Why is it that "great" racehorses, with a great female connection, seem to come along just when America's body politic is shaking so hard, when we the people think the shaking will never end?
And then-along comes that beautiful creature, the Thoroughbred, to seize the moment and help us forget, at least momentarily, "all our cares and woes." Those lyrics came from "Bye Bye Blackbird," an American standard written just before the Great Depression.
In 1973 it was Triple Crown winner Secretariat who helped us deal with Watergate and the scandal in the Nixon White House. "Big Red" was on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the weeks prior to the Belmont. His owner, Penny Tweedy, once told me, "He seemed to fill an emotional need that I don't think had been anticipated in those anxious times. And to have something pure and tremendously strong to love and care about just struck a nerve in everybody. I still get mail from people who tell me how they felt on Belmont day or when the horse died. He's not forgotten."
Then there was the champion filly Ruffian. The last GI had just come home from Vietnam, and the women's rights movement was beginning to flourish. I was the CBS Evening News producer that sad day at Belmont when Ruffian broke down in her match race with Foolish Pleasure. The CBS television audience was 18 million strong, a huge number for a racing telecast in 1975, due in large part to female viewers tuned in to watch "their girl."
Now we have Rachel Alexandra. And once again we have anxious times. And once again the television ratings have spiked. The message in all of this has to be the innate appeal of the Thoroughbred for many Americans when times get tough. Of course, that appeal is enhanced by the message of Rachel's owner, Jess Jackson, that as long as she is sound, he wants to see his filly compete against the best, be it boy or girl.
And so, the racing world finds itself in a "perfect storm" of the positive kind, with a top filly who has captured American hearts by winning the BlackBerry Preakness (gr. I) with perhaps the promise of more to come.
Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead Mademoiselle Alexandra!
But wait a minute. Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) winner and dynamic stretch-running gelding Mine That Bird wasn't exactly a bit player in all of this. And didn't Mine That Bird have his own female connection, the jockey Chantal Sutherland, who was aboard him last year when he became the champion 2-year-old in Canada?
If Mine That Bird proves durable and becomes a gelding for the ages, could he step into the company of Kelso and Forego, both of whom had connections who were, you guessed it, women? It would be a big leap to get there. After all, Forego and Kelso were giants in their times, while Mine That Bird is a Carry Back-size gelding who may not have the staying power of his predecessors. We can only hope he has half their talent and can entertain us for however long he can last. That's the secret isn't it, longevity?
But let's get back to the ladies and the influence they hold. I remember going to the Maryland farm of Allaire du Pont, where Kelso had been retired after a career of carrying saddlebags full of lead. He was like a young colt again, learning how to be a jumper.
Near the end of the visit, she proudly showed us his rural mailbox. "He's been off the track for a few years," she said, "but look at that. He's still getting fan mail."
Later on I visited with Forego's owner, Martha Gerry, on the north shore of Long Island. We were doing a 20th-anniversary story on the retirement of her great gelding. She talked about the volume of mail he got when he died and then told this story. "I was reading Time magazine," she said, "and there he was under ‘Milestones,'' you know, their column of people who have died. And I don't know whether a horse has ever made ‘Milestones' in Time before, but there was a picture of Forego."
So here's to the ladies...Martha and Allaire and Penny...and Ruffian and Rachel.
Four-time Eclipse Award winner Bud Lamoreaux was the long-time executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt.