Memory can be a funny thing. Fall 1995 was a dark time for me, but in early November there was a glimmer of light.
Trudging along eastbound on interstate 80 on a Friday afternoon, a regular occurrence that first semester of my junior year in college, there was an event on the docket that weekend that had a chance of taking my mind off the largest of the many real and imagined crises I was facing—my father’s fight with cancer.
Saturday would be the annual Breeders Cup, a made for TV spectacle only 11 years old that, somewhat miraculously, had risen above the hype and had become an event that mattered — it has since been destroyed, as has just about everything involving televised sports, but that is a subject for another blog entry — and in the final race of the day Cigar would be trying to solidify his undefeated season. It was a far cry from the 1970s, but the game was going through a mini renaissance, with first Holy Bull and now Cigar breaking into the public discourse, and we were a racing family. There would be a party at our house, most of my father’s friends would be in attendance, and for an afternoon at least, I’d be transported to the world I lived in before getting lost in Lewisburg.
Nineteen years later, I remember the afternoon vividly. It was not idyllic; the weather was gloomy, and chemotherapy had ravaged my Dad. The group did its best to keep the mood up, but his energy was down, and by the time of the Classic, he was shot. We were just trying to get to the finish line.
So as the race started, the only thing that mattered was Cigar winning. A loss somehow would have invalidated the day, not to mention the sport. Anyone who came to horse racing any time after the opening bell of the 1979 Belmont has come to understand that the darling never wins. The crowd always leaves disappointed. At the time, in my confused mind, an upset also would have meant that my pre-college life was gone for good and that decisions I had taken—like going back to school for my junior year—were in error.
While oblivious to the human drama underway less than 20 miles from the track in a certain basement in Bethpage, Tom Durkin certainly understood what was at stake for horse racing, as its challenges were already well apparent. His call of the race may be just one of many noteworthy moments in a Hall of Fame career, but the mixture of anticipation, excitement, and, yes, relief that he conveyed was remarkable, in that it captured our mood perfectly. Nineteen years later, it remains so.
Of course, Cigar’s victory wound up being ephemeral, useless even. Two minutes of nothing. Cigar could not save a wicked sport, any more than he could somehow transport my family or me back to better times.
The party broke up, I returned to my own personal Hades the next evening with the clarity of the triumph already dissolving, and my father fought on, if only for two more months. In less than two decades, horse racing withered to depths that were unimaginable, and even Durkin himself eventually broke down.
But all was not entirely for naught.
For one moment, however fleeting, something made sense in the world – the “right thing” happened. And, the events of that day meant that whenever I would settle down in future years for a big race, Durkin’s voice would bring with it a wave of nostalgia that was coated in… justice. Yes, that’s the emotion that swelled that day when the “incomparable, invincible, unbeatable” one held off all comers.
So, while the news from Saratoga this summer might be nothing more than a footnote to the masses, sic transit gloria, I say, as we contemplate Tom Durkin’s final abdication. Goodbye horse racing. Enjoy baseball’s company in the dustbin of my life.