Raised in a Barn

I dare say all the contenders at Belmont Park today have better manners than this creature.

You’ll like this — John Hooper writes for The Observer:

He really is priceless. Other world leaders see the Pope with their advisers and the Vatican’s peerlessly punctilious protocol experts, making sure they do not commit the slightest gaffe. But George W. Bush can outwit them all. On the plane to Rome, he was already struggling.

The Pope is addressed as ‘Your Holiness’. Roman Catholics refer to him as ‘The Holy Father’. But somewhere in the tumble dryer that is the part of the US President’s brain set aside for words, the two concepts got tangled and he told Associated Press: ‘I think His Holy Father will be pleased to know that much of our foreign policy is based on the admonition to whom much is given, much is required.’

No doubt Pope Benedict, whom Bush later described as ‘very smart’, was able to deconstruct the rest of the sentence. But before he got down to cases with Bush, the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles and Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church had the unusual experience of being called ‘sir’. ‘It’s good to be with you, sir,’ said Bush as he sat down. But it was just one of those days for George W. Even the car broke down.

His visit to Rome had been preceded by the biggest security operation this bodyguard’s nightmare of a city had ever seen. The Tiber was dragged. The sewers were searched. Squares were cleared and roofs occupied. Yesterday the presidential cavalcade hurtled along its route preceded by a swarm of more than a dozen motorcycles, scooters and even motorised three-wheelers carrying tough-looking armed police riding pillion.

But when it got to Largo Poli, near the Trevi fountain, Bush’s car ground to a halt. It remained perilously immobile for a minute and half. The President and Laura Bush were hustled into another car. That was denied by a White House official, who said the reasons for the breakdown were ‘unclear’. Just as unclear was how the wide presidential limo could get through the gates of the US embassy. It couldn’t. The presidential couple had to walk in.

Another Belmont Stakes Post

[Update: The filly won! Whoopee!]

One filly, Rags to Riches, will be running in the Belmont Stakes today. A filly hasn’t won the race in over a century. Rags to Riches is a daughter of A.P. Indy, who won the Belmont Stakes in 1992. A.P. Indy was sired by Seattle Slew. His dam was Morning Surprise, a daughter of Secretariat.

Rags to Riches is one of the favorites, after Curlin and Hard Spun. Hard Spun is a descendant of Man o’ War and War Admiral, through his grandma Pas de Nom. He is also a grandson of Northern Dancer (winner of the 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness) and a great-grandson of Alydar, famous for running second to Affirmed in all three races of the 1978 Triple Crown. Curlin is a great-great grandson of Northern Dancer, as is Rags to Riches on her ma’s side.

Update: Rags to Riches’s ancestry also goes back to Man o’ War, through her great-grandpa Buckpasser.

Once Upon a Time

So we know there won’t be a Triple Crown winner this year, but thanks to video we can watch a Triple Crown Belmont Stakes victory anyway.

First, a story. Once upon a time, two thoroughbred breeders made a deal. They agreed that the owner of pedigree brood mares would send two mares to the champion stud owned by the other owner. They flipped a coin, and the winner of the coin toss got first choice of the two foals. Then the same two mares made the same trip the next year, and the loser of the coin toss got the first choice of the second two foals, except one of the two mares failed to produce a foal the second year.

So, the winner of the coin toss took home one foal, a filly that proved to be unexceptional. The loser got the second choice from the first year — a colt, also unexceptional — and the only foal born the second year. That foal was Secretariat.

If you saw the videos of the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, you might remember that in both those races Secretariat was in last place early in the race. Then he moved up to take the lead in the stretch. According to William Nack in Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, this was how the big horse ran most of his races. Jockey Ron Turcotte felt Secretariat usually needed to settle into his stride early in a race. But once he was in his stride, he kept accelerating. For example, in the 1 1/4 mile Derby he ran each quarter mile faster than the last one. This is unusual.

Beside Secretariat, there were only four other horses in the Belmont Stakes — Pvt. Smiles, Twice a Prince, My Gallant, and Sham. Only Sham’s owner admitted to thinking his horse could beat Secretariat. Sham had run great races in the Derby and Preakness and might well have won any other year. In fact, in the Derby he would have beat the track record had not Secretariat just set a new track record.

The Belmont Stakes is the longest of the three Triple Crown races — 1 1/2 miles. Sham’s owner instructed the jockey, Laffit Pincay, to go to the lead at the beginning of the race and to try to keep the pace moderate. They probably expected Secretariat to hang back at the beginning of the race, as he usually did. But Ron Turcotte decided that if no other horse set a strong pace he’d let the big horse go to the front and set his own pace.

So, in the video below (there’s a bigger version here) you see Sham and Secretariat both going to the front at the beginning, and they pull away from the other three horses. As they go into the first turn, they both pick up the pace. Pretty soon the two of them are running as if they were in a sprint, not a 1 1/2 mile race. Pincay knows that Sham is running too hard, but he had been ordered not to let Secretariat get ahead. Turcotte, meanwhile, feels the big horse running easily and figures he can keep it up for a while. So the two horses sprint, and reach the half-mile pole at 0:46 1/5, which was the fastest opening half mile in the history of the race.

By now Secretariat’s owners and his trainer are tearing out their hair, convinced that Ron Turcotte has gone out of his mind and will cause the horse to collapse of exhaustion before he gets to the wire. But because Secretariat is running so easily, Turcotte doesn’t realize how fast the horse is going.

At about five-eighths of a mile, Sham begins to fall apart. They’re still running at a faster pace than Man o’ War, Count Fleet, or Citation had run at that same point in the race. Over the next eighth of a mile Sham struggles, and Secretariat just glides along. At three quarters of a mile into the race, Sham is done. He drifts back and eventually finishes last. But Secretariat maintains the same sprint speed. His owners and trainer still think the horse will break down any minute. But Turcotte hasn’t taken out his whip or pushed the big horse; he is just letting him run, still not realizing they’re going at a record clip.

Now Secretariat opens the lead. On the video, you can hear the announcer Chick Anderson:

“Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5. Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!

Secretariat pulls further and further away from the rest of the horses. His frantic owners watch for any sign the horse is hurting or stressed. There is no such sign. As he turns into the home stretch, Secretariat is running faster than he ran past the half-mile pole. The lead widens. The horse maintains his record pace. At about the point Secretariat is 26 lengths in front — I’m sorry you can’t make this out in the video — Turcotte glanced behind and saw the rest of the field in another county. Then he glanced at the timer and realized he was ahead of record pace. So at the very end of the race, you can make out that he is pumping his arms — for the first time since early in the race — to be sure Secretariat doesn’t slow down at the end and blow the record.

Secretariat goes under the wire at 2:24, 31 lengths in the lead (the announcers says 29 lengths, but the horse was so far out in front it was hard to count). The previous record had been Gallant Man’s 2:26.6, set in 1957.

Since then, the second-fastest clocking is shared by Easy Goer (1989) and A. P. Indy (1992) at 2:26, while Risen Star (1988) and Point Given (2001) hold the fourth-fastest time at 2:26 2/5, it says here.

OK, now you can watch the race. (Or click here.)

You can read about the rest of Secretariat’s life here. In short, the big horse was retired to stud at the end of the 1973 racing reason and euthanized in 1983 after developing laminitis. On the whole his offspring were not exceptional, but his daughters have an outstanding record as brood mares. The fillies got all his good genes, it seems.

Sham was also retired to stud in 1973, after a leg fracture ended his racing career, and died in 1993. In 1978, Ron Turcotte fell from a mount during a race and was paralyzed from the waist down.

To this day, many people still consider Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes race to be the greatest single performance by a running horse. Certainly, it’s the best performance ever captured on film.