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Natural Perspectives: The story of the horse who was all heart

October 27, 2010|By Vic Leipzig and Lou Murray
  • Kokomo, one of the rental horses at the Equestrian Center in Huntington Central Park, is curious about his visitors.
Kokomo, one of the rental horses at the Equestrian Center… (HB Independent )

Southern California is horseracing country as much as the bluegrass belt of Kentucky. We have the Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Del Mar and Hollywood Park racetracks, places that some of the Hollywood film stars of yesteryear liked to frequent. We can claim a lot of racing history.

When I was growing up in Indiana, my brother never missed watching the Indy 500, and I never missed watching a Kentucky Derby. May was all about horseracing for me, not race cars. Each year brought the hope of a Triple Crown winner, a horse that could gallop to victory in all three of the big races for 3-year-olds: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

But Triple Crown winners were few and far between. Sir Barton was the first winner in 1919, followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937. The 1940s were a good time for horseracing, with Triple Crown winners Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948. But those were all before my interest in racing.

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The first race I remember paying attention to was in 1955. We had a television by then. I didn't miss a Kentucky Derby after that. But the 1950s and 1960s saw no Triple Crown winners. In 1973, I watched Big Red, as Secretariat was known, run to victory at the Kentucky Derby, beating out Sham. I watched the race on a black-and-white TV. He set a track record that still stands. Two weeks later, he swept to victory in the Preakness with blazing speed down the home stretch, again besting Sham.

But it is the Belmont Stakes that does in so many of those young equine Triple Crown hopefuls. The Belmont is the longest race that they've had to face, a mile and a half. Speed horses just aren't up to the task. They lack the stamina for the long haul. The winners of the Belmont generally come from behind, letting the speed horses burn up the track — and their energy — in the backstretch. A winner of that race has to save something for the finish line. At least, that's how it usually goes.

I hoped to see my first Triple Crown winner in June 1973. Secretariat and Sham blistered the track in the opening furlongs, swapping off on the lead. They left their competition in the dust, quite literally. I shook my head at the time, thinking that there was no way that they could keep up that reckless speed.

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