Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Secretariat Who?

"It's always more fun to root for the underdog."

The day was May 5th, 1973, and Secretariat was preparing to begin his assault on horse racing's famed Triple Crown. A record crowd of 134,476 stuffed their way into the Churchill Downs infield to get a glimpse of the mammoth chestnut colt.

One horse racing aficionado described Secretariat at the time as "A Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens."

Everybody knew it was Secretariat's day. Well, almost everybody.

My mom was also in attendance at the Derby that afternoon. She has two distinct memories from that trip.

One is that she claims to have never seen a horse. It's surely an odd sentiment coming from a person that was actually at the Kentucky Derby, but an understandable one considering the circumstances. She and her friends were amidst the throng of people; elbow-to-elbow on the infield, which was not exactly "prime viewing" in terms of actually observing the action. It would be like watching a Cubs game from the rooftop of an apartment building a half mile from Wrigley. You're there, but you're not really there. Secretariat could have been a blue horse with a bushy orange tail, and my mom would have had no idea. She never saw a horse.

The second recollection from that day involves her wagering strategy and the results that followed. As post time approached, Secretariat was still holding steady as a significant favorite (3-2 in most spots). Everybody was plunking down money on Big Red. It was a sure thing. But my mom had her own ideas.

She liked Warbucks. As she told me this past Saturday when we watched the Derby together, "I like the long shots." And old Warbucks definitely was that. It is near impossible to find exactly what odds Warbucks was getting that day (trust me, I've looked), but it is also just as impossible to find any account of anyone heading into the race that thought Warbucks had a chance. Didn't matter to my mom.

The race started and a couple rabbit horses bolted, leaving Secretariat and a host of others biding their time in the back. But as most of the horses began tiring and slowing their pace as the distance increased, Secretariat only got better. He ran each quarter mile of the race just a little bit faster than the one before it. He blazed the final leg in a blistering 23 seconds, on his way to a record-setting Derby time (a record that still stands today). It was a breathtaking performance by a horse that would eventually come to be regarded as the best in the sport's history.

But what about Warbucks?? What happened to that cute, little longshot that was supposed to pay my mom bundles of dollars?? Turns out, Warbucks was a longshot for a reason.

There were 13 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby that day. And Warbucks finished 13th. Dead last.

I recently came across a fairly long-winded recap of that race. Several sentences are devoted to each participant and interesting anecdotes are sprinkled throughout.

Our guy got three measly words. The final sentence read, "Warbucks was dull." That's it. No in-depth analysis or explanation for his performance. He was just dull.

But truth be told, how Warbucks actually performed that day really meant nothing.

My mom drove from Ann Arbor to Louisville, pushed and pulled her way through over one-hundred thousand sweaty fans, and spent an entire day at Churchill Downs without ever seeing a horse. After all that, there was no way in the world she was simply going to fall in line with all of the other sheep. She liked Warbucks.

Anybody could have sidled up to the betting counter that day and threw a fiver on Secretariat. It was the safe play. He was going to win. But, as Tom Hanks so eloquently stated in Big, "What's fun about that?"

Go up to any random sports fan at the bar and ask 'em who won the '73 Derby and you're likely to get an immediate response. Everybody knows that was Secretariat's year.

But nobody knows who came in last. Except my mom.

And she's got the losing ticket to prove it.

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Anonymous said...

Great piece of writing...and a great tribute to Warbucks...the horse that time forgot...until you dredged up this sweet story!

Anonymous said...

I had the exact same experience as your mother, even down to betting on Warbucks, the ultimate losing horse. When I read your account, I wondered how many others had done the same thing.
Good telling about a special event.