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Howard Fineman Headshot

At the Kentucky Derby, Chasing Traces of a Champion

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LOUISVILLE -- I'm not a horse racing expert by any means. I did spend five years as a reporter here. I did cover four Derby race days at Churchill Downs and four Kentucky Oaks (the filly Derby, run on Friday). I can read The Daily Racing Form. I know a furlong from a finish line. I even went to the Downs when it wasn't Derby Week; I've been to Aqueduct and Saratoga.

But at least I know what a champion looks like and how he or she behaves -- and I'll be looking for those qualities at the Downs Saturday. I will look for traces of what I saw one morning long, long ago at Claiborne Farms, a stately, family-owned horse farm in the bluegrass near Lexington.

I was a brash young reporter, roaming the state for the storied Courier-Journal, and for some odd reason I decided to show up without an invite at Claiborne one day and ask Seth Hancock, the young owner, if I could please meet the greatest race horse in the world.

Seth didn't know whether to laugh or call the sheriff, but, being a gentleman, and a bit startled, he reluctantly agreed. He led me out past the stables to a rolling meadow divided by rail fences.

And there, in all of his glory, stood Secretariat: massive in size; reddish-brown chestnut in color; enormous, muscled chest; proud head jutting forward like a one-horse Mt. Rushmore.

He was revered not only for his size, speed, power and grace, and not only for having won the Triple Crown. He was revered for the way he had done it -- in perhaps the most prodigiously convincing fashion in the history of American racing.

He won the last jewel, the Belmont, by some 25 lengths. The horse was running so fast it had been as though he would rise up toward heaven like the prophet's own steed -- or at least run directly into the history and hearts of the country.

As I walked over to the fence to introduce myself, I was instantly aware that the horse knew he was Secretariat, knew he was famous. Knew that he was the greatest horse ever; knew that anyone seeing him already agreed. No further convincing was required.

After posing for a while, allowing himself to be viewed and venerated, Secretariat slowly trotted over to the fence where I was standing. He allowed me to get a closer view. He nodded his head slightly, then turned away.

I had been dismissed.

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