This post is entirely off-topic but it's something I haven't been able to get off my mind since the sad news about Barbaro and I can't think of a way to bring it into the narrow scope of things we try to write about around here without posting an entirely gratuitous photo of a Dick Francis novel. So apologies in advance.
When I was in college I worked each summer as a houseboy for a man named Stephen C. Clark, Jr. He was from an old money family whose fortune was boosted early in the 20th Century by the success of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and many other wise investments. My boss's father, Stephen C. Clark, Sr. was one of this nation's great collectors of European art. He founded several museums himself, and became the father of the American sports hall of fame when he started the baseball one in Cooperstown in 1939.
The Mr. Clark I worked for wasn't so much interested in art. I remember a conversation we had in a McDonald's somewhere around Albany (a lunch stop while driving supplies to his summer home in Saratoga) when I mentioned a Van Gogh I had studied in an art class that had, at one time, belonged to his family. He chewed his Big Mac a few times and asked me, "Van Gogh? Which one?" I told him it was titled Cafe de Nuit which meant nothing to him, but he told me he was pretty sure he remembered it. "My father liked art," he explained.
What this Mr. Clark liked was horses. He raised thoroughbreds at his ranch in Virginia and the walls of his home were covered with paintings of horses. English fox hunts. Regal portraits of thoroughbreds. Most of these were of a horse called Hoist the Flag.
I am a very casual fan of horse racing, and certainly no student of the sport. These days I probably make one trip a year to Arlington Park. So at the time the name Hoist the Flag meant nothing to me and when I asked him about the paintings he would say only, "That was a horse I used to own" and I knew nothing more. Until one day when Mr. Clark asked me to clean his attic.
Now being a houseboy for a widowed millionaire is not really the most stressful work. In addition to me there was cook and a butler and a maid and a laundress and two groundskeepers. And it wasn't like Mr. Clark made a big mess. I polished doorknobs and brass. I restocked the minibars. I helped mow the lawn and rolled the clay tennis court. I straightened Dick Francis novels on bedside tables in the guest rooms. So I was almost always looking for something to do and I figured his request for an attic cleaning pretty much amounted to busywork, an opinion confirmed when I climbed up and found it immaculate. I swept some cobwebs and put some crates in neat rows and finally found a few boxes that had deteriorated from moisture or mice so I brought in new boxes and began transferring the contents.
These boxes were filled with photos and memorabilia of this horse named Hoist the Flag.
And he was hardly just some horse Mr. Clark used to own.
His grandsire was War Admiral and his great-grandsire (is that a word?) was Man O'War and he never finished a race worse than first. He won his maiden race by two-and-half lengths. His second by five. His third by almost two. In his fourth race he won by three lengths but was disqualified for bumping. Afterward, a reporter asked his jockey why he was crying--it was just one race after all--and the jockey replied, "Because this is the only race this horse will ever lose."
He was right. Hoist the Flag was the undefeated two-year-old horse of the year in 1970 and years later, that jockey, Jean Cruguet, still claimed Hoist the Flag was the greatest horse he had ever ridden. This was even after he had led Seattle Slew to the Triple Crown.
But there was more history inside those boxes.
Hoist the Flag was a prohibitive favorite to win the 1971 Kentucky Derby, even the Triple Crown. He was a once-in-twenty lifetimes kind of colt for a horseman like Mr. Clark. No expert could name a three-year-old who could beat him on a half-decent day. But a month before the Derby, Hoist the Flag broke his right hind leg in a workout at Belmont Park. The injury was "catastrophic." His career was over. Most agreed his life would surely be, too.
Like the media storm around Barbaro the shocking news about Hoist the Flag was the only sports story any newspaper seemed to cover that week.
Then there was a miracle of sorts. Using revolutionary techniques, a pair of surgeons saved Hoist the Flag's life. And the cards came pouring in from animal and racing fans all over the world. In the attic, I turned hundreds of pages of sincere well-wishes, all lovingly preserved by Mr. Clark and his wife. And reading those cards I began to understand my employer in a way that I never could have cleaning his pool or even driving with him to Saratoga. Through the heartfelt words of other horse lovers I learned what it must have been like to almost lose an animal that you loved and a chance at immortality in the same instant.
Hoist the Flag had a successful career as a stud. Mr. Clark lived for several more decades as a great and humble philanthropist (every student at my high school who went on to college, including me, did so partially, or even wholly, on his dime). He had other horses.
But the rest of the time I knew him I understood there would always be a lingering sadness over one particular horse and one especially bad step during a routine workout on an empty track.
And when I watch a horse race I no longer see just odds and perfectas. And when a horse goes down I still feel worse about it than, as a distant observer, I probably should.
Every horse, I know now, is somebody's dream.