Touched By Greatness
This week’s family trip to Manhattan recalled an earlier visit paid to Gotham a generation ago, when I witnessed the greatest sporting event of my life. Despite having had the privilege of attending World Series games in three different decades (including the Mets’ 1969 clincher, left), this most lasting memory was not fashioned on a diamond.
Thirty lazy summers ago, two high school mates and I were scraping and painting weathered homes along Connecticut’s Gold Coast, when our crew leader cajoled me one Saturday to drive out to Long Island for “a picnic”. We weighted a cooler with Busch and Rolling Rock, and filled the gaps with pricier Lowenbraus, then splurged for sliced to order turkey sandwiches from the village deli, oblivious to a new, cheap startup around the corner, called Subway,
In the car, Dennis, Steve and I debated girls’ attributes until we picked up Steve’s girlfriend, our cue to stammer over college plans and make fun of parents and mutual teachers instead. Elvis Costello and The Boss blared through static free WNEW-FM in my mom’s 1973 top banana Dodge Dart. With a dog-eared Hagstrom’s map in lieu of GPS, the Dart was aimed for Elmont, NY, where Affirmed and Alydar would battle in the 1978 Belmont Stakes – and I would be touched by greatness.
Affirmed’s ongoing duel with Alydar piqued plenty of insider interest, but didnt really saturate public discourse. Seattle Slew had tripled the previous June, and the incomparable Secretariat just four years prior. It seemed as if racing’s Triple Crowns were won every other year, not unlike baseball’s Triple Crown award in the 1930′s. There was no ESPN or cable or blogosphere hyping the showdown several times each news cycle - just CBS’s traditional raceday coverage with Jack Whittaker and a scant minute on the evening news (the news was mostly news back then). I had never attended a horse race, but by way of Red Smith (we had The Times home delivered), knew these were two very good horses.
Despite stop and go traffic on the infamous LIE , mom’s Dart delivered us at Belmont unfashionably early. We lugged our laden cooler (coolers with wheels werent invented yet) into the attractive grassy area behind the main grandstand, where we spread a pair of blankets under an old shade tree. No one checked for glass bottles, or my underage plastic ID, or dreamed of searching a lady’s handbag. In those days, once you paid the $2 admission, you could haul in a brass band.
For several hours, our pimply faced foursome spied seventy thousand folks, many dressed as for Easter service, flit their way from Belmont’s backyard to the clubhouse and grandstand. One preliminary race blended into another….and another…as I people watched, drank my ration of beer, and eventually cased the outdoor wagering booths dotting the busy green. Gambling was far more insulated from society then; there were no state lotteries or scratch n picks in the stores, obviously nothing online; indeed, Atlantic City had just opened it’s first casino, Resorts Intl, that May. At seventeen, I had never bet on anything in my life.
Twenty minutes before the Stakes race, as hordes hurried towards the grandstand, the pastoral paddock called me from my blanket, so I stood by the rail of the winding walkway guiding entrants between the stalls and the track with a few dozen folks. Lesser known thoroughbreds pranced through, followed by Affirmed and celeb jockey Steve Cauthen, a year my senior, in garish pink silks. Affirmed was not as large as the others – a reddish chestnut runt with an elongated white diamond between his eyes. He looked, to me, more like an equine Danny Partridge than my notion of a champion athlete.
Moments later, the magnificent Alydar appeared, Jorge Valasquez up. Disney animators might have dreamt up this mount for some evil queen had he not been flesh and blood. Dark and immense, muscular, foreboding. He lingered in the walkway and, serendipitously, stopped right by me on the rail. I could have easily touched him - just reached out and patted him – but did not.
Based on this visual exam, I placed a cautious $5 show bet on Alydar, but the man at the window scolded that show bets were not allowed for this particular race. Puzzled and panicky, I blurted “Five on Alydar to win,then!”
Our gang of four finally abandoned our shady glade for the grandstand, where, amazingly, we found standing room right near the finish pole. At the opening bell, individual whoops and hollers died down as Affirmed took his customary lead towards the first turn. Around the second bend of the gargantuan oval (the sport’s largest, at 1 and 1/2 miles), individual voices gave way to the throng’s muffled hum - as Alydar challenged Affirmed into the back straight – but Affirmed would not yield.
The two dominant stallions that had monopolized hope sufficiently to cancel show betting, were running one-two and starting to separate from the field. Around the third turn, the low hum intensified into a sustained roar as Alydar stalked the champion from the outside, less than half a body length back.
I was, even at this age, enured to delirious crowd noise, having sat in Shea’s upper deck the moment Cleon Jones fell to a knee, clenching the final out of the 1969 World Series. There, fans yelled from their hearts and baptised a champion. At Belmont, the linear stand shrieked in tongues that became an endless human serpent of sound.
Around the final turn, still 300 yards from the finish, Alydar gained on Affirmed and the impossible din grew louder still. In an instant, the darker beast thrust his shoulder a foot past the favorite and the great animals rapidly exchanged leads, alternating head juts with every stride. They hurtled down the unforgiving straight, whipped and spurred by the frenzied rush of men.
In 1973, writer George Plimpton noticed a bevy of coeds near this very spot on the track, as Secretariat galloped by to victory. In the company of graceful thunder, half the young women were, Plimpton observed, weeping.
I didnt cry at Belmont Park, but was overwhelmed by the intensity of the race, mesmerized by the power and will of horses. Affirmed and Alydar, were for several moments, it seemed, one body -thundering down racing’s longest home stretch, exhausted, riding a wave of gutteral sound I’d never heard before – or since. When the athletes surged together, at the line, there was no clear victor. Perhaps that’s how it should have ended.
Affirmed, by the white diamond on his nose.
Since that June day of my youth, a quarter century has come and gone without a single horse winning the Triple Crown. And in more than 100 years of stakes racing, one horse – and only one – has gallantly finished second in all three events.
Many regard their rivalry as the greatest in American racing history and the Belmont was its pinnacle.
Alydar infiltrates my thoughts more frequently, not less, each passing year of my life. Thoughts about how one defines terms like winner and champion; about the dignity of giving your best regardless of what others accomplish around you; about appreciating what life presents, in the moment, and the fleeting nature of fate.
It may be silly, but each summer, now approaching thirty, a middle aged man’s regret grows for having passed up a momentary chance, near the paddock, to gently extend a hand, and to touch greatness.