Monday, June 9, 2014

In search of excellence - memories of Secretariat

It only took 61 games, but the Phillies have officially hit bottom.

At least in terms of the National League.

After dropping Sunday's season finale against the Reds in Cincinnati, the Phillies own the worst record in the National League. The only thing keeping them from having the worst record in all of baseball is the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Phillies are now 25-36, 11 games under .500, 7 games back of the Atlanta Braves in the NL East.

That's a .410 winning percentage. You find a more dismal mark in the National League. Only the Rays, at 24-40 for a .375 mark, are looking up at the Phils.

The Phlailins are threatening to ruin my summer.

For that reason, I went this weekend in search of sports excellence.

I thought I had a chance to find it in a horse called California Chrome. Having won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, taking both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, all that stood in Chrome's way was the Belmont.

And that's the problem.

The Belmont is where champions go to die. At a mile and a half, it is the longest of the three races, which are contested in a period of five weeks. I have some family history with horse racing.

You might say my father liked the ponies. How much? He's the only man I ever knew who took a week's vacation from his job as a school police officer to work the parimutuel window at Delaware Park.

When I was a kid, I used to think my dad was a pretty popular guy because of the line of gents who would stop by the house to see him on Saturday mornings. It wasn't until later that mom informed me they all really wanted to know who he liked at the track that day.

I got my newspaper habit from my dad, dutifully waiting at the kitchen table for him to finish the sports pages, always neatly creased and folded to the page with that day's horse racing entries and results. My ability to read The Racing Form is testament to the fact that I am my father's son. His newspaper was inevitably stained with dad's telltale butter and jelly stains. He's still the only man I ever knew who buttered his toast one bite at a time. That probably also explains the massive heart attack that took him way too soon.

I'm much more of a casual fan of the horses than my dad was, except for one thing. I love the people who inhabit the track. From the owners and old-money aristocracy, to the degenerate gamblers plunking down their last two bucks on some 'sure thing' nag, they are a fascinating bunch.

The 'Sport of Kings' always attracted both society's royals - and the royally unlucky.

I had my doubts about California Chrome. I was wondering if he simply was lucky to come along in an off year. Horse racing in this country always gets a huge uptick if a horse can win the first two legs of the Triple Crown. This year was no different. Everyone seemed to think 'Chrome' was a lock. Not me. I've seen it happen too many times, most recently with one of my favorites, the locally produced Smarty Jones.

'Smarty' was born in Chester County's horse country, not Kentucky. He raced out of Philadelphia Park. In the sport of kings, he was from the other side of the tracks. Which only made his story that much better, and his legions of fans - me in particular - that much more fervent.

My kids still chide me for the way I reacted when Smarty, ganged up on by a group of horses in the Belmont, was overtaken in the stretch and finished second to Birdstone. Let's just say it was not pretty.

You could hear a pin drop from that record crowd at the Belmont Saturday when it became clear that Chrome did not have his usual kick. He never challenged for the lead.

That's what the Belmont does to great horses. That's what running these three races in a little more than month does to these incredible animals. That's why winning the Triple Crown is so difficult. That's why it has not been done since Affirmed in 1978.

Chrome's owner took some of the luster off his horse's accomplishments with the classless comments he offered after the loss, accusing Belmont winner Tonalist of "taking the coward's way out" because he did not compete in all three races as Chrome had. Incredibly, instead of thinking better of it, he only repeated his assertion the next day.

Which left me still seeking excellence this weekend.

I found it on the Internet. With one of the truly great athletes of all time. Only this one on four legs. There likely will never be another Secretariat.

When they refer to an animal as Super Horse, this is what they had in mind. Instead of running out of gas, Secretariat got better, winning the Derby, setting records at the Preakness, then arriving at the Belmont. Most people thought jockey Ron Turcotte had lost his mind when he took Secretariat out to the lead in the Belmont. Instead of running the horse into the ground, Turcotte merely held on as this huge red god instead did something no one believed possible - and something likely that will never be repeated.

As described by track announcer Dave Johnson, Secretariat, moving like "a tremendous machine," demolished the pack by an astounding 31 lengths.

I found this documentary online and watched in Sunday morning. It satisfied my search for excellence. I dare you to watch it and not get tears in your eyes.

Of course, if you don't care at all about the sport of kings, you might not react the same way. You can go back to the Phillies.

Me? I'll always have a special thing for the horses.

This one is for you, dad.

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