Starr Gazing: The Gelding That Could

I went to Louisville for a weekend 30 years ago and, not necessarily in order of import, gaped and then ate my first artichoke, drank my first mint julep (and my second and third) and attended my very first horse race.

Ever since, artichokes have had an honored place on my plate, and giving my wife my heart remains one of the most treasured gestures that I can actually afford. And bourbon, minus the mint and powdered sugar, remained one of my principal food groups for the next 15 years.

But it is the horse race I remember best of all. Because on that first Saturday afternoon in May 1973, I witnessed the great Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby. And at the same time I, a true track virgin, cashed my first winning ticket. (Had I a clue, I would have forsworn the meager payout and framed it.)

In retrospect, it may not seem exceptionally clever to have invested $2 on Secretariat. But as I kept my mouth shut and ears open in the press box, I heard all the wise guys dissing Big Red for his recent poor showing in the Wood Memorial. The smart money was moving off Secretariat, onto Sham, Our Native, Stop the Music and Shecky Green. Secretariat would go off as essentially only cofavorite with Sham; at a 3-2 price, it was, with hindsight, one of the great overlays in thoroughbred racing history.

So big sport that I was, I cashed out for my $3. And as Secretariat's mettle became ever more obvious, I developed some rather proprietary feelings about the horse. By the time Secretariat ran roughshod over the field in the Belmont to capture the Triple Crown, I felt downright paternal, weeping convulsively much as I did years later when my 11-year-old daughter won a local essay contest. I may even have become a wee bit obnoxious. Though a one-race wonder, I tolerated no suggestion that any horse in history--not Man of War, not War Admiral, not Seabiscuit, not even Black Beauty--could rival my beloved Secretariat.

This passion led me to some rather ungenerous sentiments. I begrudged both Seattle Slew and Affirmed their Triple Crowns a few years later, fearful that their achievements might, in some small way, diminish Secretariat's legacy. As I got older and slightly more mature, I learned to be quiet about my rooting interests come the Belmont Stakes. But I confess now that I silently pulled against each of those horses--four in just the previous 6 years--who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and came to Belmont one race shy of immortality.

But it's high time for me to come out of the closet--that refuge for sore and sour winners--and make my sentiments abundantly clear. So come Saturday I will stand up and shout for the world to hear: "Go Funny Cide!"

Yes, I am on the bandwagon. It is, of course, a far easier bandwagon than usual to climb upon. Funny Cide tickles my funny side. After all, we're not talking about fat-cat owners drenched in their billions nor pompous trainers who believe their barn brilliance is the difference between a Triple Crown winner and a plug who runs in cheap claimers. Rather we're talking about a bunch of small-town lifers who--for the relatively modest sum of $5,000 a man--were simply hoping to inject a little excitement, between high-school reunions, into their middle age. And we're talking about an obscure trainer who is not the least bit infatuated with himself, indeed who hardly seems fazed by the giant leap up to the big time.

Most simply, though, it is high time for another Triple Crown winner--only the 12th since the Derby was first raced in 1875. (For a little perspective, the sports world is getting weak-kneed at the prospect of Roger Clemens becoming the 21st 300-game winner on Saturday.) And there is a certain historical symmetry to it happening this year. It was a gulf of 25 years between the great Citation's Triple Crown and Secretariat. And now it has been another quarter century since Affirmed pulled off the feat. Secretariat himself has been dead and buried for 14 years. Since his death, the failures of War Emblem, Charismatic, Real Quiet and Silver Charm have left absolutely no doubt just how formidable the challenge is and how great Secretariat was.

I don't for a moment believe that a Triple Crown winner can provide the magic that will somehow restore racing to its heyday of yesteryear. But there are people who think that a summer movie, the upcoming "Seabiscuit" based on the superb book by Laura Hillenbrand, could trigger some kind of revival. To the extent any revival is possible, I'd much prefer to see "Seabiscuit" in a supporting role to a real flesh-and-blood horse.

And Funny Cide is the perfect horse, a real stud who, as a gelding, will never ever be a real stud. All the other contenders for the Triple Crown would have, within seconds of their triumph, been headed for safe harbor at a stud farm somewhere in Kentucky. OK, maybe they would have showed up for a race at Saratoga in August and then stuck around for a farewell appearance at the season-ending Breeders Cup. But there's really little incentive for a great 3-year-old to compete any longer. The stud fees pile up far faster than the purses possibly could. And while some great runners have proved to be less than average in that service, there is no risk of a crippling injury, other than to the animal's ego.

But Funny Cide, the first gelding to win the Derby since 1929, will never ever have a date for stud service. And thus he might race for years to come, stirring up some real, rather than celluloid, passion. One need only recall great geldings of the past: like Kelso who in the '60s won five Horse of the Year awards and raced till he was nine years old, and Forego, a big bay who was an also-ran to Secretariat in that '73 Derby, but went on to win three straight Horse of the Year honors before retiring at age 8. And while no gelding, Cigar, who raced until he was 6 and tied a record with 16 wins in a row, created more excitement in the '90s than any of the young Triple Crown pretenders.

So on Saturday afternoon, I'll tune in early. My personal highlight will come long before post time, with the inevitable rerun of Secretariat's great victory--by an inconceivable 31 lengths--in the Belmont. Then I'll be pumped and ready to root on Funny Cide. We racing fans need a Triple Crown winner. And I am content to know in my heart of hearts that there will never be another Secretariat.