At the family Thanksgiving gathering last week, there were remembrances of a man our kids knew fondly as “Uncle Woodie.” And I was reminded, as I have every year he has been gone from that table, of the absence of Heywood Hale Broun on the Joe Hirsch Honor Roll at the Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga.
Woodie and I were a CBS News team for many years, traveling to every nook and cranny of the “lower 48,” looking for the big stories and not-so-little ones. The backstretch of a racetrack was always fertile ground. Backsiders loved listening to his tales and, in turn, they gave us some great tales too.
Yes, HH Broun was more than a wordsmith with a twinkle in his voice on the CBS Sports Triple Crown telecasts – more than a racing essayist with a $2 ticket burning a hole in his pocket on CBS News broadcasts, including Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt – more than the precocious son of a famous columnist, who introduced the boy to racing by securing an account with the infamous bookmaker Frank Erickson – more than the raconteur who was asked on many occasions to travel to Saratoga to help usher others into the very same Hall that has yet to honor him.
No, he was more than that, he was an everyman, the very spirit of racing who, in his own way, helped keep it alive during some rocky years with his merry mustache, his loud jackets and his suitcase full of words. One Atlanta newspaperman wrote this about him, “With Broun, the paddock is home to us, the horses warm flesh and blood that solicit our involvement.”
Racing, to him, was the sport of kings and queens, regal animals who, on an afternoon, would provide more entertainment than any Super Bowl or seven-game World Series. In a word, he thought racing had “elegance.”
Time magazine called him the “loveable professor.” Others dubbed him the “bard of racing.” The variety of Broun's everyman appeal is evident in the stories written about him by the columnists of his day:
Richard Goldstein in the NYTimes – “Mr. Broun looked at sports with a wry eye. commenting often on baseball, golf and horse racing. Writing in the New York Times in 1994, Mr. Broun said … ‘Race horses do not chafer over money, get into bar fights, or endorse horse blankets and aluminum shoes. They combine strength, grace, beauty and speed as perhaps no other link in the Darwinian chain can manage.'”
Jay Hovdey in the Daily Racing Form – “Broun … never used a nickel word when a chewy, multisyllabic one would do. … Here, for example, is how Broun set the stage after Secretariat added the Preakness to his 1973 Kentucky Derby. ‘There were times when he didn't seem so much on tiptoe as flying slightly above the earth, like one of those horses ancient Greek gods used to ride when in a hurry to get back to Olympus.'”
Stan Isaacs of Newsday and TheColumnists.com – “Broun was droll. Broun was a classicist. He loved racing most of all. He wrote, ‘Every odd closet in my head is bulging with racing lore and racing memories.' And he said,'Sport doesn't build character, it reveals it.' Beyond sport we could all heed his sly admonition that, ‘a hidden banana peel waits for everyone.'
“Woodie Broun cherished the citizen soldiers in racing's army – grooms, hot walkers, jockeys, agents, trainers, owners, turf writers – all were a part of his exalted fraternity.” Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery wrote that for Woodie's memorial service in 2002, “The greatest compliment Woodie ever paid to a horse lay in his wallet,” she wrote. “He carried a picture of Secretariat with him always. He never failed to bring it out, worn and creased with constant use, and show it to me each time we met to prove to me that he kept the faith.”
On the 20th anniversary of Secretariat's triumph he wrote this in the New York Times, “They're running another Belmont soon and as the ordinary horses strive for this crown. Some of us will see a white-bridled big red ghost with a little blue-and-white man on his back. When the real horses hit the turn, he will be half-way down the stretch and we will be glad, as we always are, to see him again.”
Time indeed is moving on. Woodie Broun has been gone more than a dozen years now. He died a few days before 9/11 left us with a vastly different world, one that a 19th century man might have trouble understanding. I have the Secretariat picture in my wallet and will gladly turn it over to the Hall of Fame when he's inducted. But it's not going to happen unless somebody with clout gets on the case.
“I never won any prizes,” he once said to me. “Fame is fleeting, but immortality is immortality. You take it the way you can get it.”
E.S. “Bud” Lamoreaux III is the former Executive Producer of CBS News Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt and a four-time Eclipse Award winner who was part of the network's coverage of Thoroughbred racing in the 1970s.
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