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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 29, 2022—If only I could have afforded a better seat in “The House That Ruth Built,”—the original building—so I could have seen the rocket launched by The Mick hit off Camilo Pascual that struck the right field façade, almost leaving the building.

A young Billy Crystal, attending his first game, saw it from a box seat between home plate and the visitor’s dugout. Even as a kid his timing was impeccable.

Nor was I on the beat long enough to have seen Seattle Slew win in person on that first Saturday in May of 1977 instead of on television from the Aqueduct press box–but then I might have missed the fact that Slew was in the grips of an assistant starter when the latch was sprung in America’s Race that afternoon.

However, I was in the building that day in November of 1990 when the Breeders’ Cup crowd erupted as Tom Durkin announced that Royal Academy was “thundering down the center of the turf course,” and later, “the living legend Lester Piggott comes out of retirement to pull off the upset here.”

That year, American horses were expected to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile with such horses as Steinlen or It’s All Greek To Me and carry the day for the home team. But instead it was Piggott “flailing away” in the shadow of the wire, getting his mount up a few strides before the wire.

At 54, after spending two years on the ground, following 12 months in jail for tax fraud, Piggott applied for a license, rode a winner on his second day back, and 12 days after that made a big splash in America by riding one of his 5,343 career victories brilliantly while the whole world watched.  

The regret is that I never got to see Piggott ride in his prime all those years. I have become familiar with European racing only after having studied video of European-based Breeders’ Cup entrants. Piggott, who died at 86 earlier today, is still regarded by many as the finest jockey ever to ride on British turf.

But I do recall, later confirmed via You Tube video, his masterful handling of Royal Academy. They had drawn the rail in a 14-horse field. Royal Academy was off slowly to briefly trail, was guided 4-wide down the Belmont backstretch, dropped into the 3-path to save ground at the turn, remained covered up into the straight, before tipping out wider for the final drive.

As he closed down the center of the course, Belmont Park erupted. It wasn’t like American Pharoah winning the first Triple Crown in 37 years, or the shaking rafters in Saratoga when Rachel Alexandra held yet another Woodward challenger safe, but it was unforgettable, gratifying to see in the moment.

Thanks for the memory, Mr. Piggott. Rest in peace.

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7 Responses

  1. So many great recalls John. For me one of the best was when throwing an unbelivabley breaking high and inside Spaldeen that none of my older brothers could hit. Until the very late inning of the day recalled when my oldest brother figured out the pitch. I threw it as hard as I could, high and fast, right at them, and the pitch would drop to the lowest end of the outside corner of the zone, a black box drawn against the garage door. My oldest brother Bill orange crushed the ball so far that none of us even bothered looking for the ball which was not the norm back in the fifties. God Bless You Willie. I hope to get a rematch down the road one day. Just not tomorrow Bill. It was right field facade as well John. Thanks for the memory you brought to the front of my frontal lobe.

    So many great races as well. Wajima, Slew of Gold, Buckpasser, the Dr., and on and on over the years. Thinking Johnnie Rotz with arms extended at the wire forcing an extra inch for the win. Missing my old friend “Basement Bob” Flynn as well. RIP Big Guy.

    I never even caught a triple crown live John. My wife Susan was there for Slew. My Mom was even there at Gerhigs “Luckiest Man Who Ever Lived” departure. We have all had our blessings. Smarty was as close as I ever got, but I had to settle for a $169 exacta with Zito’s Bird horse on top. Wrote on that race earlier in the day on the Dirty Horse Club page. All in all, no regrets John. Been one heck of a run.

    Thanks John for the look back this Memorial Weekend. Just handed out a few ice cream cones to a few of the neighbors kids, parents permission of course. Tomorrow after the parade maybe a few Boars Head Dogs will follow. Enjoy the holiday John. I am leaving now to watch your Quin ticket at GP.

    1. Ours was a white box painted on the brick wall in P.S. 16’s schoolyard in Corona. As a lefty, I had a decent curve ball that sometimes would freeze the batter. Changed speeds a lot, threw a split finger that sometimes worked, most often didn’t. Never possessed a blow-by fast ball.

      I didn’t think about it until you mentioned it but was lucky enough to see five Triple Crown’s live. My most memorable was “my horse” Slew and seeing Jean Cruguet do the first celebration on horseback, standing up at the finish and, to me, nearly lost his balance.

  2. Remember going to Belmont on Memorial Day for Met Mile and seeing Forego win by a whisker over a horse ridden by Darrell McHargue, I think it was Run Dusty Run, I can’t be sure. Great memories, wish Met Mile was still on Memorial Day. Have a great holiday John.

    1. Sad that I’m thinking more about children than servicemen this holiday. I will spend a quiet day at home, watching and betting some races. I’ve been writing about returning the Met Mile to Memorial Day as long as I’ve been writing about doing right by today’s racehorse and lengthen the Triple Crown when by doing so you make the task harder by bringing all the best three year olds together at some point–no more spacing excuses which WILL continue. On that you can bet.

    1. Thanks Jon. Did one for Billy Turner, too, Check it in the HRI archives. And Billy I knew, so you might enjoy.

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