A conversation with Jerry Izenberg, part VI: on Secretariat, American Pharoah and Canonero II

Secretariat
Secretariat

By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (Nov. 3, 2015) —  Secretariat’s jaw-dropping, 31-length victory in the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes in June 1973 clinched the amazing horse’s Triple Crown feat, securing its place in the annals of the sport until the end of time.

It was a performance that nobody expects will ever be duplicated.

Red Smith Award winner Jerry Izenberg witnessed Secretariat’s unparalleled greatness that June day in New York.

The longtime Newark Star-Ledger columnist’s coverage of the countless disappointments after Affirmed’s Triple Crown quest in ’78 until this June’s thrilling triumph for American Pharoah in the Belmont provide a comprehensive guide to the sport’s modern-day history.

He spoke recently about Secretariat’s mesmerizing race during a wide-ranging interview for this series about his life’s work.

“Go back to Secretariat (in June 1973), that was a thrill, and I can narrate that race for you right now where it starts,” Izenberg said.

“He’s got a life-and-death rivalry with Sham,” he went on, referring to the horse that defeated him earlier that year in the Wood Memorial Stakes (Sham placed second; Secretariat took third).

“What never was public until many years was that the reason Sham beat him was he had a defective wisdom tooth, or molar I guess, and when you pull the bit, what happens? Because the jockey didn’t know and the owner didn’t know. The trainer kept it a secret. So he lost that race. That was the great secret…

Well, in the Derby, he kicks Sham’s ass, and it continued, and when it came the day of the Belmont, (the trainer) said to his jockey, ‘You take Sham. Wherever he goes, you go, like glue.’

“And it was the last race Sham ever ran because Secretariat broke him with the pace,” Izenberg said.

“And the pace got so wild, that it was the first time television had to split the screen (for horse racing). They couldn’t get the whole field in the picture, and Lucien Laurin, the trainer, said to Penny Tweedy (Chenery), the owner, ‘Get me a gun. Get me a gun. I want to kill Ronnie’ (Ronnie Turcotte, the jockey). He’s killing the horse. The horse is gonna break down.’ And I said the same thing to the guy next to me, the late Bob Harding, God rest his soul, and he disagreed.

“He wanted to run,” Izenberg says now.

“And when they came down the stretch, Turcotte heard nothing. It’s unusual. And having heard the roar of the crowd, but he was looking for that horse (behind) him, but he didn’t see anybody, so he turned in his saddle, which you can never do, and … way back in Japan somewhere there’s the rest of the horses.”

In a conversation, Turcotte once told Izenberg about the closing seconds of that remarkable 1 1/2-mile race.

“He turned and he looked at the heavens,” he recalled Turcotte saying,” and he said, ‘God … if you love me, don’t let me fall off this horse now.”

“That was the greatest ride by a horse,” Izenberg declared before relating another gem that Turcotte told him:

“I wasn’t the jockey. I was the passenger.”

Indeed.

Secretariat’s greatest performance was so much better than his foes that he remains the quintessential champion.

“Now I measure all horses against that and they all finish second or way off the track,” Izenberg told me in mid-September before American Pharoah confirmed his greatness in the storybook final race of his career.

Recapping the Breeders’ Cup Classic two days ago in Lexington, Kentucky, Izenberg wrote: “There was nothing this horse didn’t do — not during the Triple Crown races, not in the paddock on Saturday, not in the post parade, and most importantly when for the first time he was tested against older horses, which is the gold standard measurement for any Triple Crown winner.”

That was the sixth paragraph of his column, which left no doubt in his mind that the 2015 Triple Crown winner had achieved greatness. Summing it all up was this headline as seen on nj.com: “American Pharoah, triumphant and beloved, takes his place beside Secretariat.”

“…Izenberg covered all nine races that produced the only Triple Crown winners since 1948 — Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed,” the Star-Ledger reported before the Big One in June, when American Pharoah rattled off victories in the three premier races.

American Pharoah wins the 2015 Belmont Stakes. MIKE LIZZI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
American Pharoah wins the 2015 Belmont Stakes.
MIKE LIZZI/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

***

That said, the veteran columnist had a rooting interest in seeing the Bob Baffert-trained horse erase the 37-year Triple Crown drought.

Or as he put it: “I kind of hoped he did it because I’d seen so many failures.”

He then talked about what he called “the most courageous failure that I ever saw…”

“There was a horse brought in Kentucky that had a crooked leg … and nobody was going to buy him. He’s finally bought and resold to a guy from Venezuela, whose company I think makes toilet seats, and they rode him a couple times.

“Now he comes up and he’s got the first black trainer in racing since early post-slavery days named Juan Arias. The horse can’t win. Can’t win. So after racing two or three races, they take him back home to Venezuela.

“And down in Venezuela, they have mile-and-a-half races, which we don’t have normally.”

The perpetual losing angered the owner, who blurted out these instructions, according to Izenberg: “He says, ‘Listen, find a race that at a mile-and-a-quarter that he can win to let him know what it’s like to win a mile-and-a-quarter race.’

“Arias tells him, ‘Well the Kentucky Derby’s a mile-and-a-quarter…’ ”

That idea sets the wheels in motion for jockey Gustavo Avila’s improbable quest along with Canonero II in 1971.

“He starts to fly to Miami, halfway there there’s engine trouble,” Izenberg said by phone from his home in suburban Las Vegas. “You have to turn around and go back. They keep him on the runway while they are fixing the engine. He never gets out of the plane. He flies back to Miami and goes into quarantine. He’s in quarantine for a week, 10 days, or whatever it is. He’s losing weight. He looks terrible. But he’s nominated (to enter the Derby), and in those days there’s no limit on the field.

“And so Arias says to the owner, ‘Listen, I can get him on a flight.’ And he says, ‘f— the flight business. It cost me enough money now. Put him out on a truck.Go out there on a truck.’ And they do that.

“He gets there and he’s (drawn) last in the Kentucky Derby. I think there were 21 horses that year. Dead last, has to go outside all the way. Could have run to Cincinnati with the ground he covered, wins the damned race.”

Then what?

“The hottest party ticket in Louisville is the trainer’s party … and no trainers show up. They had a black trainer. The Latin jockeys run through the back stretch and they’ve got all these Latin jockeys and they make a party.

“So he says to me before the second race, ‘What are they saying about me?’ because they were talking about him all the time.”

Izenberg changed the subject, saying it doesn’t make a difference “because you can’t win the Preakness. It’s impossible. You’ve got to make a move early and then …”

“He says, ‘OK, you watch, we’ll go wire-to-wire.’

“And they did; they won it in wire-to-wire.”

Next stop: New York.

“And they don’t want him to win the Triple Crown,” Izenberg noted. “You talk about prejudice. They don’t want it. Black guy, Latin jockey, Latin owner, and the New York Racing Association in its great traditional style blows the whole f***in’ thing. They’re snobs. So the ads in the papers are: ‘Test of champions, a mile-and-a-half. See who can do it.’ The ads should’ve been in Spanish.

“So I’m standing on the roof before the Belmont … and he’s walking around, but he goes past the clubhouse side. They’ve all got their body language, dead silence, arms crossed…”

Caonero II is then seen by a large throng of New York’s Latino community, whose spirited support included “people screaming, waving flags. There were Puerto Ricans that were waving Venezuelan flags,” he recalled. “And that’s the way it was.”

He placed fourth in the Belmont Stakes, “and then we found out why he lost the race,” Izenberg says now.

The reason?

A nuisance known as thrush, a bacterial infection on the hoof that could be described as  the equine equivalent of athlete’s foot.”

At any rate, Izenberg continued, “They tried to pull him out of the race before the race, and the track (officials) knew what was wrong and they said, let him run, we’ll talk to the veterinarians. People came here, we’ll have the biggest crowd. It was a record crowd (82,694).”

“Well, some guy who I won’t name, jumps up in the press box and says, ‘I told you that black son-of-a-bitch couldn’t train.’

“That’s why Canonero became one of my favorites,” Izenberg concluded.

Part VII: on courage and heroism

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