America is so full of hyperbole. “New and Improved,” “Award Winning,” and “The Critics Are Raving About…” flood our inboxes and our screens.
One becomes numb at the torrent of superlatives vomited on us to get us to buy some crappy product, watch some mediocre movie or vote for some sociopathic politician. Hence, one tends to remember when something that is as good as advertised comes along.
Big Mike was big. Not just big in my twelve-year-old eyes, but truly massive. Big Mike, a burly Irishman with forearms the size of my thighs, a combination of genetics, and 28 years on the factory floor of Bethlehem Steel.
He coupled his enormous bulk with a genial nature. Lively and full of laughter, Big Mike was always ready to help another in need, whether with a bit of cash or just a word of encouragement. He could see the best in others and talked about the importance of forgiveness. Perhaps it was a product of seeing war up close in the role of infantry as the US 1st Army fought its way into Germany.
I’d often accompany my father on his stops at the Legion. On several of these trips, Big Mike would take the opportunity to lay a little sage life wisdom on my young ears. That was how he came to sit next to me that day at the American Legion. Most of his bits of insight soon passed from my conscious save for one from June 9, 1973.
The Great American Hype Machine was whipping up the latest frenzy during the prior week. The tumult was not over a book or a car or the newest diet plan. It wasn’t anything human at all; It was a horse.
Dubbed the “Super Horse,” Secretariat had already broken the track record for the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the first two legs of horseracing’s Triple Crown. The last equine hurdle was the Belmont Stakes on June 9th.
This came at an unsettled time in America. The nation suffered from the psychological hangover of losing the Vietnam War, the series of oil shocks as the price for a gallon of gas doubled overnight, some of our principal industries laying off tens of thousands of workers, and disturbing evidence coming out that the President was involved in a large scale cover-up of crimes. The American psyche was bruised.
With Secretariat becoming one of the only good things happening in the country, the media hype machine went big. How big? Can you name the only celebrity to appear on Time, Newsweek, US News & World Report, and Sports Illustrated covers in the same week? Yea, that big.
Big Mike had been around long enough to have frequently found disappointment in The Latest Thing. How often was the man on TV telling him that This Thing or That Thing was the best thing since sliced bread, only to be let down by what was delivered?
He wasn’t cynical, just skeptical. Skepticism was part of the national mood in the 1970s.
So as post-time approached that day in June, the American Legion was packed with those wondering if we’d see the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years. Big Mike offered a word of caution, “
Secretariat broke from the gate that day hoping to become a champion. Two and a half minutes later he was more than a champion. The horse was now immortal.
Watch the race on YouTube. It was as if Secretariat was one of God’s creations, and the Almighty whispered in the horse’s ear the word ‘Go.’ That horse sure went.
Secretariat won by 32 lengths (a very, very, very large margin of victory). Even more impressive, he ran the Belmont Stakes in 2:24. When a horse breaks a record, it usually shaves 1/5 or 2/5 seconds off the old mark. Secretariat shattered the previous record by two and 3/5th seconds.
In winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat set records for the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Records that still stand 50 years later.
Five decades on, I can still hear the shouts of joy coming from 50-60 Legionnaires as Secretariat hit the finish line.
And it was at this moment when Big Mike turned to me. “Young man,” he said while tapping the table for emphasis, “Remember this day, for the times will be far and few when you get to see the real thing.”