Great Pretenders - by E.S. Lamoreaux III

No matter what happens in the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the 2008 Triple Crown season will always be defined by the triumph and tragedy of the heir apparent crown prince, Big Brown, and the fallen heroine, Eight Belles. And tradition says that this Belmont, factoring in Big Brown’s pre-race hoof injury, will come up as a “hold your breath,” arduous race that’s guaranteed not to be won in a New York minute. 

After a diet of mint juleps and crab cakes, there is less pomp and a heavy dose of New York grit when the racing schedule reaches Belmont. You’ll need all your fingers and half your toes to count the TC “can’t miss” favorites that didn’t make it here.   

I was a CBS News television producer covering the Triple Crown of 1969 with commentator Heywood Hale “Woodie” Broun. Majestic Prince, like Seattle Slew after him and Smarty Jones after him and, yes, Big Brown, was undefeated heading into the Belmont. But “The Prince” had suffered a leg injury in the Preakness and his trainer, Johnny Longden, wasn’t sure he was sound enough to run.

With the first undefeated Thoroughbred trying to win the Triple Crown, there was enormous pressure on owner Frank McMahon to go for it. Longden and McMahon argued openly about it. Not only had there not been a TC winner since Citation in 1948, but McMahon’s wife, gossip columnist Betty Betts, wanted desperately to get into The Jockey Club, and saw Majestic Prince as her ticket. On the eve of the race, Woodie Broun interviewed McMahon, who was so nervous and perhaps hungover, that he kept referring to the TC as the “Cripple Crown.” Majestic Prince finished second and never raced again.

Fast forward two years, when Canonero II became the next pretender to the “Cripple Crown” and the last before Secretariat. Canonero was unique in that he had done all of his racing in Venezuela and became a hero to the entire Latin American world. Broun, one of America’s great wordsmiths, was on the scene once again, and wrote the following in his sports memoir Tumultuous Merriment: “The thing one notices at the Belmont…is the very New Yorkness of it. Like the old Manchu Empire, it can swallow up all the invaders that come and either absorb them or outnumber them so that they are no longer visible.

“The great exception at Belmont was the June day in 1971 when Canonero II tried for the Triple Crown. He had been bred in Kentucky to an unfashionable English sire, and because he had a gimpy leg had been sold as a yearling for something like $1,600. This modest beginning may have been the essence of his subsequent appeal. This was a price that poor people could understand.”

Broun wrote that huge numbers of Latinos descended on Belmont Park that day, “a great mass of people, many of whom had never been to the races, with nothing in common but their language and a vague sense that today they were going to show the Anglos and have a good time while they did it. Hundreds of them brought musical instruments and long before the first race, bongo drums were echoing in places where nothing was usually heard but the murmur of old horseplayers mumbling inaccurate information to each other.

“In Caracas the president of Venezuela stood ready to make a speech to the whole world about the connection between a 3-year-old horse and his country’s eminence and the drums were rattling all over Belmont Park.

“Oddly and sadly Canonero’s fourth-place finish that day was one of his bravest races. Subsequent examination showed him to have been suffering from some odd but debilitating illness, and it appeared that he ran through agony and exhaustion of such shattering intensity that he was unable to raise his head for weeks after the race. The drums stopped beating, however, and the crowd straggled home, while the president in Caracas called for his limousine and cursed racing luck, not the first head of state to discover that power ends where chance begins.”

My friend Woodie Broun wrote those words nearly 30 years ago. Funny how they resonate today in both Thoroughbred racing and American politics.

E.S. Lamoreaux III is a four-time Eclipse Award winner and the longtime executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.

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