Editor's Note: Excerpted with permission from "Ruffian" by William Nack. Copyright © 2007 by William Nack. Reprinted by permission of ESPN Books.
- In our rhythm of earthly life we tire of light.
We are glad when the day ends, when the play ends;
and ecstasy is too much pain.
-- T.S. Eliot
In the end, beyond all the screams and cries and the lifting of that ominous screen, at the center of all the clamor and the chaos and that scent of panic curling upward in the tremulous air, young Barbaro stood naked in the grandstand shade, his shoulder muscles quivering as he shifted on his three perfect feet. Gnawing on the bit between his teeth, his large eyes rolling white with panic, the bay raised and pumped the shattered remnant of his right rear leg, broken like a jigsaw puzzle in some thirty places. He touched the foot to the ground, raised it once more, and angrily punched the air.
Seeing this, I felt as though I'd been transported back in time again, doing it all over once again, running madly through the clubhouse and down the stairs two at a time, gulping sunlight as I stepped onto the Pimlico racetrack. Piddling along with my head down, I walked toward the stricken horse as if in sleep, fumbling and feeling my way along the damp walls of the same recurring nightmare that long ago I'd come to know so well, the one where Ruffian had come and gone in a thrash of dying light.
Jamie Richardson, the track superintendent, was crouching under Barbaro and working to fit him with a temporary aluminum splint. A handful of racetrack workers stood on either side of the horse, trying to keep him calm while Richardson worked under him. Barbaro was in deepening pain as the flow of natural adrenaline began to wear off. He looked worried and confused. In his brief and simple life, he had always had four legs on which to stand and move and now for the first time he had only three, and he had never known such pain, and all of this and the excitement were arousing fear in his eyes. Barbaro lifted and cocked his injured leg, then flashed it just past Richardson's ear, missing it by inches.
"Watch it, dammit!" said a voice. "He'll kick your brains out."
"Whoa! Whoa, son," said Richardson.
"Easy with him," said a voice from the crowd.
"Oh jeez, oh jeez, please be careful with him," said another.
A man appeared carrying a walkie-talkie telephone. The crowd on the track grew larger. "Where's the doc?" the man said. "Get the X-ray machine to Barbaro's stall. Now! That's right. And make sure Doc Dreyfuss can get out on the track ... Who are all these people? Get these people off the track."
From the fans pressed against the nearby rail came a woman's voice: "Help him! Please help him."
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Richardson was having trouble fitting on the cast. The colt kept moving the injured leg. "Whoa, son ... whoa," he said. "Hold him. Hold him."
More fans gathered behind the fence, faces hung as in a still-life watercolor, hands on lips, fingers on cheeks, women in tears. "Don't kill him," one said. "Please, please don't kill him!"
She had seen the screen, the one they always raise to protect the people from their feelings, to block the view of crowds when they have to destroy hopelessly injured animals through lethal injection, and Barbaro looked wild-eyed when he saw the large screen looming towards him. The horse's trainer, Michael Matz, shouted, "Get that screen out of here! You're scaring the horse."
The cast was on and the ambulance door opened. "We're ready to load," said a member of the ambulance crew. "Get the horse turned around."
Barbaro hobbled onto the back of the van and left to a flutter of cheers.
It was May 20, 2006, 6:35 p.m., and one of the hoariest of racetrack rituals had just played out on a national stage before an audience repelled and mesmerized by the drama. The horses had just finished racing across the finish line in the 131st running of the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, the second leg of racing's Triple Crown. This was not the way it was supposed to end, not for the newest rising star of the sport. Two weeks earlier, the undefeated Barbaro had won the Kentucky Derby with a verve and panache not often seen at Churchill Downs, and he had come to the Preakness looking and acting like a horse whose destiny was writ by the wind that gusted at his back -- like a horse certain to become the first Triple Crown winner in twenty-eight years, since Affirmed won the Belmont and swept the Crown in 1978. It all ended before Barbaro had traveled two hundred yards, the instant when the hind leg broke and kept breaking and shattering in smaller and smaller shards as he struggled to run on ... until Edgar Prado, sawing frantically on the lines, finally reined him to a stop.
So there was Richardson fumbling to fit the cast and the silent arrival of the horse ambulance and the raising of the screen, all those pinched and melancholy faces circling the animal. More vivid than that was how the scene so eerily conjured the past, sending me back to that airless afternoon thirty-one years earlier at Belmont Park when Ruffian, the flying black filly, broke down six hundred yards into her match race with Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure, and I took off through the clubhouse and raced down the stairs and swept blindly past a guard and onto the crown of the track, where I heard a jockey screaming at me just before his muscular bay colt thundered past, nearly bowling me over as he came home alone in triumph past the finish line. I ran across the infield to where she had broken down and there he was, the man crouching under her, fumbling with the cast. Saw the ambulance rolling to a stop and saw the lifting of the screen as the filly stood there trembling and wide-eyed and scared, sweat pouring off her in the heat of that early Sunday evening: July 6, 1975. Went unwelcome to her burial at dusk the next night, on the infield at Belmont Park, and stood outside the small urn of light cast by the headlights from the truck that had borne her enshrouded remains from Doc Reed's hospital across the road.
Undefeated in ten starts, in front at every pole in every race in which she ever ran, Ruffian was more than just another transient champion passing through. She was of a certain singularity that hinted of origins almost divine. Even today, more than three decades later, I can still close my eyes and see her out there running on the lead, always on the lead, her black silhouette in full flight, free running as a child on a playground, five lengths in front, her clipped mane swept back and her tail rippling like a little flag, her swan's neck rising and dipping to the tom-tom beating of her hooves, nine in front and widening, her jockey sitting quiet as a piece of marble statuary on her long back, his little hands motionless, his body rocking wavelike to the hitchless rhythms of her stride, the filly pricking her ears forward and picking up the tempo once again, now fourteen in front and coasting, everything so effortless, the jockey's silks billowing along his shoulders and back, now fifteen in front, expanding toward us on the turn for home, sailing into our lives and our history as if upon an upward draft of wind.
Ruffian was a portrait of grace illumined by an inner fire. Not only was she the fastest filly in the modern history of the American turf, but she most certainly ranks among the fastest two-year-olds who ever lived, male or female, gray or bay, in the Old World or the New. Ruffian was America's homegrown version of her own most celebrated ancestress, the Aga Khan's legendary Mumtaz Mahal, England's so-called Flying Filly, a gray bullet who is widely remembered for being among the very fastest two-year-olds of all time and who undoubtedly derived most of her unearthly speed from her sire, a sensation of the species named The Tetrarch -- he who wore that oddly speckled gray coat, he who was known throughout the British Isles as the Spotted Wonder, he who had so little interest in sex that he sired only 130 foals in his abbreviated career at stud, preferring rather to stop and gaze at birds strutting on a rooftop as he headed for a tryst with a hot mare in the breeding shed. The Tetrarch may have been equinely gay, but he did leave one luminous, enduring mark upon the thoroughbred breed. Led to the court of the Lady Josephine, a comely golden chestnut with two white stockings and fiery turn of foot herself, The Tetrarch did not pause to watch the birds. Eleven months later, in the spring of 1921, the Lady dropped Mumtaz Mahal. In one deft roll of his genetic dice, the Spotted Wonder thus begat the only two-year-old in English turf history who may have been as fast as he. More importantly, through the last fifty years of the 20th Century, and even through the first decade of the 21st, the Flying Filly's influence and power as a broodmare has continued to blow through the ancestral trees of thoroughbreds around the world, of champion after champion, from Secretariat to Northern Dancer to Seattle Slew, touching even the branch of Barbaro. But it was not until 1974 -- on May 22, at Belmont Park, in an otherwise unimportant maiden race for two-year-old fillies -- that The Tetrarch's long-dead flying daughter was truly born again, her blazing speed incarnated in another.
I have thought of Ruffian so often over the years that today she flits around like a ghost in all the mustier rooms of my reveries, a boarder who has had a run of the place the last two years, still appearing most insistently during my periodic visits to Belmont Park on Long Island, that mammoth 1H-mile bridle path where she lived most of her racetrack life and where she raced and trained and grew in size and stature. This was where I often saw her as she walked of early mornings to and from her fast works and long gallops, her bespectacled trainer, Frank Y. Whiteley, leading her on his pony to the track, loose-reining him under that signature straw fedora, a cigarette cupped in his hand, now and then turning in the saddle to watch her walk or share a word with her rider, either jockey Jacinto Vasquez or exercise boy Yates Kennedy. In the last year or so, particularly, Ruffian had seemed everywhere I turned.
A month before Barbaro limped to the outer rail at old Pimlico, I was working on a movie set at Belmont Park, consulting on a dramatic film about Ruffian's life, and by the last day of the shoot I felt as though I were drifting in and out of different eras, slip-sliding through time zones, here one minute and gone again, living once more through the summers of '74 and '75, seeing it and feeling it as I had never thought it possible to do. The Hollywood illusionists, at work like trolls, had created a world in restoration. All the cars were restored from the early 1970s and the extras were attired in the suede and polyesters common back then, even wearing period wristwatches and eyeglasses, and soon I was beginning to have trouble separating Sam Shepard, the award-winning playwright turned actor, from Frank Whiteley, the trainer. Sam was looking and acting more like Whiteley every day. He had Frank measured all right, down to the hat and glasses and the way he talked and moved. Sam had even begun to fool himself. One afternoon in the walking ring at Belmont Park, as they were preparing to shoot a scene that would depict Shepard entering the paddock with one of the Ruffian stand-ins, director Yves Simoneau was staring into a video monitor and watching an old clip of Whiteley leading Ruffian into that very same paddock thirty-one years ago when Shepard, joining Simoneau, said, "Hey, that's pretty good. When did we shoot that scene?"
"Sam, this is real footage," Yves said. "That's the real Frank -- the real Ruffian."
They shot the burial scene the final day. They had dug a large five-foot-deep hole in the Belmont infield and lowered into it a large cardboard figure of a horse whose body had been wrapped in a white tarp that one of the crew had picked up in the paint department of a Home Depot down the road.
I peered into the hole in the ground, wavering momentarily, feeling lost in the brown abyss. "Is that how she looked when they brought her over?" Simoneau asked me.
Thinking back, I conjured up the grainy memories of that faraway night. "It was dark when they brought her over and all I could see was a horse's body wrapped in a piece of white cloth," I said. "Silence, headlights, broken shadows ... " "Like this?" Yves asked.
I looked down into the hole again. "Yeah, yeah," I said. "A horse in a white shroud. This is how I remember her looking that night."
I needed to get away from this; the whole scene was beginning to unnerve me: the faux grave, Mnemosyne's Trojan horse dressed like a window manikin, the crew and actors standing solemnly around that cavity in the earth, the probing one-eyed lenses grinding away, the imaginative flights of fakery, the peeling back of skin, the stillness of the moment, the real memories of that long run across the infield in the wavering heat.
"You been to Ruffian's grave site yet?" I had asked Shepard.
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"I went over there earlier," he said. "I stayed quite a while. Very impressive headstone."
So I drifted down the inner rail of the turf course, to the flagpole rising not far from a pond of geese, to the headstone encircled by shrubbery shaped like a horseshoe. I stood reading from the marker in the fleeting afternoon light.
Undefeated two-year-old Filly Champion of 1974
And then the names of all the big stakes that she had won: the Fashion ... the Astoria ... the Sorority ... the Spinaway ... the Triple Crown for three-year-old fillies at Belmont: the Acorn ... the Mother Goose ... the Coaching Club American Oaks. I crossed the infield and came to the fence along the backstretch where the pigeons, pecking at undigested kernels of oats dropped in the manure, had heard the colt and the filly hurtling towards them on the backstretch and burst upward in a flutter of wings, ten feet in the air and rising, as startled as flushed quails, and at that instant in July, thirty-one years ago, her world began to come apart, in splinters. So I turned and looked at the grandstand six hundred yards away and saw Ruffian flashing off the turn for home in the Fashion or the Acorn -- all her races looked so much alike -- Vasquez leaning back with a long hold as she loped into the bridle on cruise control. I saw the way she came to the paddock for the Astoria, so clearly up to no good, moving into the walking ring as through a lobby bar, like some willowy hooker on the make, that black satin dress pulled tight around her full and nearly perfect derriere. And I saw her brilliant final quarter in the Spinaway Stakes at Saratoga that cloudy August afternoon, echoes from the ancient reaches of her pedigree, and heard and felt the electric exuberance of the clubhouse crowds, all those fancy breeders and owners, as it crackled like a blue spark up and down the rows of iron girders and the box seats.
Over there was LeRoy Jolley, the trainer of Foolish Pleasure, staring intently at Ruffian from that box seat at Belmont as she sped by him in the Oaks, on her way to the match race, and there was the way she showed up at Aqueduct the first time she ran at age three, turning the post parade into a kind of beauty pageant, looking more like a show horse than the thoroughbred that she was.
And let's see ... there was the first time that I'd ever heard her name, in that surprising telephone call that came the evening of May 22, 1974, as I labored to finish my biography of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner. The caller was Newsday handicapper John Pricci, my friend and newspaper colleague, who had turned to a life of playing the horses and analyzing the races when his dreams of being a nightclub singer died in tone-deaf Queens. John rarely called me at home, but he had something to sing about that night.
"You remember Icecapade?" he asked.
"A gray horse, a very fast miler," I said. "Wrote about him once, I think, when he won the Stuyvesant Handicap. Brilliant. Very well-bred. By Nearctic out of Shenanigans. The Whiteleys had her. David Whiteley, I think. Maybe Frank. Why? Did he die or something?"
Pricci laughed. "No, no," he said. "I saw his half sister today, a two-year-old filly, in her first race. She wins by fifteen and ties the track record! In hand! Goin' five and a half furlongs. I'm just callin' to say you gotta see this filly!"
"What's her name?"
"Ruffian ... "
"Ruffian? Sounds like a colt."
"She ain't no colt," John said. "She's a freak. Unbelievable. I mean, when's the last time you saw a two-year-old filly win by fifteen in her first start and equal the track record? Any two-year-old?"
"How fast she go?"
"Would you believe one-oh-three flat?" he said. A minute and three seconds.
"Who's she by?"
"Reviewer. Remember him? One of those Phipps homebreds by Bold Ruler."
I knew Reviewer all right. He could hum. Bold Ruler was among the greatest sires of the 20th century, an extremely fast racehorse who imparted his crackling speed to many of his progeny. Secretariat was by far the greatest of Bold Ruler's many sons, a horse who could win from the sprints to the classic distances and beyond, and Reviewer was perceived as the second fastest horse the stallion ever sired -- a horse who was endowed with world-class lick but whose career as a runner had been plagued by problems of unsoundness not unknown to branches of his mother's tribe. Soft boned, Reviewer had suffered three physical breakdowns during his career and started only thirteen times in three years, winning nine, before they packed him off to stud at Claiborne Farm. There the usual bovine herd of Kentucky breeders, fairly drooling over a pedigree laced with the most coveted of all qualities -- the gene in which came bottled that mystical genie of speed -- would line up and give him ample opportunities to pass along both his surpassing athleticism and his Wedgwood fragility, until he broke down one day in 1977, while running in his paddock at Claiborne Farm, and two weeks later had to be destroyed.
The memory is vague but I think I saw Reviewer set a track record in the Nassau County Handicap at Belmont Park in 1970, nine furlongs in 1:46 4/5, but all I can remember now is how homely he looked in the post parade, his Roman-nosed Bold Ruler head shaped like a brown jug. Oh, but how that beast could run!
"What does she look like?" I asked. "She's big, she's black, and she's beautiful," John said. "What can I tell ya? You gotta see this filly to believe it. That's all anybody could talk about. The place was, like, giddy. She goes to the lead out of the gate and opens five and then eight and ten and then fifteen. Vasquez never moved on her. Easy!"
It was growing late. I was beginning to feel anxious, vulnerable, edgy. I was mired in the middle of writing about Secretariat's epochal thirty-one-length victory in the Belmont Stakes eleven months before, the greatest performance in the history of the sport by the most brilliant racehorse in history, and now the old crooner was telling me that a gorgeous black freak had emerged at Belmont Park, a rival to my hero, this fur coat draped in oyster pearls, and as insane and irrational as this may sound, I sensed at once this veil of resentment coming over me, of something quite as palpable as jealousy, and that disagreeable sensation did not begin to lift until I finally laid eyes on her, at that moment when she glided into the Belmont paddock for the Fashion Stakes, in the second start of her life, and even then it never wholly went away until the night of the burial on the Belmont infield, where you could see the jiggling headlights of the ambulance as it curved around the little lake and slowed as it approached the small band of mourners who had gathered around the grave, waiting for her there in silent grief.
I was Chicago-born, in a hospital not far from the great ivied haunt of Wrigley Field, but my parents soon joined the great post-War migration out of the city and we settled in Skokie, a village to the north, in '51. My sister Dee and I soon began mucking the stalls and grooming the inhabitants of a riding stable in nearby Morton Grove. We took aging livery horses down cindered riding trails that wended through the surrounding forests; by 1955, we had our own charger, a parade horse born with an all-white body and a mask-like black head that Dee called fittingly The Bandit, and I was riding in horse shows and passing my teens in the company of the world's fanciest gaited saddle horses, from the legendary and undefeated Wing Commander to Bo Jangles, whose colored photos faced each other for years on my bedroom wall. They were hung in honor of that night in December 1955 when I saw the twelve-year-old Wing Commander's final performance in that crumbling old amphitheater down by the Chicago stockyards; he and Bo Jangles went at each other in that hot arena minute by mounting minute and whip over spur, chillingly through the slow gait and the trot, until finally the crowds came bolting to their feet as the mane-flying Commander racked furiously past, his muscular legs pumping him right into history as the greatest five-gaited saddle horse of all time. The howls still sing in my ears.
This may not have been clear to me then, but the Commander's ringing farewell to that world echoed my own goodbye to all that. As surpassingly lovely a creature as Wing Commander was, both in physique and in motion, he and his breed had already lost their emotional hold on me the summer before, on the afternoon I was hanging over the rail at Washington Park and this golden chestnut came walking past. He stopped in front of me and dropped his nose over the fence as if to say, "How do you do?" This was Swaps -- three months after his Kentucky Derby victory over Nashua and just a week away from his rendezvous with Traffic Judge, one of his talented coevals, in the $100,000 American Derby. His rider, Bill Shoemaker, was on him. It was between races, and he and Bill were out for a stroll in the afternoon sun.
The horse I see in memory now looks tall and radiant. Swaps had a large, luminous brown eye, an exquisitely Aegean head and face that looked chiseled in cameo, and a warm, friendly breath that he held for a moment as your offered hand, cupped downward, rose and drew near him.
"You can touch him, he won't bite," said the Shoe. "He's very kind."
The horse sniffed the hand and settled, dropping his head for a pat. His jowl was large and soft. His demeanor was calm and poised. The Shoe nudged the rein and they turned and left. I was all of fourteen years and six months old, but that horse did own a piece of me from that hour on. A week later there he was again at old Washington Park, lunging through the homestretch like a panther in the gloaming, three in front, his powerful shoulders glinting in the light as he reached his forelegs far in front of him and galloped home in hand, beating Traffic Judge with ease and setting a new course record of 1:54 3/5.
He was magnificent. My dad rolled a stogie between his teeth, working his eyebrows like Groucho, up-down-up-down, as Swaps galloped under the wire. Turning to my mother, he said, "Wow! What a horse!"
That was all a young boy needed to hear. The clarity of that performance, the decisive finality that I had yearned for and missed in the world of horse shows ruled by fallible and sometimes idiotic judges, had won me to racing as a sport and to the memory of that horse forever. Eleven days after the American Derby, Swaps and Nashua met at Washington Park for the greatest match race run in America since Seabiscuit beat War Admiral at Pimlico in 1938. It was a national television spectacle, a mile and a quarter at full bore, and hundreds of turf writers from around the world descended on Chicago to cover it. The match race was on Wednesday and my father was at work, so I sat at home to suffer it in silence on a fifteen-inch Admiral television set. There were rumors all week that Swaps had had a recurrence of an old foot injury -- it was oozing pus and he was lame on the morning of the race -- but such news was of no solace after the two colts broke with a fury out of the gate and Eddie Arcaro on Nashua, racing on the inside, forced Swaps to the outside on the first turn, to the deeper, muddier, more tiring part of the track, prompted a blistering pace all the way around and then pulled away in the stretch, with Swaps physically wavering on that sore foot, to win by 6H lengths.
I burst out the front door of the house, got sick on a neighbor's front yard tree, and then rode around the village for the next two hours, in an unfamiliar state akin to grief. This was not about the hapless, if beloved, Cubs dropping another two at Wrigley. This was not about the Go-Go White Sox failing again. This was not even about the Brooklyn Dodgers, our surrogate World Series team, losing yet another to the Yankees. This was a far more crushing blow and it had as much to do with loyalty and love as it had to do with pride and loss. That week, I found a photo of Swaps' patrician head in a magazine; in an act of defiant loyalty, the bitter defeat be damned, I cut it out and slipped it into the first of a dozen or so wallets I would own over the years: so many years and wallets that, in 1965, I had the photo undergo an emergency lamination in order to save it from disintegrating entirely -- until, alas, the last swatch of genuine leather was lifted from me in Madison Square Garden before a fight I was covering between Roberto Duran and Davey Moore, on June 16, 1983, and I never saw it again.
What I did bring with me from that darksome day in August, what was not picked from that pocket, was a deeply ingrained suspicion of match races and anxiety over the unseemly pressures of their invariably hot and insane pace, and beyond that the fears of loss and heartbreak that attended them.
Over the next twenty years, though I lived and moved in many guises, in foreign lands from Mexico to Southeast Asia to Japan, I never strayed too long or far from the runners and the racetracks of the world. They were my relief, my anodyne, the only traceable threads in my otherwise tangled web of memories, a fertile source and structure for the richest and wildest of my fantasies: striding into flower-bedecked winner's circles at Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, my fists pumping to salute the cheers of the multitudes as my homebred chestnut, nostrils flared, gallops to victory in the Triple Crown ... poring in candlelight over the pedigrees of leading stallions in America and England, looking for the right genetic nick for my fifteen blue-hen broodmares ... greeting a half-dozen desert sheikhs as they arrive in Gulfstream jets with portmanteaus sardined with stacks of $100 bills, offering to buy my champion two-year-old for $50 million cash ... flying my unbeaten Triple Crown champion to the world's greatest horse race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp, in Paris, and basking in his reflected glory as he wins in a romp by five, then dining that night off the Champs-Elysées, where I buy a first edition of Le Monde and see that he is feted as the fastest horse in history ... and then dancing till first light in the Garden of Tuileries.
I had seen very early, in horses from Native Dancer to Swaps to Round Table, the poetry that had inspired the ancient Bedouin legend writ in the sand: "And God took a handful of southerly wind, blew his breath over it, and created the horse." And I would see in my father's jubilant face, whenever he saw a Swaps or a Round Table galloping free to the wire, a confirmation of that likable Winston Churchill aphorism: "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."
So I kind of made a life with horses wherever I went -- as a groom at the big Chicago tracks in the summer of '59, where I fed and rubbed four horses and took one to the paddock, a filly named Queen of Turf, and watched her win by three; as a closet student of racing history and lore at the University of Illinois' main library, where I used to steal away to the underground stacks and mix readings of Milton and Mill with obscure texts on 19th century pedigrees and The Influence of Desert Warrior Horses on the Modern Thoroughbred; and as a young infantry lieutenant driving with my pregnant wife, Mary, south from Illinois to Fort Benning, Georgia, by way of the Blue Grass, where my tortuous search ended by a paddock rail at Darby Dan Farm when that comely chestnut stallion, the one with the head and ears sculpted by Praxiteles, saw us from a distance and strode over, dropping his nose over the rail.
"He won't bite you," I said. "He's very kind."
"How do you know?" she said.
"I met him once."
"You met him?" She made a face. "Who introduced you?"
"Who is he?" she asked.
She fed the horse some jelly beans and he lowered his head further and nuzzled her swollen belly. Swaps had gotten huskier in the ten years since I'd last seen him at work in Chicago, a year after the match with Nashua, the week he came sailing home at some 40 miles an hour, with his ears pricked, in the Washington Park Handicap, nearly smashing his own world record for the mile. He broke four world time records in 1956, along with two other track records, in the greatest exhibition of speed in the history of the turf. I told my wife how he had won the Kentucky Derby and lost the match race and how his finest son, Chateaugay, the big young stallion in the adjoining paddock, had done his daddy proud and won the Derby in '63. Here I took the laminated photo out of my wallet and showed it to her.
"Why do you have that picture in your wallet?"
"I like his face," I said.
Twenty-two months later I was hunkered down at Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside Saigon, lying on the floor of my bullet-scarred office during the Tet Offensive of '68, watching Cobra gunships rocket and rake with Gatling guns the little cemetery that lay beyond the barbed wire fence of MACV headquarters. I stared for hours at the nightlong descent of burning flares that clustered and hung like a chandelier of candles from the dome of the Tonkin sky, all the while listening to the audiotapes of race calls that my mother had taken off radio and television broadcasts and had been sending to me faithfully for nearly a year. Not even the rat-a-tat-tat of machine guns or the distant thump of mortars could spoil the beauty, so vividly imagined in one hot and fetid room, of the gifted Damascus as he romped to his twenty-two-length triumph in the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August of '67, or the mighty Dr. Fager's flight to victory in that summer's Arlington Classic, or Buckpasser's doggedly determined victory in the Suburban Handicap. That team of highborn steeds had pulled me as in a magic carriage through the length and loneliness of the war -- into a fantastic world that I had come to know and cherish since I was a boy, a world painted in jockey silks and vibrant with the sound of flying hooves, a place redolent of mustard stands and oat mash cooking in feed tubs and of hot doughnuts and coffee at 5 a.m., of delicious liniments and unguents and of blue smoke curling from my father's cigars.
And five months after that, when I was the new Islip Town beat reporter at Newsday, looking for malfeasance at the local dump, my dad came to visit and we did something that we'd always talked of doing back when we were prowling the grandstands together at the great wooden bandboxes of Arlington and Washington parks. On July 20, 1968, we made the pilgrimage to what we'd always viewed, in our Midwestern provincialism, as the mythical kingdom of Aqueduct, the Big A. As we stood at the grandstand fence by the eighth pole, suddenly there they were, my two faithful companions from those lost days and nights in Southeast Asia, parading to the post for the 1G-mile Brooklyn Handicap, both looking on the muscle, no longer figments of my black-and-white imagination but materializing there before me in seaside reds and browns, in sepia flesh: Damascus and Dr. Fager. I loved Damascus that day. The Big D looked splendid in the Big A paddock and he had his fleet-footed rabbit, Hedevar, there to force a fiery early pace and weaken the headstrong Dr. Fager; I nearly got into a row with two simian horseplayers who had bet their lungs on Dr. Fager when I told them the race set up better for Damascus, flashed the $100 win ticket that my dad had bet on him, and howled encouragement to his jockey, Manny Ycaza, through a series of sharp, high-pitched constrictions of the larynx that came out:
"Crush him, Manny! Wait 'til the last turn and run that big giraffe down!"
This is precisely how the Big D pulled it off. The final quarter-mile of that Brooklyn Handicap was among the great glories of the American turf. By the quarter pole, Hedevar had done his trench work very well, running right alongside Dr. Fager and prompting him in a blistering early pace, the while Hedevar's jockey howled like a banshee in Dr. Fager's ear. His blood up, the good doctor grew increasingly rank and restless over the efforts of his rider, Braulio Baeza, to restrain him. By the turn for home, a weary Hedevar was hailing a cab, but Dr. Fager was beginning to melt around the wick of his own ardent pace. Ycaza saw this and he popped the question to Damascus. Instantly, like a big cat leaping from a tree, the Big D pounced, bounding to Dr. Fager's throat and wringing it there for all to see. Damascus flew past him off the final turn. He ran away with it to win by three, setting a track record for a mile and a quarter: 1:59 1/5! My dad did a Fred Astaire to the windows to collect. Somewhere Churchill was smiling.
We had no way of knowing this then, no way anyone could know, but we had just begun to witness the dawning of the golden age of thoroughbred racing in America -- a twelve-year stretch that saw the ascent of three Triple Crown winners, a raft of brilliant grass horses, sprinters and weight carriers, and some of the swiftest female runners of all time. Out of this veritable herd of talent, which began with Dark Mirage, the Big D and Dr. Fager and ended, in 1980, with Spectacular Bid, Genuine Risk and the coming of John Henry, the two most effulgent luminaries were Secretariat and Ruffian. And it was only by one extraordinary whorl of chance, a moment twisted by the bourbon in the eggnog, that I had a front row box to watch the whole glorious show. By mid-December of 1971, I had become Newsday's resident expert in freshwater aquifers and sewers, in all their malodorous manifestations. I could discourse eloquently on secondary and tertiary treatment of sewage. I entertained whole dinner parties on the miracles of phosphorous and nitrogen removal, on the evils of septic tanks and saltwater intrusion. I drank with limnologists. Owl-eyed conservationists called me at wee hours. I became a wastewater raconteur. I flew a bumper sticker that read "Save the Wetlands." I had spent my university years assiduously preparing myself to be a Latin America correspondent, studying the history and culture of the region and learning to speak fluent Spanish, but the closest I had come to Chapultepec Park was Pepe's Big Burrito in Queens.
And then, alas, at the perfect intersection of time and space, just as the only other world I really cared about was turning towards the sun, the fates intervened for me in ways never really expected. Late at the Newsday Christmas party with all of us far gone into the nog, I mounted the desk in the middle of the city room and summoned from memory the names of all ninety-seven Kentucky Derby winners -- year by year -- from Aristides' inaugural victory in 1875 to Canonero II's in 1971. I dismounted the table to boozy ripples of applause. The editor of Newsday, Dave Laventhol, at once sidled up next to me and asked, "Why do you know that?" I told him that racing was my passion, and I had memorized those names years before -- the week after Swaps had run a mile in a blazing 1:33 2/5 in the 1956 Washington Park Handicap, a clocking that was only a fifth of a second off his own world record set that earlier summer. Laventhol knew I was restless and wanting to move on.
"Would you like to cover horse racing for us?" he asked. I thought I hadn't heard him right and I leaned in. "Seriously," he said. "We're adding a Sunday paper in the spring and we'll need someone to write about racing. It would be the perfect job for you."
Five minutes later, I accepted the job.
I felt like Papillon as he leapt off that cliff.
Jupiter was just beginning to align with Mars. On April 10, 1972, a month after I first walked into that stable area at Belmont Park, a copper-colored two-year-old who had just arrived from Hialeah Race Course in Florida, a colt untested and unknown, worked for the first time in his life at Belmont Park, breezing a half-mile in :36 2/5 and his name was Secretariat. Seven days later, on April 17, at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, Shenanigans dropped her foal by Reviewer. They called her Ruffian. No horse in modern times would rise higher and faster and larger than Secretariat in 1972 and 1973, culminating in his record-shattering Triple Crown, when his mug appeared on the front of three national newsmagazines in one week -- Time, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek -- and now I was nearly finished telling that tale when John Pricci called to say that this whole new comet had just sailed into our ken at Belmont Park. And then he called a second time.
"Remember that filly I was telling you about, Ruffian? She's in Wednesday. The Fashion Stakes."