The riverboat was there, tied up to the dock, though the desk clerk thought it only ran on weekends until July. When I went to the restaurant next door, I was the only customer, so I got a premium spot, right on the river.
It was the Rock River, and the hotel was just outside the town of Oregon, Illinois. After dinner, I took my iced tea out on the deck to one of the empty tables and listened to the water lapping against the riverboat. The Rock River is not the Mississippi. On the other hand, it’s no creek, either. The riverboat did not dwarf the river, in fact they looked as if they fit one another pretty well.
Some people love the mountains, some the forest, for me, it’s water. Put me next to an ocean, a river, heck, even a pond, and I can sit for hours. Though I did eventually go in that night, I was determined to bring my writing out there the next morning.
There was a great line in the Emilio Estevez film, The Way, when Estevez’ character says to his father (played by his real-life father, Martin Sheen), “You don’t choose a life, Dad, you live it.”
Do you remember your senior year in high school? Maybe you were in the senior class play, or on the football team, or sang in the choir? Senior year is filled with things you do for the last time, and filled with planning for the future, college applications, proms, and graduations.
I graduated from high school in 1973. There were a few events of historic value in the first 5 months of the year:
When I look back on the last five months of my senior year of high school those news items are not the things I recall, nor do I recall the other activities that fill the days of a soon-to-graduate senior. The one event that stands out for me from that spring with crystal clarity was Secretariat’s record-breaking sweep of the Triple Crown.
My interest in horse racing started my freshman year of high school, when I watch the Kentucky Derby on TV for the first time, and picked the winner, Dust Commander, out of the post parade. I was hooked from that day on, though back then, there wasn’t much coverage for those of us not in the horse world, and there was no Breeders Cup until years later.
My only horse racing crony was my 10th grade English teacher, Frank Mussitsch. I went to visit him during my free periods whenever possible, and we often talked horse racing. In fact, that year when he signed my yearbook, he wrote, “If you can’t be a Secretariat, you can at least be a Sham…” My friends were horrified by his words, not realizing Sham was the horse who might have won a Triple Crown race or two in any other year. In 1973, he finished second to Secretariat in each race, which meant that he was a very good racehorse himself.
Why do I bring this up now? Well, most of you don’t follow horse racing, so you wouldn’t know that Penny Chenery, the breeder/owner of Secretariat, died Saturday, September 16th at the age of 95. I’ve read a lot about her in the past few years, particularly since the film Secretariat was released.
I was thrilled a few years ago that Secretariat was finally acknowledged as setting a record in his Preakness Stakes run, and that her determination was rewarded. The official timer at Pimlico malfunctioned, but thanks to the wonders of technology and Penny Chenery’s insistence that the racing authorities review it, Secretariat is now officially the record-holder for all three Triple Crown races.
I didn’t know Penny Chenery (then known as Penny Tweedy) and was pretty much unaware of her except peripherally when Secretariat was running, yet her partnership with Secretariat had a major impact on my life. When I watched Secretariat win the Belmont Stakes on our black and white TV, and saw the ever-widening gap that became his 31-length margin of victory, I cried. It was a transcendent moment in my young life, and no previous successes or victories were remotely comparable. It was the first time I had experienced true greatness and utter perfection and I will never forget it.
There have been a few other moments like that since – seeing the Protopopovs skate in their first professional competition, seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby, reading the seventh Harry Potter and knowing I would never again read it for the first time, but Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes was the first.
When a horse runs a race, he or she doesn’t know what’s at stake. Upon returning to the barn, the winning horse will most likely head for the hay and chow down. Most horseracing folks will tell you horses know when they’ve won and when they haven’t, and I can believe that, having spent some time with horses (see my August 2016 blog on Chandler), but it doesn’t seem to stay with them. A horse running a race is the purest form of athleticism – victory for its own sake – at least for the horse. It’s how we once viewed the Olympics, when amateur sport was considered the only pure form of sport. Secretariat and Penny Chenery gave me that first taste of greatness, and the truth is that even now, I struggle to explain why that was so important and why it meant so much to me.
Steve Haskin, one of my favorite writers, said in an article in The Blood Horse on Zenyatta, “We have chosen to allow these magnificent creatures to infiltrate our very being and touch our souls in a way that bonds us to them – yes, at rare times spiritually.”
Penny Chenery’s physical presence is gone. But she and Secretariat will live forever in my heart, my mind, my soul. As I move through the world, the people with whom I come in contact will unknowingly be affected by Penny Chenery and Secretariat. Their magic continues its work in the pond of my life, spreading its ripples of influence into the lives of the people I touch.
Who or what provides magic and inspiration in your life?
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