As a child, my little brother John had a speech impediment so
serious that he would require therapy. He slurred his s's
severely. For years John couldn't have spoken the preceding
sentence without spraying his listener like a lawn sprinkler.
So when I was 10, my older brothers and I enjoyed goading John,
who was four, into saying our favorite sentence. He would always
comply, and the resulting spume of saliva was, we thought,
hilarious. It put us in mind of whitewater rapids. The sentence
we made him say was "Seattle Slew in '77!"
I have seldom thought of horse racing since that summer, when
allusions to the great thoroughbred's Triple Crown bid were
omnipresent in the pop culture. Until, that is, last week, when
I went to cover the Kentucky Derby and discovered, to my
everlasting surprise, that the Kentucky Derby would cover me. It
covered me in seersucker and sunblock and goose pimples.
Last Thursday at Churchill Downs a gravely ill six-year-old girl
was reluctantly granted one of her wishes, to sit atop a
thoroughbred racehorse, which is, by breeding, high-strung and
hinky and freighted with danger. So a small crowd held its
breath when the child was placed athwart Derby entrant Arctic
Boy, a 1,150-pound animal who did something rather unusual with
his new cargo: absolutely nothing. The horse stood stock-still.
In gratitude the girl slowly placed her palms on his coat, as if
preserving her prints in wet concrete, and began silently
The scene was almost unendurably poignant, and to keep gazing on
it felt like an invasion of privacy, except for this: The
combined beauty of these creatures, a 3-year-old thoroughbred and
a six-year-old girl, is powerful enough to turn the Earth.
Everything, of course, is fleeting--youth and beauty and life.
It's most evident among great athletes. In the stands at
Churchill Downs was Oscar Robertson, the Big O, whose nickname
now serves as a physical description. There, too, was Louisville
native Paul Hornung, the Olden Boy, who with his white hair and
white beard resembles Kenny Rogers. ("I thought I looked like
Sean Connery," said Hornung, with mock hauteur.) Even Seattle
Slew is now 27 (my kid brother, good God, is 28) and, his spine
fused, enduring the equine equivalent of assisted living on
Three Chimneys Farms near Lexington. But 24 years ago--as Sheik
Mohammed al Maktoum said last week of one of his horses--"the
winds of heaven blew between his ears."
At 6:07 p.m. on Saturday, I understood what that meant. For until
you've put on a photographer's bib and watched the Kentucky Derby
from on the track, inside the rail, at the finish line, as I was
privileged and terrified to do, you have not fully fathomed
athletic vitality. I don't know what to tell you, except what
winning jockey Jorge Chavez said, after thundering by in a blur
on Monarchos--the horse looked like a charcoal sketch, smudged at
the edges--in a time second only to Secretariat's track record.
Chavez declared, in broken English that was just right, "It is
closest you can get to the sky."
To see all that horsepower in full flight was to glimpse, for
one split second, a kind of immortality. Let me try to explain.
A scant two hours after his Derby victory, Monarchos was back in
his Mr. Ed stall, beneath a bare bulb, eating carrots from a red
bucket. He looked oblivious to his own power and beauty and
achievement, a fact noticed by one of his handlers, who shook
his head in paternal wonder, walked over to the horse and kissed
him gently above the nose, as one might a sleeping child.
The 3-year-old just breathed in and out like a bellows, and I
thought of Seattle Slew, and Paul Hornung, and Oscar Robertson,
and of the little girl on Arctic Boy. None of them, I know now,
is fading away.
Because the Derby horse I bet on was Keats. He finished next to
last but was named for the English poet, who, before he died at
A thing of beauty is a joy forever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO