There is a method to the madness that follows in the next several paragraphs. You just have to bear with me and my indulgences for a short while.
For the past five decades, I have witnessed live many of racing’s historic moments, from Triple Crowns to Breeders’ Cups to record-breaking performances to memorable stretch battles to arch rivalries. I have felt the energy given off by Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, Dr. Fager and Damascus, Forego, Ruffian, Spectacular Bid, Cigar, Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and, of course, by American Pharoah this year.
But the amazing energy emitted by American Pharoah in his stirring swan song performance had to be felt 650 miles away through a television screen. I have to admit that behind all the excitement generated by American Pharoah and the joy I felt seeing him go out in such a magnificent manner, there was a sense of loneliness, of isolation. The loneliness and isolation of not being there. I could not feel the energy, and I missed it.
So why wasn’t I there? Our plans were set. Despite me being semi-retired since the Belmont Stakes, my wife and I were driving down on Thursday and staying with our close friends Mark and Mary Simon and sitting with owner Paul Reddam, who had four horses running in the Breeders’ Cup, including the undefeated Nyquist in the BC Juvenile. No way we could resist that offer. While there I would try to meet up with Eddie Wiley from Coolmore to shoot my annual new stallion video interview, this year on American Pharoah and Competitive Edge. We also planned on attending special events at night.
It was going to be a memorable, action-packed three days that I could not wait to share with my wife, who was as excited as I’ve seen her in a while, having bought a new dress and accessories. She was never able to get to these big events, except for a rare Breeders’ Cup or Preakness.
Then came Wednesday morning and the simple act of taking out the recycling. While carrying one of the bins, I tripped on something in my garage and fell; the full impact of the fall squarely on my right knee. I knew immediately I had done some serious damage. Visions of Kentucky quickly evaporated into the stale air of my cluttered garage.
So not to bore the readers any more than what has already been endured and tolerated, I am still laid up with a badly damaged knee and foot.
Perhaps I have overstepped the boundaries of professional journalism by getting too personal, but as previously stated, there is a method to my madness, and in order to get there I had to use this column as a decompression chamber in order to try to come to terms with disappointing my wife, who has been fantastic waiting on me, despite the anguish I know she was suffering. That anguish was exacerbated when Paul Reddam won the Juvenile with Nyquist and we were not there to share all the excitement with him. It was a contradiction of emotions, because we both were rooting so hard for him.
So where is this really leading now that I have decompressed at the expense of the poor readers?
Not being there taught me about the different degrees of energy one feels being around an American Pharoah or a Zenyatta or a Rachel. Having been there for so many historic events since the late 1960s and taking in all that live energy – from the event itself and the glorious steed that generated it, you come to take it for granted that you are part of it, engulfed by it. You can’t imagine not being there. You can’t imagine not feeling the energy radiating from Zenyatta coming back after the Classic and back at the barn or from Rachel Alexandra, who had the old Saratoga rafters shaking following her gut-wrenching victory over older males in the Woodward Stakes.
And of course, nothing could compare to the wall of noise and the frenzied joy experienced being at Belmont for American Pharoah’s long-awaited Triple Crown sweep. It was as if the once hallowed halls of Belmont Park had burst apart at the seams, releasing waves of euphoria never before seen…at least since Secretariat. But this was more unrestrained, with people flailing their arms wildly and hugging anyone next to them. What could you expect after 37 years?
I realized by being home that I am not part of that world any longer; at least not in the same sense I used to be. I have always tried to write with the person from Billings, Montana or Topeka, Kansas or Savannah, Georgia in mind, who never felt that live energy, but who loved racing and worshipped the greats with no less passion than I did or anyone else on the scene. Perhaps they rooted with even more passion, because these equine heroes took on more of a mystical quality, being seen from so many miles away; a dashing figure on their television screen. These people deserved to know the feeling of what it is like behind the scenes; who these horses really are; what their personalities are like; how they glistened under a Saratoga sunrise; and what their back stories are. I wanted them to be able to reach out and touch them without being there. In short, I wanted to bring these horses to life.
I did this at the risk of being and sounding maudlin to many within the industry. I didn’t care. I was just being myself and have never felt the need to apologize for being a sentimental slob, especially when it came to horses. I was never a great reporter. I was never a great handicapper. I was never a major student of pedigree. I just wanted to tell a story the best and most descriptive way I could.
So here I am, two days after the Breeders’ Cup, still incapacitated, and obviously with a lot of strange feelings going through my head. And still feeling badly for my wife and for disappointing her. Hey, I’m Jewish. I was born with guilt and I’ll die with guilt.
But I have now accepted who I have become. I am now among the readers for whom I have always written, experiencing racing’s great moments through a TV screen. You know what; there’s really nothing wrong with that. After all, it is what’s in our heart that makes this such a wonderful sport, and it doesn’t matter if you’re hundreds of miles or several feet from the action. It is one’s capacity to feel that is most important.
I admit I still feel the urge to pet American Pharoah one last time and thank him for bringing back all the memories of the equine heroes of my youth and all the thrills he gave me after so many years in the sport. I do miss that. And, yes, I want to feel that amazing energy one last time. Hopefully, one day at Ashford Stud. Being at his barn following the Belmont Stakes, well into the quiet of the night, and partaking in the Baffert family celebration was my last great hurrah as an on-the-scene journalist.
But as long as I have a story to tell and a Derby trail to chronicle, I’ll keep pounding away on the old keyboard for all my fellow stay-at-home racing fans. Glad to be aboard.
I’ll probably catch some flak for this column. But you know what? It doesn’t matter in the slightest. My leg is feeling better already and I no longer am feeling sorry for myself. Thanks for listening.