Thursday, December 13, 2012

Suddenly Something Happened


                       Everyone will have their favorite sporting events. I like to sift through my all time favorites. Some are private and maybe I'd have a hard time finding a soul to agree with me. Since I am a Boston sports fan, these memories tend to involve Carl Yastrzemski, Bobby Orr or Larry Bird. But there are other memories that rise to a more common popularity. For instance, the 1976 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. In the sixth game Bernie Carbo, the world's most unlikely hero, tied up the game with a three run homer. The Red Sox went on to win in the 12th. During this at bat Carbo later claimed he "was high on alcohol and drugs." There is Franz Klammer's freefall-without-parachute down the Patscherkofel in the 1976 Olympics. I might add the incredible violence of the home run swings of Bonds and McGuire in their juiced up years. (I thought juice, but how could I know till much later?) Or Abebe Bikela's marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics, which race he won running barefoot. But the greatest of all sporting accomplishments in my lifetime belongs to a colt named Secretariat. And not the famous Belmont race either, in which he thrashed the field to a thirty length victory and won the Triple Crown for 1973, the first to win the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948, but the '73 Kentucky Derby, one of the ten-thousand horse races I have watched in my life. That race has involved my imagination for almost forty years.


   Bill Nack in his book Secretariat draws from Jockey Ron Turcotte's testimony. Ron Turcotte, a sort of hillbilly Canadian outdoors man, a Québécoise, was the perfect rider for this gifted force of nature. I have watched the films over and over and read Bill Nack's book on the subject of Secretariat's Triple Crown races numerous times. Ron Turcotte seemed to me more peacefully ad-lib than forcefully pro-active. On the rides the difference is often exceedingly slight. On those few occasions that he showed Secretariat the whip it seemed to me the wrong time, but really it was the right time for Secretariat, a horse who just happened to know what he was doing. A lot of horses seem not to know. They know that they like to run, but they don't know anything about what is the purpose of it all. In short, Ron Turcotte gave Secretariat the lead for the most part. To see the '73 Derby go here

  Secretariat begins the race from the gate dead last, and he does not make any move till the first turn. When he is clear of traffic, Turcotte takes him to the outside, and lets him run. So off Secretariat goes dallying with the field. This happens quite often in racing. But having reached fifth or fourth or a little better than half way through the field, the horse begins to wilt, for now the horse has reached the real competition of the field, and the situation has become daunting. In the film above at the end of the first turn, as the horses enter the clubhouse stretch, Secretariat moved up to about sixth position, then he is fifth. Now you can easily pick him out by his checked blinkers. He has given up two, maybe three lengths in methodically circling the field on the outside where the distance to the front is greater. The cameras have not recorded this move to the front because they have been fixed on the leaders. My imagination has always dwelt in pleasure on the first part of this run when Secretariat was not on camera. I have always imagined him like an Eagle fluttering gracefully over a flock of Rabbits he has scared up. But now comes the part I have never been able completely to figure out. He has moved up to fifth. His stride adjusts momentarily as he changes leads, or something happens causing him to slow down ever so slightly. Still his strides, compared to the other horses, are huge and graceful beyond words. Turcotte seems hardly to move he is so securely (and peacefully) astride the horse. I think now Secretariat has done, he is shot. But an instant later, suddenly something happens. It is almost as if Secretariat were in league with the heavenly spheres, as if he would measure up the task, and he had chosen a fantastic trick to demonstrate to history that he is not of this world. And he takes off, and in a half-dozen strides, as if it were nothing, he is among the four leading horses. He becomes at this moment bigger than life, almost spectral. Then the lead horses, among them is Shecky Green, who has led a great part of the race, begin to fall away, and only Sham, a West Coast champion, is left to present a challenge. But wait, this is rather fun, Secretariat seems to think. I believe this is the only time Turcotte showed Secretariat the whip. Turcotte says he clucked once, twice, because it was time to go, and nothing happened.
  Secretariat had continued to run faster and faster. At the end he would beat the record time. But he seemed at this moment to be sizing up what was left of the competition, and in no hurry to continue his charge to the front. Nack points out how gradual and unhurried this whole move had been. Secretariat had given up much ground in racing outside the pack, but he had never seemed for even a moment hurried. As Secretariat began his encounter with Sham, still he showed no interest at all in sliding toward the rail, as if determined to avoid contact with the pack.
  So Sham has roared past Shecky Green. Laffit Pincay, riding Sham, did not seem aware that Secretariat was in nearby pursuit. At this point it was not a race Sham should lose. But Secretariat rocketed upon him. Turcotte says he "showed" Secretariat the whip, for it was time, and perhaps he did not touch him, and that is true. Secretariat did not move at all to the whip anyway. He had his own schedule, his own time. When his time came, Secretariat sped abreast of Sham as if he had found another gear. He seemed to lift himself forward literally as if to go airborne. Then the two horses were battling for the lead. As they came out of the turn toward the wire, Pincay seemed to be carrying on madly aboard Sham, but Turcotte was all pristine calm and patience. They hung together for about a hundred yards, charging toward the finish as if in unison. When Secretariat moved into the lead, he did not look back. Then he was moving away a length, and two lengths and moving to the finish effortlessly.

 
******
 

   I was working a Saturday afternoon double that day. The entire day had been time-and-a-half, so the crew was in a good mood, a big paycheck in the wings. Engle went to his car and dragged down a TV, and fired it up and fiddled with the rabbit ears, and in the harsh factory light and chemical dust the picture came through brightly. Suddenly there was before me something clean, or some years later I'd use the word pure. I still don't know exactly what I mean by that word, but it seemed to me bigger than life, and I'll let it go at that. One of the fellows said, "Look how that horse likes that guy! He's dancing with him!", meaning how serenely Secretariat and Turcotte worked in unison. It made a myth for me, as nature and man proceed one with the other in purity. I have often dreamed of riding outside the pack, not mucked up or befuddled, not drawn toward the rail in the mud where the infighting and the backstabbing are. No! In airy space, gliding toward the rosy completion like a Secretariat, like an Eagle. And thus I have been ever a dreamer. But is it really a dream when it happens once in a lifetime for real?

   For some great pictures of Secretariat go here.

  Thanks Steve for the wonderful pictures.

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