Heard it on the radio--"--scratched from the Belmont--" Missed the name. Braced myself for the next news update. Sure enough. I'll Have Another, the horse that really--really--looked like a Triple Crown winner had heat & swelling in his leg. He won't race again. Dammit.
I was wound up four years ago when Big Brown had a shot. He had that unbelievable overdrive, that extra gear that seemed invincible. I watched the race in a bar with a crowd of horsy friends after I'd ridden (one-legged) all day in a horsemanship clinic. But Big Brown (known for his hoof troubles) didn't look like himself that day. Never found third gear, let alone fourth or overdrive.
I was lucky enough to see both Secretariat (1973) and Affirmed (1978) win the Triple Crown on TV. In 1973 I was eleven. Life was good. My fantasy horse-story world of books and the model horses I galloped through the lush woods behind my house overlapped with a live Shetland named Dragon that was all mine to ride--assuming I could catch him, bridle him, and stay on. I knew I had to ride race horses some day. Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths and still broke the record, racing only his shadow. Even on our little black-and-white TV set that big horse's ground-eating stride gave me chills. Even the memory does. Anything seemed possible.
Five years later in 1978 I was sixteen, fluent in maneuvering the crutches that were all the mobility I possessed after a bone disease derailed my life. Well, except for when I Flicka led beside a rock wall and traded crutches and my fragile, battle-scarred left leg for my horse's back and powerful limbs. My dreams of being a jockey were shattered. I swallowed my envy to watch eighteen-year-old Steve Cauthen--"The Kid"--ride Affirmed with grace and subtlety, nipping out Alydar at the wire. I was hypnotized, impressed. And filled with despair for myself.
I'm proud of the teenager I was, the girl with the fused leg who climbed onto her near-rank horse in a search for speed. She closed her mind to the stares at how she walked. Limp and all, she went on to be a professional rider and instructor. And she showed up uninvited at a chilly barn to ask for a shot at exercising race horses. She rode at the track for more than half a dozen years, Quarter Horses and Thoroughbreds, bad leg and all.
I heard Steve Cauthen (retired now and in his early fifties) liked I'll Have Another for the Triple Crown. But even as I cursed the bad news today, I thought of Frank Deford's commentary on NPR the other morning. http://www.npr.org/2012/06/06/154348628/please-sir-id-rather-have-another And I thought of Big Brown's defeat. I thought what a tragedy it would be to see a great horse break down in the race, let alone the danger to his jockey and the other riders and horses. As a kid, I watched the match race between Foolish Pleasure and Ruffian, colt versus filly in those days of heady, '70's feminism. But Ruffian broke down during the race and was euthanized.
I guess I'm old enough now (and lame enough) to appreciate erring on the side of caution. I'll watch the Belmont tomorrow. I just hope I'm optimistic enough to dream about next year and another shot at speed, freedom, and breaking barriers.