CITATION'S JOCKEY was a guy named Al Snider. Went fishing one day off the Florida coast. Never came back. Gone. Poof. Vanished without a trace.
Jimmy Jones, the Calumet Farm trainer, called Eddie Arcaro. Told him he was putting him on the next Derby winner. Arcaro probably said, "Thank you, sir," because that's the way legendary jockeys talked to legendary trainers back in the day.
It was 1948, and Citation won the Kentucky Derby by 3 1/2 lengths, won the Preakness by 5 1/2. Warmed up for the Belmont by winning the Jersey Derby by 11. And then, 77,700 fans heard four of the most ominous words you can hear at a race track . . . "stumbled at the start!"
June 12, 1948. Citation stumbled at the start, recovered quickly, and went on to win the Belmont by eight lengths. I was there that day because I thought Citation was the greatest race horse in the cockeyed world and I wanted to see him win the Triple Crown.
Rode the 7th Avenue Subway to Penn Station. Caught the Long Island Railroad's rickety Belmont Special to the race track. Paid $2 for admission to the grandstand. Peeled two meaningless pages out of the Daily Racing Form and slid them between slats of a seat. That way, the seat was yours for the rest of the day, even when you left to go to the windows or the restroom or the concession stand.
Race-track etiquette. Most of the men wore suits. And hats.
Real hats, Indiana Jones fedoras. And the women wore crisp summer dresses.
So I was down $6.60 before I ever made a bet. And I knew I couldn't bet Citation if they hammered him down to 1-to-5 because that meant betting $20 to win $4 and I had never bet $20 on a race in my life because I couldn't risk the anguish of losing.
Seven horses dared to challenge Citation in the Belmont so you could bet the race win, place or show. No exactas, no trifectas, no 10-cent superfectas, no rolling daily double, no Pick-3, Pick-4 or Pick-6, no over-under, odd-even, eeney meeney mine moe or whatever else they're throwing out there these days to entice the pie-in-the-sky lottery players.
And the more I think about that day, the more I think about how racing has changed over the last 60 years and how gloomy that ledger looks.
They raced on hay, oats and water in New York back then.
No Bute, no Lasix, no once-a-month shots of an anabolic steroid called Winstrol, whether the horse needs it or not.
Citation ran often. And swiftly. The first time Arcaro rode him, he got him beat in the goo at Havre de Grace in something called the Chesapeake Trial by something called Saggy. It wasn't so awful because Saggy loved the mud and he later sired a champ named Carry Back and Arcaro wasn't about to punish his 3-year-old colt with the Triple Crown races on the horizon.
First, Arcaro had to choose between Citation and the Calumet speedball Coaltown. Six years earlier, Greentree Stables had given him the choice of Shut Out or Devil Diver. Arcaro chose Devil Diver and finished sixth in the Derby. Shut Out won.
Jockeys are right there with sports writers when it comes to picking winners. That's one of the few things that hasn't changed.
So Citation won the Derby Trial on Tuesday. And that Saturday, in the chaotic Derby paddock, Arcaro turned to Ben Jones, Jimmy's dad, and asked softly, "Are you sure I'm on the right one?" And Jones said, "You're on the right one."
Pow, faster than you can say Devil Diver, Coaltown sped off to a six-length lead. Citation caught him in that long Churchill Downs stretch and breezed by him. Paid $2.80, the lowest win price in Derby history. When it was over, Arcaro sent part of his earnings to Snider's widow.
Just for the record, Arcaro did not wear advertising on his right leg, the leg the crowd and the camera sees. In the winner's circle, he did not swap his helmet for a chocolate brown baseball cap with a trucking company logo. If he had, Ben or Jimmy Jones would have ripped the Calumet's devil's red silks right off his back. Right then, right there.
They didn't allow place or show betting in that Derby. Same thing in the Preakness, where Citation paid $2.20, the minimum.
If you're keeping track, that made the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes Citation's fifth race in less than 6 weeks. Won 'em all. Won the next nine. Finished the year winning 19 of 20. Won at every distance from 6 furlongs to 2 miles. (Won that 2-miler on 3 days rest.)
Won at 10 different race tracks in seven different states. Won on tracks rated fast, sloppy, heavy and good.
All that racing caught up with him, even if nothing else with four legs could. Missed the entire 1949 season with osselet problems. Calumet didn't miss a beat with Coaltown, named horse of that year. Calumet founder Warren Wright died in '50 but not before restating his wish that Citation become the first thoroughbred to earn a million bucks.
So they brought him back as a 5-year-old and he won a 6-furlong sprint at Santa Anita. That made it 16 in a row, a record Cigar equaled but couldn't beat decades later. He won only once more, because he kept hooking Noor, finishing second six times, pushing Noor to world records to beat him.
Nowadays, you win two big races, you've got your million. But he was still short. So they sent him out there as a 6-year-old and his fans winced as he finished third, third and off the board. He lost the Argonaut Handicap and then won the Century and the American, beating his stable-
mate, the filly Bewitch. They ran 1-2 in the Hollywood Gold Cup and that did it. Citation had his million, he could retire.
It was 25 years before another horse won the Triple Crown. Secretariat. Won the Belmont from here to Hoboken. Thirty-one lengths. I was there for that one, as a journalist. It took 25 years, but that was the first time I saw a race horse I thought was better than Citation. *