imagine my surprise and disappointment when Gato Del Sol won the 1982 Derby (Bold Style would have been a much better winner), and when Ferdinand won the 1986 Derby (Rampage was my pick).
I started reading about real horses and real racing. I discovered that Secretariat and Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown victories during the 1970s were unusual; only eight other horses in the past eighty years had done what they did in 1973 and 1977, respectively—win all three races in the span of five weeks. Even the great Man o’ War had not completed that feat, for his owner believed that the distance of the Kentucky Derby—one and a quarter miles—was too great for a three-year-old so early in the spring. (Three-year-old horses were adolescents; their bones were still growing, and the stress of a long race could potentially injure the horse.)
Other great horses—Native Dancer, Nashua, Northern Dancer, Tim Tam, Majestic Prince, Riva Ridge—had failed in their attempts to win the Crown, winning just two of the three races. However, when Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978, beating Alydar in all three races by a smaller margin of victory each time, I thought it was an easy task. In six years, there had been three Triple Crown winners. Experts debated why this was—better breeding, worse breeding that made the good horses stand out better, better training methods, or better equipment.
In 1979, it was supposed to be Spectacular Bid’s turn. This time, the name I loved happened to belong to the favored horse (what a name! Spectacular!), and I watched him win both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes with relative ease. I waited an agonizing three weeks for the Belmont, known as the Test of Champions because of its length (one and a half miles versus the Derby’s mile and a quarter and the Preakness’s even shorter mile and three-sixteenths).
I saw the horses break from the starting gate and head into the first turn, and then I watched in horror as Spectacular Bid took a way-too-early lead from a long shot that was going too fast. Bid courageously kept his lead until he entered the homestretch, where he tired and was overcome by two horses. He finished third.
The Triple Crown was not to be for Spectacular Bid. I was heartbroken. And little did I know at the time that I would not see another Triple Crown until I was late into my forties, all grown up and too tall (and too heavy) to be a jockey. American Pharoah broke the drought in 2015, becoming the first horse in thirty-seven years to win all three races.
I had picked American Pharoah as a promising colt among a crop of two-year-olds (yes, I liked the name as well, misspelled and all), watched him mature, and then pulled hard for him as he won the Derby and the Preakness. I was a nervous wreck on Belmont Day, for I had seen too many horses over the preceding 37 years win the first two and falter. I set myself up for failure, knowing that it probably was not going to happen. But when American Pharoah cruised to a 5 1/2 win over Frosted to take the Belmont, I leaped for joy. My drought—and American Thoroughbred racing’s drought—was over.
Back to Spectacular Bid. After the failure in the 1979 Belmont, I forgot about Bid—forced myself to forget the pain of that defeat—and went back to my Walter Farley books and playing football in the front yard. I did not realize in my own little world of the Triple Crown, in a world without the internet, that Bid had not stopped racing.
I had no idea that he went undefeated during his 4-year-old campaign and broke track records at will—even setting a world record for a mile and a quarter in the process, and that he retired at the age of four with 26 wins, two seconds, and one third in 30 starts—one of the best, most consistent records in American Thoroughbred history.
I learned that Spectacular Bid was an exceptional horse despite his Belmont loss—one whose story deserved to be told. It was a story that involved a rich family who owned the horse but was not part of the old Kentucky establishment—a family who bought him at an auction for the paltry sum of $37,000 and turned him into what was at the time the richest Thoroughbred in history.
It was the story of a brash, loudmouthed trainer whose confidence in his horse was unequaled, but who treated the colt with the utmost care and concern.
And it was the story of an untested, starry-eyed teenage jockey whose every move was analyzed, and who crumbled under the increasing pressure of a possible Triple Crown.
I also found out about the safety pin.