Sunday, April 4, 2010

Setting the hook

Frank Mitchell's recent historical series prodded me into exploring my own historical wetware and software. There's enough stories in there to fill several books....but since the thought of publishing books of any sort, much less horse books, is enough to reduce strong men to crying for mommy these days, we all know that's not going to happen.

The first horse race I can remember seeing on TV is the 1955 Kentucky Derby. My family had acquired our first television earlier that year and my older sister and I had been fighting over which grainy, blurry shows to watch ever since. I don't know how I won that battle, but I remember Swaps beating Nashua.....not that it meant much to an eight-year-old.

By the time the 1957 Derby rolled around, however, I'd inhaled Walter Farley's Black Stallion series, and a naive Tennessee farm boy was in love with the glamor of horse racing. I had started following racing as well as one could in the Nashville Tennessean--in other words, considerably better than one can now in the same newspaper--and I knew who Bold Ruler and *Gallant Man were. The big, almost black Bold Ruler was surely far closer in appearance to Farley's fictional hero than the diminutive *Gallant Man, but it was the Irish colt's dramatic charge from behind that set the hook in my heart for Thoroughbred racing. *Gallant Man's 8-length Belmont victory in record time a few weeks later established a preference for come-from-behind runners that took years to eradicate.

Ten years later when I made it to Lexington for the first time, Bold Ruler was well established as the Lord of Speed, and, excellent stallion though he was, *Gallant Man was never going to catch him again. I know I took pictures of both horses with my trusty Kodak, but the shot of *Gallant Man has disappeared into the crack of time.

The picture of Bold Ruler above, taken at Claiborne in 1967, does not do him justice. He had a look about him that I have often seen in his descendants that is almost indefinable. It's something about the ears and an airy way of going that keeps showing up over and over again.

I've always been a curious sort though. What is your earliest memory of racing, and what did it mean to you?


  1. Having just visited Claiborne again this weekend - this was a great timing read..
    love that - Walter Farley got a lot of us I believe - The Black Stallion's Filly had me from 2nd grade on.

    My earliest memory was watching mostly Quarter Horses with my Dad at McGee Park in Bloomfield, NM. It was complete heaven to me - and those guys were running uphill over dirt clods on what could be called a racetrack only because of shape for $600 purses - if that.

    We used to go all the time to watch our friend Charlie Hunnicutt's horses run. Mostly Appaloosas. For my 11th birthday Charlie gave me a picture of my favorite filly of his Honkers Angle winning the Paint & Appaloosa Derby earlier that year. I'm in the picture hold the blanket with my Dad and remember how exciting it was to be out there with the winning horse. I treasure the photo as if it were my horse.

    That's when I told my Dad I'd like to do that again with our own. He said "oh no"

  2. Kerry FitzpatrickApril 5, 2010 at 6:18 AM

    Similarly, my earliest remembrance is a grainy television screen. Only it was Native Dancer storming to victory, his grey coat so easy to spot throughout the race. I don't remember one particular race, but there were several of them. About two years later, a buddy and I, working as caddies, hitchhiked up to Monmouth Park one rainy day, shared a $2 bet to show on the favorite in our first bet. He finished third, we pocketed 30 cents each, and I was on my way.

  3. The first race I remember, i'm not sure what race it was, but a horse named Thunder Puddles won, i remember because I picked him to win, it was on TV and my whole family watched the race, not sure why, anyways I named my bike after him and it was promptly stolen in the next few weeks.

  4. I remember listening to the 1949 Derby on the radio (might as well age myself), and the first job I ever had was as an 11-year-old standing on the track as a photographer's assistant when Determine crossed the finish line first. My dad covered the Derby for the Associated Press and my job was to take the slide from the old box camera to a guy on a motorcycle who delivered it to the AP. I was paid two bucks and all of the ham on rye and cokes I could consume in the press box. It was heaven. My sister and I blew the two bucks on a black horse in the last race, but I was hooked. Like the others, you dredged up some wonderful Derby memories. I haven't missed a Derby (live or on TV) since then. Thanks.

  5. John,
    I was even more remote than you, but the Arkansas Gazette once had very good coverage of racing ... one to one and a half broadsheet pages of entries, results, and racing news while Oaklawn was in session (Feb. - Apr.) that carried through the Triple Crown.
    But television was the great medium.
    Although I remember a bit of the Majestic Prince - Arts and Letters highlights from 1969, the 1970 Triple Crown was my first following from winter through the year with some detail.
    When Secretariat hinted at his greater prospects in 1972 at Saratoga, I was lucky enough to be well trained, scouring Sports Illustrated, Time, Newsweek, and the newspapers for updates on his juvenile career that led on to greatness.
    Such a special time.

  6. After reading the usual horse books and going to basic riding lessons, I fell in love with Thoroughbreds at Breakfast at Belmont at age 11 or so. I'll never forget being mesmerized by this magical place filled with horses and people like me who loved them. My souvenir included a free brochure on how to read past performances and I diligently studied the charts in the New York Daily News from that day on. After watching Majestic Prince win the 1969 Derby on TV, I wrote him a fan letter and his people sent me a beautiful photo of him. To this day, I like horses but am still in love with Thoroughbreds--young, old, fast, slow, sound, crippled, racing, retired--the horse a Turf Writer once described as the glistening and dappled avatar of whatever fortune or doom awaits the people around him.

  7. Harlan Abbey, Buffalo NYApril 12, 2010 at 6:34 PM

    I think I go back further than anyone of you fellow horse lovers. Kept a scrapbook on Whirlaway and saw him in a public workout July 4, 1941, at Arlington; Gallahadian ran in the Stars & Stripes HCP. Worked in stables summers while in college. After Army (small pio unit didn't have to stand reville but I got up to ride at mounted police stables) went into newspapering, riding and announcing horse shows, then hot walking at Fort Erie, Canada, becoming a TB owner with 20-plus relatives and friends and winning a "stake" $25,000 in 2nd start. Many wins and horses later went broke, then became partner with a trainer and had one good horse out of three. Ride a grandson of NOrthern Dancer, Imperial Bandit, who ran in the Queens Plate 18 years ago. Wrote two books on show riding, "Showing Your Horse" and "Horses and HOrse Shows." Harlan Abbey, Buffalo NY

  8. My first memory (much like many subsequent memories) is devastation that my horse finished second. We watched the 1977 Derby on television and I, as a 6-year-old, was the only person not named Lehmann pulling for Run Dusty Run. I was crushed when that mean old Seattle Slew won.