Publicist John Cirillo remembers the moment he fell in love.
“I was in my early teens, and my parents had friends who used to go to Belmont every year.”
That uncharacteristically hot June Saturday in 1973 was no different, and young Johnny went along.
“There had to be 50, 60, 70,000 people there,” recalls Cirillo, whose Cirillo World Public Relations specializes in sports and entertainment, “and I’m standing on one of the benches.”
What Cirillo witnessed then was racing history as a big, great-hearted, handsome chestnut colt already on his way to becoming a legend came blazing down the stretch.
Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths that year with an American record time of 2:24, completing his Triple Crown conquest and leaving Cirillo’s teenage self to gasp in his wake, “Wow.”
Marc Malusis, an on-air host for Sports Radio 66 WFAN, had a similar experience.
“In 1992, I took a road trip with my father and uncle to the Kentucky Derby. I was 16. I fell in love with the magnificent beauty of these animals that go out and run their hearts out.”
But young Marc was also taken with the ambience. “Watching the horses walk shed row, cool down and have a bath: These were good times with the family, filled with storytelling.”
For many racing buffs, then, the intoxicating blend of aesthetics and athletics is an irresistible lure.
“Aside from the wagering aspect, there’s the pageantry of the colors and the majesty of the horses,” says Bob Galterio, vice president of Empire City at Yonkers Raceway. “They really are athletes.”
“The thoroughbred racehorse is as good an athlete as any NBA player or baseball player,” says Cirillo, who worked for the New York Knicks for 13 years. “You have a 100-pound jockey and a 1,000-pound horse. That combination is bigger than Derek Jeter. It’s tremendous athleticism.”
And its ultimate test, the Triple Crown – which begins with the Kentucky Derby on May 5, to be followed by the Preakness May 19 and the Belmont Stakes June 11 – is as herculean an undertaking as March Madness, the World Series or tennis’ Grand Slam.
“In the span of five weeks,” Cirillo adds, “you have three grueling races,” with the longest, at 1½ miles, coming at the end.
Indeed so great is the challenge that only 11 horses have won the Triple Crown since Sir Barton earned the trifecta in 1919, with Affirmed – a descendant of both the legendary Man o’ War and the 1937 winner War Admiral – being the most recent champion, 34 years ago.
Why have there been no Triple Crown winners since?
“The breeding today is more for speed than for durability,” Malusis says. “The horses are not as strong mentally and physically. It all starts in the breeding.”
Lou Sahadi – author of “Affirmed: The Last Triple Crown Winner,” new out in paperback – agrees, adding that the breeding issue cuts both ways: Not only are horses bred for speed over endurance but there’s big money in the stud fees of a Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes’ winner. Why risk injury in a Triple Crown quest?
“The dynamics of racing have changed,” says Sahadi, a former Snedens Landing resident. “It used to be the sport of high society, the sport of kings. Now it’s a business.”
A business in which every owner is seeking every technical, technological advantage, Galterio adds, thereby creating a more level playing field.
But Cirillo disagrees with the notion that breeding has made racehorses less durable, noting that in the ’90s and ’00s, many steeds captured two legs of the Triple Crown, including Silver Charm, Charismatic, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones.
“What has happened is that if a horse loses the Derby, the owner may take the Preakness off the table and then the horse is rested for the Belmont. The potential spoiler has a much better chance of being a spoiler.”
Sometimes, you spoil yourself. Cirillo recalls Spectacular Bid’s attempt to follow Affirmed in 1979, which was denied when Bid stepped on a safety pin in his stall at the Belmont and lost the race.
“It’s three races in five weeks,” Cirillo reiterates. “Everything has to go right.”
And that means the team – owner, trainer, jockey, groom, horse – must work as one, sometimes against all odds.
In the case of Affirmed, Sahadi says, “you had a jockey (Steve Cauthen) who had just turned 18, sleeping on the floor of a hotel room the night before the Kentucky Derby, and an owner (troubled Wall Street financier Louis Wolfson) who had been vilified and snubbed by society.”
Add to the mix hard-luck immigrant Cuban trainer Laz Barrera. Binding them all together was Affirmed – smart, steady, disciplined and so laidback that he could lie down in his stall for a nap regardless of the hustle and bustle around him – the antithesis of the stereotypical racehorse. Yet whenever high-strung rival Alydar approached him in the Triple Crown, look out: Affirmed, a classic leader of the pack, would cock an ear, give him the fish eye and surge ahead. Theirs is generally considered to be horseracing’s greatest rivalry, culminating in a Belmont Stakes in which Affirmed won by a mere head.
Great teamwork made it happen, Sahadi says. “I’ve never found any other animals like these that are so well taken care of. The jockey develops a relationship with the horse that is like a man and a woman.”
Still, brutal examples of abuse, neglect, over-breeding and abandonment persist. Just two months ago, HBO canceled its horse racing drama, “Luck,” when a third animal died during production.
“Am I going to tell you that every horse is treated correctly?” Malusis says. “No.”
Ultimately, the human members of the team choose what they do. The horse doesn’t.
But Galterio says, “Most people understand that (these horses) are bred to race. If not, I’m not sure what they’d be doing. What the racing industry does is its best to safeguard the animals on and off the racetrack.”
There is another human element here, and that is the imagination the public brings to the track.
“I go to the track, because it helps me get lost away for a little while from life’s cares,” Malusis says. “It can be an escape, and then more and more, you read the behind-the-scenes stories of the owners, jockeys and trainers – the human successes of having become part of the story of the colt striving for greatness.”
The colts: We identify with them, don’t we? The out-and-out winners like Man o’ War, War Admiral, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew. The little horses that could like Seabiscuit, giving a frightened nation hope in the Great Depression. The front-runners like Affirmed, “rising up,” in the words of “Eye of the Tiger,” “to the challenge of our rival.” The woulda-coulda-shouldas like the fabulous gray stud Native Dancer, whose only loss, in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, was blamed on jockey Eric Guerin. (As one Churchill Downs board member famously grumbled, “He took that colt everywhere on the track except the ladies’ room.”)
Then there are the tragic figures like Barbaro. When this exquisite chestnut broke his leg in the 2006 Preakness, a horrified nation watched, waited and willed his recovery, only to see him succumb to laminitis – the hoof disease that also took Secretariat and Affirmed – eight months later.
“There were people who drove to the equine center in New Bolton, (Pa.),” Cirillo says. “Children wrote get-well cards. He was as beloved as any ballplayer.”
“I think Barbaro was a Triple Crown winner,” Malusis says. “Anytime you see a horse break down, it breaks your heart.”
This year, he’s got his eye on Union Rags, trained by Michael Matz, an Olympic equestrian who was Barbaro’s trainer.
And we’ll be watching, because whether it’s a Secretariat or a Seabiscuit, they’re us.