Lucky in Kentucky on first Saturday in May

The first race horse I became attached to was Nancy Hawk, a filly so frisky and so gifted she could have been named after my girlfriend (now wife), and there has only been a few since then — horses, not wives — who were special. Two, actually.

I watched and cheered out loud, in front of the TV, when Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Five years after that, I was at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the Kentucky Derby won by Affirmed, launching a Triple Crown triple-header against his career rival. Alydar was second by a length and a half in the Derby, then by a neck in The Preakness and a nose in the Belmont Stakes. Only Alydar ever lost the Triple Crown by fewer than two lengths while finishing second in all three races.

Being under the iconic twin spires of ‘Loolville” on that first Saturday in May for Affirmed’s Derby victory was something of a fluke, and something special. The Montreal Expos were in Cincinnati that weekend and, since we had no Sunday newspaper, this baseball writer skipped Saturday’s game and drove 100 miles to Louisville. Thanks to some Sports Illustrated contacts who were there, I landed a press pass.

Special…because Affirmed’s jockey was teenage sensation Steve Cauthen, a $6-million boy, at 18 the first jockey to win that much in a year. Special…because in the press room was Cheryl Tiegs, an ABC commentator who was more famous as a swimsuit model in a fishnet suit. Special…because I had as many winning tickets as I did mint juleps, one of each — a second mint-julep and I likely would’ve forgotten to cash my $5 wager to win $12.80.

After the race, I went to the barns, where I met a broken-down jockey once modestly successful at Canadian tracks, Luis Sugeuyro, who explained young Cauthen’s incomparable ability: “This boy, he born to be a jockey. This boy, he got something special. The horses run good for him.” Trainer Laz Barrera had another theory: “Steve Cauthen was a rider 200 years ago and now has come back as an 18-year-old.” Cauthen simply gave credit to his four-legged friend: “He did most of it on his own.”

At Barn 41 stood the star, Affirmed, virtually alone and protected by a single armed security guard. Even though reporters were taking notes, Affirmed had nothing to say. He did roll over and kick up his heels, presumably demonstrating how he felt about winning.

Cauthen soon became too big, literally, to ride North American horses and spent most of his career in Great Britain. After two more victories to become immortal, Affirmed lived another 23 years, standing in stud on Kentucky farmland and siring 80 states winners. He is buried 72 miles from Churchill Downs, in Lexington, and there is reportedly a steady stream of visitors to his grave. The only other race horse with that level of allure in death is Secretariat.

In my world, that’s only because nobody knows where Nancy Hawk is buried.