Monday, June 09, 2008

The Last of the Big Horses

See... there was a time... when Thoroughbreds didn't look like birds. Believe it or not... it wasn't even that long ago. See... Big Brown really isn't Big at all. Oh sure... he's got muscle all over him... but when you look at his bones.. those spindly little legs stand out. Its the way the game is played now. But it is still the new way. It really wasn't that long ago when the giants could still be seen pounding the track... and the last of them.... well... the last of them may have been the only modern era horse that could really stand up in the company of the 11 Triple Crown Winners.

Going into the Derby... the betters said he was a joke. The experts said he was to fat... to slow... and joked that he wasn't even the best horse in his owner's stable. When his owner disagreed... they assumed he was blowing smoke.

I watched the race with DrWho... and as always... I showed her a list of the names of the horses... and then she watched them walk to the gate on TV... She gave her choice... and she was supremely confident.

As someone who fancied themselves a horse racing fan back then... I chuckled to myself and thought... "isn't that cute."

I asked her why she picked him.

"I like his name.. and besides... look at him."

That was the first time I noticed. He was a monster. Again I thought.. yeah well... this ain't a place for draft horses. Besides... everyone knew the Lucas' other horse... Cat Thief... was the class of the field.

The gates open and as always... all hell broke loose. One of the classic Derby traffic jams took place in turn 1... and the jockey wisely just eased the big horse to the outside. Cat Thief lead all the way to the beginning of the stretch... then from seventh place... comes the Big Horse. He ate the supposed favorite alive... he took his heart. You could see Cat Thief fold. Another horse had big plans to though... and almost won at the line. Menifee was closing hard... and he came in second by a mere head.

It was a fluke. It would all be sorted out at the preakness. And again... The Big Horse went to the Preakness disrespected. Menifee went off as the favorite... but this time it was a different story. Cat Thief got into an early speed duel with a rabbit. While Menifee and our boy just laid back. Indeed... he was so far back... and had been so disrespected... his name wasn't even called by the track announcer until the midpoint of the race.

He had eaten half of the field by the time the announcer decided to point out that he had made his move... and good lord what a move it was. He didn't even bother going to the rail. He blew the field away on the outside... and this time... even when Menifee did kick.. it didn't matter. It was a decisive victory... and now... finally... people realized what stood before them.

Then came the Belmont... the race the Big Horse was bred for. Up and down his pedigree.. you see mile and half winners... every one of them. Secretariat was in there... lots of other belmont winners. This was his race.

But it wasn't.

And you know by now the horse's name don't you? You know how the story ends?

Coming around the last turn of the Belmont... He'd already made his move... and just like the Preakness... he was destroying everything in his path. GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!

He took the lead... he stretched the lead... GO! GO! GO! GO!

Then his head bobbed. He slowed... second... then finally... fighting through it... he finished third.

You all would recognize the head bob if you went and rewatched the Belmont of 1999. Charismatic had broken his leg. Like Eightbelles... he had more heart than his body handle.

The damnable pity of it all is the way the horse has been remembered. He got no respect in the breeding world... in spite of the fact that the horse he routinely dispatched, Cat Thief eventually won the Breeders Cup Classic... and the fact that he was himself named Horse of the Year.

Didn't matter... big horses were out of style. The Kentucky Blue Bloods didn't send enough mares his way... so he found himself shipped off to Japan. Even with sub par mares he's still produced runners... and winners... but they don't have the bird look or irrelevant speed numbers that Americans love.

So imagine if you can... a winner of two legs of the Triple Crown...a Horse of the Year... languishing in Japan with the dregs.

Its my sincerest hope that the events of the last few years will bring us more horses like Charismatic. Big horses... bred for the long haul... and most importantly... all heart.

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