In 2009, I saw a photo of a horse. Her name was Rachel Alexandra. She was beautiful and had unusual markings, but that wasn’t what caught my eye. What made me take notice was the explosive energy contained in the photo. Rachel’s stride was so powerful, her entire forehand was launched into the air, almost as if she was rearing. That sometimes happens in the first quarter of a race. What made this so remarkable is that the photo was snapped as Rachel turned for home, when most horses are tiring. I instantly thought something, conjured up a word that I’ve never thought before or since – Secretariat. I watched the race that the still photo was taken from. I got goosebumps. Here is the Martha Washington Stakes.
Comparing a horse to Secretariat is the kiss of death. There will never be another one like him. Certainly Rachel wasn’t. She was, in my humble opinion, something even better – she was Rachel Alexandra. Not possessed of the same superpowers as Big Red, perhaps, but possessed of superpowers all her own. The great sportswriter Bill Nack once said of Secretariat, “We expected so much from him, and then he exceeded our expectations.”
That quote has lived with me in a powerful way. Firstly, it is the perfect summation of Secretariat, who became a superstar in 1973, something pure and decent that a cynical and embittered nation, dealing with Nixon, could hang their hat upon. The country expected so much of him, and then he delivered the 1973 Belmont, a supernatural performance. Secondarily, that quote sums up something important about life. How often does it happen that we allow ourselves to hope as big as we can imagine, and then reality replies, “No, dream bigger.”
A good friend of mine, who we horsey folk call Wooster, is my comrade-in-arms in horse racing fandom. Together, we rooted on Smarty Jones, at every turn saying, “Of course, because I love him, he will inevitably break my heart.” Which he did. Smarty’s Belmont was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever seen. But that was after taking us on an improbable fairy tale ride through the Triple Crown season.
I loved Smarty Jones and jumped on the bandwagon fairly quickly, but all the way I had my doubts. I was hopeful, but not fully committed to the cause. I worried about his ability to get the distance, his ability to settle, etc.
The moment I saw that still photo of Rachel, I was a believer. She made me hope as big as I could hope – but the reality was, I needed to dream even bigger. I came to expect so much from her, and then she exceeded my expectations. She was my own Secretariat.
Throughout 2009, Rachel was unbeaten. Some of her races took tremendous heart – she did not like the surface at Pimlico, had to go fast early, but still won the Preakness Stakes, becoming the first filly to do so since 1924. Her final race of the year, the Woodward, against older males, was no fun for me to watch. It took everything she had to win that race. Afterwards, she was exhausted, leg weary. She had made history in that race – no three year old filly had ever beaten older males in top competition in New York – but it broke her. During her time off between the 2009 and 2010 seasons, I started to hear rather terrifying reports of how her new trainer Steve Asmussen was handling her. Basically, she was just on stall rest. For months. Not injured. But they were so paranoid something would happen to her, she got no turn out. A hard horse to handle in the best of times, she was hand walked drugged out of mind on ACE. I stopped hoping for more miracles out of Rachel. Not because the horse was any less miraculous, but because her owner, Jess Jackson, was a crazy person and her trainer, Steve Asmussen, is the worst. Always has been, always will be. If Jess Jackson had kept her with her original trainer, the not-at-all-famous but genuinely great horseman Hal Wiggins, I have no doubt Rachel would have put together two sterling seasons. Wow. That was 2009, and I’m still angry.
I’m going to keep ranting, though. Her original owner, Dolphus Morrison, sold her the day she won the Kentucky Oaks. Here’s something I’ll never understand. You’re an old, rich man. Your horse does this, WINNING THE OAKS BY 21 LENGTHS, and then crazy person Jess Jackson comes up and says, “Hey, rich old man. Do you want more millions of dollars? I’d like the horse you named after your granddaughter.” And Dolphus apparently said, “You know what, with those millions of dollars, I bet I could buy an amazing life experience! Maybe I could buy an incredible racehorse or something like that.” If you’re already a millionaire and you’re not that long for the world, why do you need MORE money? What could you possibly buy that’s better than what you already have? Also, if you want to give it to your grandkids, here’s a tip – they can make their own cash and the most important thing you can pass on is the idea that there are things more valuable than money.
You know who knows that lesson? The owners of California Chrome, this year’s favorite for the Kentucky Derby. They’ve already turned down $6 million for him. They’re not rich people. They’re working class folks who bought a cheap mare, bred her to a cheap stallion, and BOOM! their first horse ever – California Chrome. The name of their racing stable is DAP Racing, which stands for Dumb Ass Partners. Apparently, the groom who took care of the cheap mare told them, “Anyone who buys this mare is a dumb ass.” They decided she needed to be with some people who would appreciate her. The mare, Love the Chase, has richly rewarded their good faith.
Two days before Love the Chase had her foal, her owner had a dream that she would have a coppery chestnut colt with a ton of white markings. Lots of white is referred to as “chrome” in the horse world, so the man came up with the name, “California Chrome” before the colt was even born. When he was still very young, they wrote to Art Sherman, a 77 year old veteran trainer and said, “We have your Derby horse.” Art thought their enthusiasm was adorable in a sarcastic sort of way, but was still willing to take their money. As it turns out, the Dumb Ass Partners knew what they were talking about. They always believed in Junior, as they call him.
The first time I saw California Chrome was much like the first time I saw Rachel. I watched him run and it was an unqualified yes. Yes, this horse was special. Yes, he could get a distance. Yes, he had the mind, the athleticism, and the heart. It’s so, so rare for all of these things to come together. I’ve been following horse racing my entire life and those special horses don’t even take up one hand.
When he first appeared on the scene, Wooster and I compared notes. We had both fallen in love with California Chrome. We agreed that this would inevitably lead to disappointment, because that’s what we always say.
Here’s the thing about great horses – they force you to hope anyway. Even jaded ol’ racetrackers like Wooster and myself, who have been let down a million times over. They force you to hope, to dream big. Once in a blue moon, they come back and say, “You’re not dreaming big enough.” That’s what California Chrome said in the Santa Anita Derby, where I expected him to regress after destroying four races in a row. Instead of regressing, he did this.
This June I will be at the Belmont Stakes with my family. It’s the first time any of us have ever been to a Triple Crown race. We bought tickets before I had ever watched California Chrome race. The Kentucky Derby hasn’t even been run yet, but this horse is making me hope anyway. Sometimes, as with Rachel’s perfect season, what is inevitable is a dream come true.
For no real reason, I want to share some pictures of Secretariat’s stride. Because it is freakish and supernatural and mind blowing. All of these pics are from the Preakness, where he set yet another new record, but the clock malfunctioned and he didn’t get credit for it.