The grand, sad Kentucky Derby

Bobby Curran
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Friday - May 09, 2008
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Growing up a short drive from Belmont Park, I’ve always watched the major horse races. In particular, the Kentucky Derby held special fascination. There’s something about the packed infield at Churchill Downs, the festive atmosphere and the feature stories about the personalities, both human and equine, that make up horse racing. As the first jewel in the Triple Crown,where the best of the 3-year-olds gather to try to stake a place in history, the Derby may just live up to its billing as the most exciting two minutes in sports. Even my parents, who are not gamblers despite being huge sports fans, often will make a small wager on the Derby.

But this was the first year my own family gathered to watch the race in the living room. I knew my older son Max, nearly 5, would love the horses, as he’s a huge animal lover, and I felt he’d be able to sense the grace and majesty of the thorough-breds. At 3, Finn loves any competition where there is excitement. I tried to explain the proceedings to the extent that young minds could comprehend them and I pointed out my horse,Visionaire - mine in the sense that I’d called my sister in New York and asked her to put $20 on it.We all enjoyed the parade and the loading of the horses.We sat trans-fixed as the horses leapt from the gate, trying to keep an eye on the favorite, Big Brown, and on Visionaire, who was trapped deep in the pack after a shaky start. Both boys were bouncing up and down as the horses surged down the back-stretch,and as they rounded the final turn my wife was on the edge of her seat. As Big Brown headed for victory, only the lone filly, Eight Belles, charged with him to finish a gritty second.Moments later,Eight Belles was down, and my sons kept asking what had happened.A couple of minutes later,the report from the vet somberly intoned that the filly had broken both front ankles and had to be euthanized. I was transported back to July 7, 1975 when Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure was pitted in a match race with filly Triple Crown winner Ruffian. Ruffian had never been beaten and had never even trailed in a race. As 31,000 people watched at Belmont Park, Foolish Pleasure broke from the gate, putting Ruffian behind for the first time in her life. Ruffian stayed right with Foolish Pleasure, then took a half-length lead as they came to the clubhouse turn. But then a sound that both jockeys later described as “like the breaking of a board” and Ruffian had broken a leg. Jockey Jacinto Vasquez had a horrible time pulling Ruffian up; the brave filly fought to finish the race. Despite heroic efforts to save the horse, Ruffian also had to be euthanized.

I remember a friend who had been at the race saying he’d never seen so many grown men cry. I felt myself tearing up as I explained to my sons that the horse they’d seen fall had to be destroyed. I tried to explain how the horse had been so badly hurt giving everything she had, but that her body couldn’t keep up with her huge, brave heart.

So much grandeur, and so much sadness.

“So Dad,” Max asked, “Was she really great?” I looked at him and said,“Yes,buddy,she was truly great.”

My latest pet peeve with the NCAA is the Academic Progress Rate (APR). Everyone agrees that steps need to be taken to ensure athletes get educated, but this system has many problems. One of the worst features is the penalties incurred if a student-athlete transfers, even if he or she is an honor student. It puts coaches in a position to have to go against the best interests of some of their players, because some would benefit from transferring. Hawaii had two players in men’s basketball transfer; both Todd Lowenthal and Dominick Waters were in good standing, but Hawaii will be penalized for their leaving. A poor system that needs to be changed.

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