That grassy knoll around Churchill Downs’ first turn isn’t there anymore, victim to the corporate sprawl that has taken over one track on one day, one of the only days where horse racing still matters to any one, corporate or otherwise. I can still remember everything about it vividly. The wet picket blankets flanked over a damp blue tarp. The 165 lbs. intoxicated man my uncle dubbed “Old Drunkard” screaming for the Budweiser tent to open at 10:43 A.M. on Derby Day morning. The time I forgot to lock the door on the Porta Potty and an old man swung it open while I was in there, showcasing my prone and exposed body to the entire gallery of fans as I squatted over the Johnny-on-the-Spot’s undersized opening below. The horses. I will always remember the horses, parading by on their way to the paddock, their connections walking along on either side, dragging their fancy black shoes and the bottoms of their dress pants through the slop. I will always remember the horses. These animals were dignified. These animals were majestic. These animals were monumental. These animals were awesome.
The funny thing about being in the presence of true greatness is that it can happen to you at any moment, in a blink of an eye, whether you have the capacity to realize it or not. I did not have the capacity to realize it. Not in May, 1998. Not when I was 10-years-old. Not when a colt by the name of Real Quiet trotted by me, slowly, methodically, with great purpose. Real Quiet did not move like one of the great one’s. Real Quiet was an afterthought. Real Quiet was a reconsideration. Coming into the 1998 Kentucky Derby Real Quiet was, at best, supposed to be a footnote in history. Not particularly talented. In no way breathtaking. Overshadowed by his stablemate, and ’98 Kentucky Derby favorite, Indian Charlie. Forgotten about by everyone who watched him as he moved down the track.
Real Quiet was an excellent horse. Real Quiet was about a heartbeat away from becoming a truly exceptional one. Real Quiet was the winner on that Saturday afternoon in May, the Saturday afternoon when I realized the elation and agony and bliss and despair, the heart-pounding ecstasy or the soul crushing defeat, the jumping and the shouting and the random hugs and the ripped betting slips tossed down onto the ground in disgust that were all inherent in this game’s DNA. Real Quiet was the winner on the Saturday afternoon in May when I became infatuated with his sport. Real Quiet was the winner of the race that caused me to fall head over heels in love with thoroughbred racing. Real Quiet was the reason why I held out hope.
2 weeks after his Kentucky Derby triumph, Real Quiet went on to win the Preakness. And 3 weeks after that he entered the starting Gates at Belmont Park with a chance to forever enter American lore. It had been 20 years since Affirmed had captured the Triple Crown, securing it with a legendary stretch dual against archrival Alaydar, two of the best the sport had ever known looking one another right in the eye and deciding, once and for all, who it was that wanted it more. Now, 2 decades later, I was watching the Belmont Stakes, soaking in the post parade and the call for “riders up” and the brass band that played “New York, New York” the entire time not sure what was at stake, the entire time positive that something meaningful was. History was on the line. Greatness. Fable. Real Quiet wasn’t running against the rest of the field. Real Quiet was running against Sir Barton and Gallant Fox and Omaha and Count Fleet. Real Quiet was running against War Admiral and Whirlaway and Citation and Assault. Real Quiet was running against Seattle Slew. Real Quiet was running against Affirmed. Real Quiet was running against Secretariat, the one, the only one, the greatest of them all.
Real Quiet didn’t run with those horses that day. On that day Real Quiet came just short, falling in an agonizing stretch battle with another excellent colt, Victory Gallop, by mere inches. On that day Real Great, as great as he was, was not good enough. The legends and echoes of the past were calling out and Real Quiet was racing towards them, closer and closer which each stride, until, suddenly, he wasn’t. I watched the 1998 Belmont Stakes still lacking the necessary background and knowledge about the sport to truly understand what was at stake. I watched the 1998 Belmont Stakes standing up the entire time, screaming and yelling at the television as Real Quiet bound forward down Belmont Park's treacherously deep stretch, my stomach sinking as he was run down just one gallop too quickly, just one gallop before his name was forever linked with true, unadulterated legend, just one gallop before his name was etched in our national myth forever.
If horse racing began its fall in the late 70’s, it had damn near hit the deck in the 20 years between Affirmed’s epic battles with Alydar and Real Quiet’s finish line strife courtesy of Victory Gallop. And now, 17 years later, we all know the story; we have all memorized the script. The sport is dying. The sport is dead. The sport has been placed into a hole six inches beneath the ground and forever covered in dirt. It can’t come back. It won’t come back. It will never come back. Horse racing is a fading relic of the past, relevant only when we decide it is: when we feel nostalgic, when we determine to hold on to sentiment, when we reach back into our history and resolve to look and see what all the fuss was once about.
We put on our funny hats on Derby Day and drink Mint Juleps and pick the horse with the silly or cute or poignant name, the horse with the best story, the horse all the wise guys on TV tell us is the “smart play,” and we watch the colts run for two minutes and we yell and gasp and beg and plead for our pick, for our boy, to come home and cross that finish line first. When we win we dance. When we lose we shrug. There are 9 other races run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Not a single person, at the track or in front of the television, really, deep down, gives a damn about the 8 that come before or the 1 that comes after.
We have boiled down horse racing to 3 or 4 days out of 365 that truly matter, but for every Run for the Roses, there are dozens of Wednesday afternoon claiming races at Ellis Park in Henderson, Kentucky. For every Breeder’s Cup Classic run at Santa Anita, there is a plethora of Friday Daily Doubles to bet up north at Golden Gate Fields. For every “and down the stretch they come” call at Belmont Park with a Triple Crown on the line, there are so many allowance races at Freehold and the Meadowlands and Thistledown and Penn National that it will make your head spin. Horse racing is existing around us, on life support, propped up by slot machines and just enough members of generation pasts that show up and bet a trifecta here or box an exacta there to keep its tracks in business. Horse racing is existing around us, on the fringe, in the shadows, on the margins of society, of culture, of sport. Still there. Even though know one really cares that it is anymore.
I have been a fan, at varying degrees ranging from the obsessive to the observational, of horse racing since that fateful Triple Crown run I witnessed in 1998. The public, on the other hand, has seemed to go in the opposite direction, paying less and less attention to the sport, until the First Saturday in May, the Preakness 2 weeks later, and, if we’re lucky, a run for it all at the Belmont 3 weeks after that. Since Real Quiet came up short in 1998, 7 horses have arrived on Long Island with a chance to capture racing’s most elusive title. Charismatic was pulled up in 1999. War Emblem stumbled out of the starting gate in 2002. Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were simply run down in the stretch in ’03 and ’04. Big Brown still hasn’t finished the race he started back in ’08. I’ll Have Another was scratched before even getting to the starting gate in ’12. And California Chrome just didn’t have enough in the tank last year when he came off the backstretch and needed to make a move to claim the crown.
We have watched all of these horses run, hopeful and yet increasingly pessimistic each time. We wanted them to win. We needed them to win. We knew that they wouldn’t win. The Triple Crown was too taxing. The Triple Crown was too demanding. The Triple Crown was too, well, hard. The Triple Crown, like the sport itself, was an archaic remnant of ages past, ages where horses ran more often, ran longer distances, ran with less rest. Ages where 3 races in 5 weeks was not something to be marveled at. Ages were going a mile and a half was not some sort of novelty. Ages were the accomplishment of winning the Triple Crown was special, while the expectation, the possibility of accomplishing it, was nothing special at all.
I am 27-years-old, and I honestly wondered if I would see a horse capture the Triple Crown in my lifetime without a change in the format or duration of the sport’s most sacred prize. A change wouldn’t be appropriate of course, diluting the achievement and making it less than it should be. I realize now what I wasn’t sure of then, that the Triple Crown should be taxing, that it should be demanding, that it should be, well, hard. That The Triple Crown should mean something. That The Triple Crown should still matter, if for no other reason than to ensure that we all know we are in the presence of something truly remarkable whenever we are fortune enough to come across it.
The sad and blunt truth is this: there is a difference between Real Quiet and American Pharoah, a subtle one, a slight one, a gallop here or there that separates them, a gallop here or there that is both tough to see and impossible to ignore. Real Quiet was almost enough. American Pharoah is more than. That one gallop, the one that separates Silver Charm and Smarty Jones and Funny Cide and Big Brown, the one that separates War Emblem and Charismatic and California Chrome and, up to this point, the best 3-year-old I had ever seen in my lifetime Point Given, the one that separates Real Quiet, is the most meaningful gallop in the history of horse racing.
What if Michael Jordan had missed that jumper to conclude Game 6 in the ’98 NBA Finals? What if Kirk Gibson had only hit one out to the warning track off of Dennis Eckersley in the ’88 World Series? What if the ball had simply skipped off of Dwight Clark’s hands the way that science and logic tells us that it was supposed to while he was leaping in the air and attempting to make “The Catch”? One of professional athletics’ greatest heroes denied his closing sonnet by the randomness of chance. One of Major League Baseball’s most enduring triumphs denied its power by biology it never could have overcome. The play that made Joe Montana who and what he is today denied its rightful place in mythology by a human being who timed his jump just 0.01 seconds too late. Moments matter. Degree matters. Accomplishment matters. Without them we would have nothing to celebrate. Without them we would all be the same.
Moments. Degrees. Accomplishment. These ideals are what makes American Pharaoh worthy of our admiration. It’s not that American Pharoah succeeded where all of these other excellent horses have failed; it’s that American Pharoah succeeded in spite of their failure. It’s not that American Pharoah avoided the pitfalls that all of the other champions eventually succumbed to; it’s that those pitfalls never could have stopped him to begin with. American Pharoah, it appears, was a horse of destiny that, like Jordan or Gibson or Montana to Clarke, was preordained to come along and remind us of the immensity of true achievement; that was previously consecrated as the horse, the only horse, with the ability to come along and show us all what is still within a horse’s, and a sport’s, reach when the animal is truly talented enough.
American Pharoah, in that moment at the top of the stretch at the Belmont Stakes, the moment where he had nothing but fresh dirt in front of him and nothing but a slew of spoilers waiting for him to return to their level of mortality behind, the moment where history and reason dictated that his attempt at deity, while valiant, was doomed to fail, the moment where we looked into the past and saw War Admiral and Seattle Slew and the mighty Secretariat run away and straight out of the shackles of what should happen and into a future where they, and only they, determined what would, forever proved that he was good enough. Many have come. Few have conquered. Only legends win the Triple Crown.
Real Quiet is not a legend and now, for the first time in my life, I am glad for that. Because now, for the first time in my life, I can look out on a track and see what distinguishes good from great, excellent from exceptional, perfect from oh so close.
Racing may already be dead but, if it is, American Pharoah delivered one hell of a eulogy for it last Saturday afternoon. He may not have saved the sport, but he showed us all, at least for one day, why it will forever be worth holding onto. There are mortals and there are Gods. Gods are the ones, the only ones, that can make us remember where we were when they graced us with their presence. Gods are the ones, the only ones, that are capable of showing us what is still possible.
The Triple Crown never needed changing. We did. We wanted it to be won more than we wanted a horse that was worthy of winning it. We were waiting for American Pharoah. It is not important that, through each spring of hope and summer of let down we endured, we didn’t know that yet. What’s important is that, at the top of the stretch, American Pharoah knew that he was the one, the only one, who was able to give us all exactly what we had been waiting for. What’s important is that, when we watch this horse run, we know that he is the one, the only one, that we could have possibly been waiting for all along.
Sometimes you do not know you are in the presence of greatness until it shows up right in front of your face. American Pharoah showed up at the Belmont Stakes last Saturday. And now it’s up to us to never forget what he looked like. Not for one second. Not for one minute. Not now. Not ever again.