Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry

affirmed-alydar-tm-Stephanie Janicek
Clash Daily Guest Contributor

Thoroughbreds don’t cry. Samuel D. Riddle said those words decades ago when describing what makes a thoroughbred racehorse do what they do. He called it heart, which is an intangible that is at times awe inspiring and at other times heartbreaking. Riddle would have known what he was talking about because, as racing luck would have it, he not only owned the Triple Crown winner War Admiral, but he also was the owner of the Admiral’s mighty father, the greatest horse to ever set foot on American turf, Man O’ War.

When the first Saturday in May rolls around we start looking at the current crop of three year olds and our minds wander back to other horses whose names roll off the tongues of the racing fan like so many drops of pure, gold fire. We think of Affirmed and his gallant duels with Alydar, the beautiful ill-fated Ruffian, and the street fighter that was Seattle Slew.

We think about Calumet farms and the golden days of its dominance in racing, and the great horses that were bred there like the mighty Citation and the fast but oh-so-crazy Whirlaway. The Triple Crown winner, Count Fleet and the mighty gelding, Kelso. Native Dancer and Exterminator. Gallant Fox and his son Omaha, racing’s only triple crown winning father and son. Racing and the Derby are not just a sport; they are embedded into the DNA of the nation.

Horse racing didn’t start in 1973, unlike what ESPN would like the newer fans to believe. George Washington was the first true aficionado of the thoroughbred and, according to Thomas Jefferson, Washington was the finest judge of horse flesh in the colonies. Jefferson himself was no slug when it came to racing blooded English Thoroughbreds. As the esteem of the breed grew, the sport grew. These horses are not just horses, but their lineage is a guide into a fabled land of kings and queens.

The names are not just names of prized horses but can tell you a story about history and commerce. For instance, the great stallion Nearco, whose line has given us Secretariat among other notable great horses, had to hide in an underground bunker stable during the German air campaign against Britain. He was bred in Italy, lived his life at stud in Britain, and his sons worldwide have left offspring that have continued successes that are record breaking.

This heart that Sam Riddle spoke of is born in the blood, but then there is the training, the jockey’s relationship with his mount. One of the funniest and scariest story’s in racing is the one about how, on Preakness day, Clarence Kummer, Man O’ War’s new jockey, decided to get on Big Red without any pony to go with them. Kummer had never ridden Man O’ War before and Riddle cautioned the eager jockey that Red was the strongest colt he’d ever seen. Kummer looking at the big chestnut colt said he could handle him. When they got to the track Man O’ War bolted and was nearly at the backstretch before Kummer could haul him in.

The funny part was Kummer’s hubris. He had no clue what he was about to get on. Man O’ War wasn’t a normal horse. He was a once in a century Bucephalas. Kummer learned respect and humility that day. The scary part was: did Man O’ War waste too much energy on his runaway? No, he didn’t. He handily defeated the field, crushing that year’s Derby winner Paul Jones.

Kummer and Man O’ War would become one of those legendary horse and rider teams that make racing and its history so intriguing. Later Eddie Arcaro and Citation would blaze a trail down the tracks, Steve Cauthen and Affirmed then would show up Cruguet and Seattle Slew.

Once the horse is on the track it becomes 20 percent Jockey and 80 percent Horse. There is pure, unselfish teamwork when the horse and rider click. The horse understands and completely trusts his rider and the rider is confident in the horse and trusts him.

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