You can never tell when the direction of your life can get changed by a horse race. Let me explain.
Back in 1977, a young fella I know was trying hard to settle down. He’d spent several years knocking around the U.S. and western Europe scratching out a living by fair means and foul — depending. He was known to have done some serious damage to a bottle of spirits or two and was not above busting heads as a short-term remedy for a case of bad manners.
For reasons unknown, some kindly educators conspired to get him into a university here in Oklahoma, but our boy had a hard time staying put. So these kindly educators arranged to keep him interested by periodically moving him to various colleges in places like Massachusetts and Wisconsin.
These frequent changes of scenery helped our restless ne’er-do-well stick with it and, wonder of wonders, the kid got a degree. No one, including our wanderer, knew what would happen next. Our kindly educators stepped in again. They urged him to take the law school entry exam. Our boy didn’t see any harm in it, so he shrugged and filled out the papers. After he took the test, in August 1977 he was surprised to find himself enrolled at the University of Oklahoma. Standards were considerably more relaxed back then.
But, he could see pretty quick that things weren’t working out. He’d scraped up enough money for a couple of months’ rent, but classes were harder than he expected and groceries were scarce. The only job he could land was as a night watchman at a dorm from midnight to 7 a.m. The poor guy wasn’t having any fun at all.
He hit critical mass in May, 1978. He was sleep deprived, hungry and out of rent money. Finals were approaching and he didn’t like his academic chances. His only financial asset (and his only form of wheeled transportation) was a 1974 Honda motorcycle. He was too proud to beg and the bank wouldn’t loan him a dime on that bike. So what else could he do but turn to the Kentucky Derby?
Alydar was favored that year. His toughest challenger was Affirmed. These horses had squared off six times in 1977. Affirmed won the first contest at The Youthful Stakes in June. Alydar won when they next met at The Great American Stakes the following month, with Affirmed coming in second. In August, they met again, this time at The Hopeful Stakes. Affirmed edged Alydar by three quarters of a length. Their fourth meeting was in September at The Futurity Stakes where Affirmed won by a nose to take a three-to-one lead in their rivalry.
But then, at The Champagne Stakes in October, Alydar won by more than a length. The series was three to two. In the last race of the year, The Laurel Futurity, Affirmed managed to squeak out a win — by a neck. Next stop, Kentucky Derby. The racing world was on pins and needles.
That brings us to Friday night, May 5, 1978. In Norman, Oklahoma, finals were at hand. There was no money, there was no food and rent was overdue. Our discouraged law student was drowning his sorrow at Fontinelli’s bar when fate provided another opportunity. Even though the oddsmakers were favoring Alydar, our boy believed Affirmed would carry the day. A loud-mouthed know-it-all was willing to put up $200 against the Honda that Alydar would win. A sober man would have been more circumspect, but our student was under the influence of Hiram Walker and testosterone. He made the bet.
Well, he didn’t sleep a wink that night. He couldn’t back out because the bartender was holding the $200 and the title to the Honda. At race time, he was watching the TV at the law school. Affirmed won in an incredible display of strength and speed after a terrifyingly sluggish start. I shudder to think what would have become of our reckless lad if that horse had lost. As it was, Affirmed went on to win The Triple Crown, but the valiant Alydar was breathing down his neck at every finish. What a series!
Jan. 12 was the ninth anniversary of Affirmed’s death. This is an occasion to ponder how the course of a life can be changed by something as small as a length and a half. Oh, by the way, Jan. 12 is also the 111th anniversary of the death of Hiram Walker. Cheers fellas.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
Wed, January 13, 2010
by Michael Hinkle