After all these years, it was finally going to be decided — the biggest question that shedrows across America have been debating since one Revolutionary farmer said to his neighbor, “I'll bet my horse can beat yours!”
Right there on national television, before an event-starved nation full of pandemic fear, a tiny computer chip was going to decide what the room-sized IBM Watson had the promise to do seemingly eons ago, finally answer the question, “Who was the greatest Triple Crown winner of them all?”
It was the first Saturday in May, the day America typically celebrates with the “Run for the Roses” in Louisville. This shutdown 146th anniversary Derby Day we were promised a virtual Derby matching the 13 Triple Crpwm winners, perfect I thought for a time when COVID-19 shut-ins were depending so heavily on a daily diet of internet news, politics and just plain gossip.
The “greatest” question had always gnawed at me ever since I was a young television producer traveling the backroads and byways of America for CBS News Sunday Morning and Charles Kuralt — from Saratoga to Charles Town, Del Mar to Remington Park, Churchill Downs to Rockingham Park, I was always curious about who the track hands thought was the “greatest.” Surely it must be Secretariat, though Citation was a helluva campaigner and tough as nails. Or, could the grittiness of Affirmed in his dramatic Triple Crown against Alydar qualify him to be in the running?
I had the good luck to do Kuralt essays on Penny Tweedy, Secretariat's regal owner, from the time she had her first Derby winner, Riva Ridge, right through Secretariat and her later years as the Grand Dame of the game. She was Big Red's biggest booster, though my CBS colleague Heywood Hale (Woodie) Broun wasn't far behind. One time I matched Woodie with Citation's trainer and lifelong advocate Jimmy Jones and they went at it like Ali and Frazier.
Jimmy: “Citation was a man's horse. You didn't play with him. He didn't play back with you. He just went ahead and did his business.” (28 wins in 30 races before his Triple Crown season ended in 1948) He was great, I mean, great!” (Citation had a Calumet Stable 3-year-old rivalry with Coaltown, who won Horse of the Year in 1949.)
Woodie: “Secretariat became a national figure.”(He had a natural rival in Sham in 1973, who stretched him out to set track records in the Derby and the Preakness.) “Citation was never on the cover of all the magazines!” (Secretariat set the world record for a mile and a half in the Belmont).
Jimmy: “They got one opinion and I got another. If you run 'em 10 times, 10 straight Saturdays, go to different tracks every time and take the weather as it comes, Citation would take the most of them.”
Woodie: “Secretariat wiped away the memories of Citation and Man o' War. He meant to the people who saw him the chance to say later, “Yes, when I was a kid, I saw Secretariat.”
Now, all these years later, I would argue that there was a larger perspective to all of this musing.
Maybe a Thoroughbred named Citation helped America get through the post World War II period in which over 400,000 Americans gave their lives in the European and Pacific campaigns. Racing was a big deal in 1948, as big as boxing and baseball – biggest on Triple Crown days.
And just maybe Secretariat, a magnificent looking animal with a heart as big as a basketball, helped give us a reprieve from Watergate and the last vestiges of the Vietnam conflict where 56,000 Americans gave their lives. All that goodwill has since been washed away by politics, drugs, racinos and breeding for looks and speed instead of stamina. That mantle of leadership is history.
I would also argue that the racetrack, unlike the ballfields, basketball courts and hockey rinks, offered a unique opportunity Saturday for the computer scientists to come up with a better than 50-50 prognosis of the question of the “greatest” that sports fans in gin mills and kitchens everywhere are always debating. That's because the Triple Crown mostly has been run in the same order, on the same race tracks (track and weather conditions notwithstanding) for almost a century now. No other individual sport rivals that, not even golf or boxing.
So, it was with great anticipation that I watched NBC's virtual Triple Crown Showdown on Saturday. What a disappointment. Sure, Secretariat beat Citation, with Affirmed fourth, but there were no margins given and the NBC hosts laughingly tossed it off as a big joke before going on to sell some more soap. The whole thing couldn't have lasted five minutes. That's what happens when the folks responsible for our news-making toss off history as a minor irritant, just like some of us seem to have forgotten what the Spanish flu did to America a century ago.
It would have been fascinating to find out why the computer picked Secretariat and Citation as one-two after all these years of debate.
One final note: Those two horses have remained with me all these many years. As a boy, I took an interest in the Triple Crown on the radio, especially when the raspy-voiced Clem McCarthy painted his vibrant word picture of the action. Citation was at the top of my list of favorites for a long time — until along came Secretariat and a chance to report his riveting story with Woodie Broun as my wordsmith. What an opportunity!
When Big Red was retired to stud at Claiborne Farm, Woodie and I dropped in with our cameras to his retirement pasture. The light was perfect. A photograph remained in Woodie's wallet until his death just before 9-11. It has been in my wallet ever since. If a conversation ever gets around to perfection, I just open my wallet and produce the Secretariat photo, just like Woodie used to — a picture of perfection.
E.S “Bud” Lamoreaux III is a creator and former executive producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt. He won four Eclipse Awards for national television excellence.
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