As a child, my little brother John had a speech impediment so serious that he would require therapy. He slurred his s's severely. For years John couldn't have spoken the preceding sentence without spraying his listener like a lawn sprinkler.
So when I was 10, my older brothers and I enjoyed goading John, who was four, into saying our favorite sentence. He would always comply, and the resulting spume of saliva was, we thought, hilarious. It put us in mind of Whitewater rapids. The sentence we made him say was " Seattle Slew in '77!"
I have seldom thought of horse racing since that summer, when allusions to the great thoroughbred's Triple Crown bid were omnipresent in the pop culture. Until, that is, last week, when I went to cover the Kentucky Derby and discovered, to my everlasting surprise, that the Kentucky Derby would cover me. It covered me in seersucker and sunblock and goose pimples.
Last Thursday at Churchill Downs a gravely ill six-year-old girl was reluctantly granted one of her wishes, to sit atop a thoroughbred racehorse, which is, by breeding, high-strung and hinky and freighted with danger. So a small crowd held its breath when the child was placed athwart Derby entrant Arctic Boy, a 1,150-pound animal who did something rather unusual with his new cargo: absolutely nothing. The horse stood stock-still. In gratitude the girl slowly placed her palms on his coat, as if preserving her prints in wet concrete, and began silently leaking tears.
The scene was almost unendurably poignant, and to keep gazing on it felt like an invasion of privacy, except for this: The combined beauty of these creatures, a 3-year-old thoroughbred and a six-year-old girl, is powerful enough to turn the Earth.
Everything, of course, is fleeting—youth and beauty and life. It's most evident among great athletes. In the stands at Churchill Downs was Oscar Robertson, the Big O, whose nickname now serves as a physical description. There, too, was Louisville native Paul Hornung, the Olden Boy, who with his white hair and white beard resembles Kenny Rogers. ("I thought I looked like Sean Connery," said Hornung, with mock hauteur.) Even Seattle Slew is now 27 (my kid brother, good God, is 28) and, his spine fused, enduring the equine equivalent of assisted living on Three Chimneys Farms near Lexington. But 24 years ago—as Sheik Mohammed al Maktoum said last week of one of his horses—"the winds of heaven blew between his ears."
At 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, I understood what that meant. For until you've put on a photographer's bib and watched the Kentucky Derby from on the track, inside the rail, at the finish line, as I was privileged and terrified to do, you have not fully fathomed athletic vitality. I don't know what to tell you, except what winning jockey Jorge Ch�vez said, after thundering by in a blur on Monarchos—the horse looked like a charcoal sketch, smudged at the edges—in a time second only to Secretariat's track record. Ch�vez declared, in broken English that was just right, "It is closest you can get to the sky."
To see all that horsepower in full flight was to glimpse, for one split second, a kind of immortality. Let me try to explain. A scant two hours after his Derby victory, Monarchos was back in his Mr. Ed stall, beneath a bare bulb, eating carrots from a red bucket. He looked oblivious to his own power and beauty and achievement, a fact noticed by one of his handlers, who shook his head in paternal wonder, walked over to the horse and kissed him gently above the nose, as one might a sleeping child.
The 3-year-old just breathed in and out like a bellows, and I thought of Seattle Slew, and Paul Hornung, and Oscar Robertson, and of the little girl on Arctic Boy. None of them, I know now, is fading away.
Because the Derby horse I bet on was Keats. He finished next to last but was named for the English poet, who, before he died at 26, wrote: