Horse racing — the sport of kings! — still mattered when I was a kid. This was the late 1960s and early '70s, and the Triple Crown events were must-see TV as fans longed for the next colt to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Citation in 1948 had been the last to claim the Crown, a tale cloaked in mystery as jockey Al Snider vanished on a fishing trip weeks before the Derby, never to be found. The iconic Eddie Arcaro replaced Snider and rode Citation to racing's fourth Triple Crown in eight years.
Intrigue struck again during my youth when Forward Pass captured the first two legs in 1968, the Derby only after apparent winner Dancer's Image was disqualified for a positive drug test. But Stage Door Johnny denied Forward Pass in the Belmont, just as Arts and Letters did to undefeated Majestic Prince a year later, and Pass Catcher did to a Venezuelan import, the improbable Canonero II, in 1971.
Racing's 25-year wait ended in 1973 when the legendary — that is not too strong a word — Secretariat, from Meadow Stables near Richmond, shattered records and humbled the competition, including gallant rival Sham. His 31-length victory in the Belmont is the benchmark for dominance in any sporting event, and Chic Anderson's epic call remains spine-tingling. Google and you'll see why.
"Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
Adding to Secretariat's appeal, his Virginia connections, who just a year earlier had saddled Riva Ridge in Meadow Stable's blue-and-white checkerboard silks. Riva Ridge won the Derby and Belmont but finished fourth on a sloppy track at the Preakness, bested by Bee Bee Bee, a 19-to-1 shot who as a 2-year-old had raced not in traditional Derby preps but at Timonium Fairgrounds, a modest (read: dumpy) track about a mile from our Baltimore County home.
Secretariat started a racing renaissance. Undefeated Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977 and Affirmed, ridden by 18-year-old Steve Cauthen and challenged at every stride by Alydar, gave the sport its first back-to-back Crown champions in '78.
Only a freak accident derailed a three-peat.
Derby and Preakness winner Spectacular Bid — his granddaddy, Bold Ruler, sired Secretariat — stepped on a safety pin in his stall the morning of the 1979 Belmont and subsequently finished third, trainer Bud Delp and jockey Ron Franklin ridiculed by seasoned horsemen and journalists for their strategy.
As you probably know and undoubtedly will hear repeatedly this week, racing has not seen a Triple Crown champion since Affirmed, the 36-year gap the longest since Sir Barton in 1919 became the first to sweep the three races.
California Chrome, with the lyrical name, compelling backstory — his owners and trainer are not from central casting — and perhaps talent to end the drought, goes to the post at Saturday's Belmont fresh off convincing victories in the Derby and Preakness.
Is he truly an equine elite? Can he handle the Belmont's grueling mile-and-a-half distance? Or is he merely the best of a pedestrian 3-year-old crop and destined, like so many others, to disappoint those who still romance the sport?
I'll leave those questions to handicappers far more learned, but I do know that sports needs stars, and no matter how fleeting, no matter if his owners cash out by retiring him to stud Sunday morning, racing needs California Chrome to win Saturday.
The sport is too tired, backward and beset with ethical and financial issues to thrive otherwise. Just look here in Virginia, where an impasse between horsemen and the state's lone thoroughbred track, Colonial Downs in New Kent County, threatens the 2014 meet.
Money is the issue, of course, and if not resolved long-term, the track property could make a mighty fine outlet mall.
California Chrome is the 12th horse since Spectacular Bid to win the Derby and Preakness, the 12th to prompt three weeks of anticipation before the Belmont. From 1997-2004, the Belmont crushed six Triple Crown hopefuls in eight years, an ultimate tease capped by 36-to-1 shot Birdstone nudging Smarty Jones by a mere length, a relative thrashing compared to Victory Gallop's nose — about four inches! — margin over Real Quiet in 1998.
Maybe racing has deserved this fate. Maybe the Triple Crown void is more bad karma than bad luck.
Regardless, I still treasure my photo of Secretariat, taken by a friend of my dad's during Preakness week. He is alone in the frame, eyes wide, hooves hovering just above Pimlico's dusty track, his speed almost tangible.
He is, in a word, resplendent.