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THE FOUNDER, BELIEVING HIS RACE A FAILURE, TOOK HIS OWN LIFE. BUT HIS CONTEST SURVIVED HIM, ENDURING SEVERAL BRUSHES WITH EXTINCTION TO BECOME AMERICA’S LONGEST-RUNNING SPORTS TRADITION. IT TURNS 125 THIS SPRING.
May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
As he shot to the lead, an enormous red colt hurtled up behind him, running with fearsome, predatory lunges. He may have been the most awesome racing engine ever crafted. In his massive chest, which measured well over six feet around, beat a heart weighing some twenty-two pounds; at nearly three times normal size, it was the largest heart known to equine medicine. He pushed his 1,160pound body over the earth with a twenty-four-foot threeinch stride that, when analyzed by Professor George W. Pratt at MIT, proved to be the most efficient ever studied. According to Pratt, the colt’s race times were so fast that at the breed’s rate of improvement, elite horses wouldn’t catch up to him until 2064, ninety-one years later. He ran with a geometry of straight lines, precise turns, relentless, unflagging rhythm; the race caller Chick Anderson would call him “a tremendous machine.” His name was Secretariat.
He closed on Sham with a terrible inevitability, seeming to feed off of each grueling furlong; he was running each quarter-mile faster than the one before, an unprecedented feat. Sham fought like a tiger; Secretariat overwhelmed him. He hit the wire traveling at more than fifty-seven feet per second, halting the clock at l:59 2/5, a Derby time that has never been approached, before or since.
The spell that had hung over the Derby had been shattered. Secretariat, with Sham pushing him all the way, won the Triple Crown, a feat repeated by Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.
After more than a century it seemed that the Derby had displayed to the fullest every virtue of the communion between horses and men and that runnings _ to follow would not find a fresh answer to the glories of the past. But the genius of the Derby is that it reaches for the hard, hidden places in its competitors and invariably finds there something singular, something to surprise and dazzle and astonish. Thus it was in 1987.
In the starting gate the jockey Chris McCarron crouched low over the neck of an exuberant colt named Alysheba, bracing himself for a race that had become his life’s obsession. He had no idea that the contest about to unfold would be one of the roughest major races in history. Shocked spectators would call the race chilling. One jockey would liken it to a rodeo, while another would be too shaken to talk about it. For McCarron and Alysheba, it would be a two-minute horror show.
It began the instant the gate doors crashed open. From stall three McCarron gunned Alysheba forward with three other colts, trying to gain forward position. In a chaotic headlong charge the horses to their outside angled inward, compressing them into a high-speed bottleneck. Alysheba was slammed into the horse to his left, which shouldered another horse into the rail. Ahead of them horses crushed inward, their legs nearly tangling with the horses behind. For a dozen strides Alysheba and three rivals were pinned together between seven tons of horseflesh and an unforgiving strip of metal. There was nowhere to go but back. McCarron snatched up the reins. Alysheba threw his head up in protest, knocking McCarron backward. Regaining his balance, the jockey hauled his colt out of the vise and dropped back to fourteenth. Though he had narrowly escaped falling, McCarron now found himself straggling ten lengths behind the leaders. His game plan, and possibly his chance of winning, was dashed just seconds into the race.
As BET TWICE lurched over, he kicked Alysheba’s forelegs out from under him. Alysheba’s front end dropped like a hammer.
Hugging the rail into the first turn, McCarron watched the pack of horses ahead surge inward again. The horses to the outside cut in much too fast, causing another chainreaction collision. A few feet in front of him, McCarron remembers, “there were about three horses where there was room for one.” One of them, a colt named War, was rammed into the rail. Desperate to escape, he lunged up and hung halfway over the barrier for an awful moment, skidding and thrashing, a millimeter from flipping into the infield. Thinking a pileup was coming, McCarron sacrificed his ground-saving rail position and yanked AIysheba out from behind War, bouncing hard off another horse but staying on his feet. Safely outside as the horses to his inside recovered, McCarron waited until the far turn. There he turned Alysheba loose. The response was electrifying; while nearly every other horse that had been buffeted in the traffic jams was spitting out his bit and retreating, Alysheba was crying out to run. He swooped around the field, and turning into the stretch, McCarron recalls, “I had one horse ahead of me and I thought I had a dynamite chance to win.”