BALTIMORE - Thirty years ago, on the third Saturday in May, in what was grandly called the "Auxiliary Press Viewing Area," I leaned against a loose timber railing on the edge of Pimlico Race Course's roof and saw a horse named Affirmed gallop down the stretch exactly one neck ahead of a horse named Alydar, and had no idea what I was seeing.
At that moment, with the roar and the excitement and the drama, the only thought was that falling from the roof of Pimlico, which seemed a distinct possibility, would be a poor career choice. In all probability, though, a tumble into the grandstand wouldn't have greatly affected the prose turned out on a balky Olivetti standard typewriter and sent by primitive facsimile machine to a tiny newspaper office not that interested in receiving it.
Here we are, three decades later, with a seat in the main press box, a spiffy computer, and no intention of going near Pimlico's corrugated roof. The pari-mutuel teller in that press box would say we've still got no idea what we're watching, though.
A long time. A lot of horses and a lot of races. A lot of press boxes and typewriters and computers and deadlines and newspaper offices that would like very much to know when the story will arrive. In our business, everyone has a place, one supposes. A place that makes you look around and remember. I saw this here. I saw that here.
I was lucky to arrive in Philadelphia early enough to hear my predecessors talk about seeing Wilt and Russell in Convention Hall, about seeing Bednarik crush someone in Franklin Field. They saw Foxx hit it over the roof and Frazier stare down Ali. I've sat in the wooden bleachers on the Schuylkill and been told how that Jack Kelly could row.
There are places in our town where we share those things still. I see Julius Erving and Charles Barkley in the Spectrum, and Bobby Clarke and Bill Barber. If the numbers crunch the right way, Ed Snider and the Comcast boys will knock it down soon. I can live with that. Someone knocked down Connie Mack and JFK Stadium and the Vet, after all. That's life. If they ever come for the Palestra, however, I'll lie down in front of the bulldozer.
All of that I understand without passion or emotion. But, for me, Pimlico on the third Saturday in May is different. It is the place and the moment in which I first walked through the doors for a major event and tried to make sense of it. I didn't walk out the same way.
It would be nice to say the Affirmed-Alydar duel was the reason, but that's probably not true. In retrospect, of course, that horse race, one of a set of triplets, was magnificent triumph and Greek tragedy all in a mix. Affirmed won the Triple Crown, finishing the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes just ahead of the straining, surging Alydar each time. The first win was by more than a length, but the last two, including the one seen from the blistering roof of Pimlico, by a neck.
Affirmed, the horse of the year as a 3-year-old and 4-year-old, had a successful breeding career and died peacefully in Florida at the age of 26. Alydar went on to become a fabulous stallion for Calumet Farm, but died at the age of 15 under suspicious circumstances after his leg shattered late one night in his barn. The farm that gave racing Whirlaway and Citation was broke, one year away from declaring bankruptcy, and collected a $36 million insurance payoff when Alydar was euthanized. Calumet's president and chief financial officer eventually went to prison for fraud and bribery, but not for perhaps conspiring to kill one of the greatest horses of his generation.
Affirmed and Alydar. Still side-by-side after all this time. Horse racing is like that. One wonderful story for every awful one. As the years have gone by, they have piled up like drifts of snow. Smarty Jones one time and, just a blink later, Barbaro.
The memories of each were most clearly embossed at Pimlico. Smarty was great in Kentucky, but never better than in the Preakness, a fabulous athlete capable of overcoming anything to win. Barbaro, so beautiful and so betrayed by the terrible odds of his wonderful, dreadful sport. I saw that one from the infield rail at the finish line, saw Edgar Prado get off the colt and steady him with his head against Barbaro's flank, crying already, and the trainers and the vets coming on the run. There was no writing that night, only typing.
So, 30 years and back to Pimlico. The horse is named Big Brown this time, and perhaps history will chase his tail under the wire at the Preakness. There hasn't been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed. The sport of horse racing, suffering through the on-track breakdown of the filly Eight Belles at the Derby, could use another hero.
That old typewriter is probably around here somewhere. I'll have to look for it.