Big Horses: A Triple Crown Report

Robyn Weisman


Is the Triple Crown still big, or did the horses get small?

This year I was getting my hair cut. Last year I missed it as well. The Kentucky Derby tends to sneak up on me because I know little about the horses until after this race is won. Then I glom onto the winner sometimes through the Preakness Stakes, occasionally through the Belmont Stakes in the hopes that the winner of the Kentucky Derby will win the Triple Crown the way Seattle Slew and Affirmed did when I was a kid.

Now that I’ve lived a few more decades, I see that the 1970s was an anomaly in post-World War II American Thoroughbred horse racing. During that decade there were three Triple Crown winners. Secretariat ended a 25-year drought by winning it in 1973. Seattle Slew won it in 1977 and then Affirmed in 1978. Spectacular Bid should have won it in 1979, but on the morning of the Belmont it was discovered (the passive tense suggesting both foul play and an unsolved crime) that the young stallion, who had won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness handily, had a safety pin lodged in his hoof that eventually had to be drilled out, and came in third. Even so, Spectacular Bid was listed #10 in Blood-Horse magazine’s top 100 racehorses of the 20th century, two ahead of Affirmed (Secretariat was #2, behind Man O’War).

Moreover, the racehorses of the 1970s shared these seeming superstar personalities with their human athletic counterparts. Secretariat had at least one genuine biography that I read when I was 10. In 1975 Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure ran a match race with “Queen of the Fillies” and Triple Tiara (the filly triple crown) winner Ruffian (whose bio I also read at about the same time). It was supposed to be the thoroughbred version of the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs battle of the sexes, except in this case there wasn’t a 25-year age difference between contestants. Ruffian was winning by half a length when her leg snapped in two places—and then she ran another 50 yards. After an unsuccessful surgery, she was euthanized, adding a sort of Love Story melancholia (well, in that the female dies, but doesn’t it always have to be that way? Strong females, be they equid or primate, always die by the last reel, a topic I will now drop) to the saga.

While I was reading these horse biographies, Calvin Borel was competing in Sunday match races in his home state of Louisiana. By the time I graduated from high school in 1983, with horses being just a girlhood flirtation that ended (or so I thought) when I discovered cities like Boston and New York, 16-year-old Borel had earned his jockey license and was on his way to winning 4,300 races that have earned over $83 million.

Much of the press I’ve read about Borel paints him as a Horatio Alger character with a splash of Runyon. He started his career at an age that a child hasn’t typically worked since the Industrial Revolution. His brother, who’s 12 or 13 years older, pretty much raised him. He still mucks out stalls—hell, he was sponging off Street Sense as he was being congratulated for having won the Derby. He is said to be mostly illiterate, although he did make it to the 8th grade. When interviewed after the race about winning, he said in a heavy Cajun accent he said, “I wish my mama and daddy was here to see this. This is the most [sic] greatest moment of my life.”

And Borel was 40-years-old before he won a Triple Crown race. This fact stuck with me, not because it took him so long to win his first Triple Crown race or because he looks 55, but because he is about 17 months younger than I am. So he was growing up watching Secretariat and Seattle Slew. He probably cried over Ruffian’s death, too.

“I called my brother and told him not to run a horse against [Street Sense] because he was massive,” he said in the same post-race interview. Street Sense may not have a star on his forehead, but that’s what he is. And I watched that race a dozen times over the next several days.

It’s the Shit…

Thank G-d for TiVO (it’s as good a reason as any that Grammy winners typically use). When I got home from the salon, my partner couldn’t wait for me to see Street Sense’s win. “It was fucking amazing! It looks like a kid pushed him forward on a Popsicle stick. He was something like second to last, and then it was like the other horses were standing still,” she said.

I needed a few viewings to process the race. Street Sense isn’t even in the initial shots of the race. You don’t see him until about halfway through the race when NBC cuts to an aerial shot, which adds to the dreamlike quality of the events. I imagined kids playing a board game, methodically moving their pieces forward square-by-square, when one child, frustrated with the pace, mowed the others down with his game piece on his way to the finish line. Then after winning, Street Sense keeps nosing the horse ponying him, as if to say, “Did you see that? Did you see what I did?” And then I think, Well, he is only three-years-old…

As much as I hoped that Street Sense would win the Preakness, I was pessimistic. I had already been disappointed this decade by the Belmont-losing triumvirate of War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones. Then Borel promised on camera that Street Sense would win, and whenever anyone ever promises to protect another character on TV shows like Alias, the latter character inevitably gets killed. I realize that a TV show’s plot does not make a logical parallel to a horse race or anything that doesn’t have a plot naturally imposed on it, but being the human I am, this is how I imposed my own need for a narrative onto it.

Nevertheless, I was hopeful (hopeful and pessimistic, the sign of a realist) that Street Sense would win. I didn’t think Hard Spun, the horse that placed second in the Derby would. I thought he would poop out before the race ended, despite what some of the NBC commentators suggested.

Then, while being led to the gate, the chestnut horse in the number 4 position, defecated. My partner and I were silent as the horse pranced from his pile, the NBC analysts ignoring it as they continued discussing his chances.

“I’m leaning toward Street Sense to win it, but that horse might do it,” my partner said.

I agreed. “I mean he’s lightened his load.”

“I went to the dog races once, and I bet on a dog that took a shit just before the race, and he won,” my partner continued.

“You went to a dog race? Where? That track in West Memphis?” I asked.

“Don’t even ask me what I was doing there because I couldn’t tell you,” she said.

The gates were opened, and the horses were off. As in the Derby, Street Sense and Borel hung back until two-thirds of the way through the race, before making their push. He looked to be winning until the end when number 4, AKA Curlin, the big chestnut who took the pre-race shit, pushed ahead and beat him by a nose.

“Wait ’til I call my mama. She’s going to love this,” my partner said laughing.

Ruffian Redux

Of course, the big news in the three or four days before the Belmont is that a filly, Rags To Riches, is going to run. Her British owners and her trainer Todd Pletcher decided to do so once Street Sense’s people decided not to run the Kentucky Derby winner.

According to Pletcher, Rags To Riches’ pedigree was made to race longer distances. Her sire AP Indy won the one-and-a-half mile race in 1992, and her half-brother (on the dam’s side) Jazil won in 2006. An ABC/ESPN reporter named Jeannine Edwards agreed that Rags To Riches has “impeccable credentials,” but said that Rags To Riches facing Curlin was akin to “Maria Sharapova facing Roger Federer in the final of the French Open.”

The ABC/ESPN reporting staff’s discomfort with a female horse competing “with the big boys,” as many of them said, underscored the two-hour broadcast. Edwards, the only woman in the otherwise all-male group of pressmen, went on to say that if Rags To Riches were to win, her supporters can chalk one up to “Women’s Lib.”

Women’s Lib? What a throwback phrase. How very 1970s. But then, there was a 1970s element about the race. Meanwhile, the male reporters kept using phrases like “girl power” or “running against the big boys,” and referred to her as “the filly.”

Brent Musberger, whom I best remember from watching NFL games in the 1970s, seemed the least uncomfortable about “the filly” (as almost everyone on TV referred to her), despite his final comment that “Rags To Riches is going to challenge Curlin and the rest of the big boys and see if a filly can win Belmont for the first time since 1905.”

I’m guessing that Musberger seemed more at ease because he remembers Ruffian. That evening ABC was broadcasting a (throwback) MFTVM (short for “Made for TV Movie,” a once popular form of TV entertainment that’s almost non-existent today) on Ruffian, the legendary filly. As the cameras panned over Ruffian’s grave, which is at Belmont, Musberger called Ruffian “really one of the great fillies, and here in a short time we’re going to see one that would like to step up to that same class.”

Rags To Riches stumbled out of the gate, something that usually stops horses from having a chance, although oddly Curlin did the same at the Preakness and won. The race ended with Rags To Riches and Curlin being neck and neck, but Rags To Riches had better acceleration and more will, and she beat the favorite by a head.

As the crowd cheered, many of the ABC/ESPN crew had to come to grips with this “girl power” victory. Several caveats were thrown about: as a filly, Rags To Riches only had to carry 121 pounds rather than the 126 pounds of the boys, Curlin was probably worn down from running the previous two races, and so forth—excuses, I’m guessing, that wouldn’t have been noted had a stronger, more muscled colt like Curlin won.

But I bet that Calvin Borel was all out cheering this win. He may have won only the first race of the Triple Crown, but all three horses—Street Sense, Curlin, and Rags To Riches—each scored spectacular wins over the last several weeks. Perhaps the horses aren’t so small after all.

Cover Photo of Rags to Riches taking the lead at Belmont ’07 taken from Alarichahn on Flikr