Friday, June 8, 2012

I'll Have Another won't, after all

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.  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.

1 comment:

  1. The way you described things when you were 11 is just how I remember your home life: books, model horses in the green, green grass in your backyard, the brook in the woods behind your house. I'm glad you are proud of the teenager you became, you should be. There is a lot of grace and dignity in this blog.