TRACKING DOWN A CELEBRITY
Celebrity, like everything else, has been pulled along the decades-long climb of inflation. Celebrity used to be linked to one form of distinction or another, a swift signature a whole society recognized and responded to, such as Bette Davis’ flaring eyes, or the lean figure of Charles Lindbergh poised against the epic loneliness of a sky that swallowed him up and brought him home again.
A lot of celebrity is still linked to achievement, but celebrity has also become a junk industry, a triumph of PR over substance. The turnover on Johnny and Merv’s couch and any number of other national and local chat shows, plus the voracious appetite of celeb mags like People and Star, have created a gigantic and insatiable media maw that has to be plugged daily so that it can go on spewing trash-talk into lives circumscribed by the mall and the commuter quickstep.
Johnny Mercer once tossed off a song about it, having thrown a bunch of names into a rhyming hopper and arriving at “My New Celebrity Is You” (winsomely sung by Blossom Dearie.)
But even the most chipped and jaded among us will hold on to a hero or two until the bitter end. Some years ago, a friend asked me to go to the annual play festival at Louisville. I said no. He sweetened the pot with “Come on, we’ll go see Secretariat.” That almost did it. This year, I went to Louisville on assignment, and this year I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to drive over to Paris, Ky., where Big Red stands at stud.
The running of the Belmont Stakes Saturday will bring to the memory of millions the most awesome athletic event of modern times--Secretariat’s 31-length Belmont victory in 1973 that clinched the Triple Crown for the first time in 25 years. Secretariat alone brought thoroughbred racing into the modern era. As a kid in New York, I knew the words Hialeah and Aqueduct for their poetry alone. As actual venues, I presumed they were visited by sub rosa types, flakes, guys who gambled away the rent. “The track” didn’t mean horses, it meant betting, and the street wisdom said that the track flourished on the hunches of losers.
Secretariat changed that. He was a big, powerfully muscled animal with an amiable disposition who brought a pizazz to his game, an equine Muhammad Ali. He was, for an animal, inconceivably charismatic. He thundered through a packed field to win the Kentucky Derby in record time. He ran the Preakness with total self-assurance. He was a national hero before the Belmont, where serious handicappers questioned his stamina. And then he put the field so far behind that, even in the long camera shot, as he swept across the finish line, the other horses looked like mousy little shadows crammed into the corner of the TV screen.
Most legends are ensured by death or premature demise; in this case, Secretariat was syndicated out of action after the season, never to run again. What would he be like now, I wondered, as I sped East on Route 64 to Paris via Lexington. Fat? Dispirited? Cranky? Filled with the mournful hollowness of the exile?
Claiborne Farms is a big breeding operation that receives many visitors in a year; Secretariat is still the star attraction, and the handler assigned to me for the visit, a tall, sour-looking, painfully laconic Kentuckian, suffered my boyish enthusiasm with indifference bordering on disdain.
“Has he gotten mean?” I asked as we walked up the road to Secretariat’s pen, a large, slightly sloped enclosure. (That often happens with stallions who becomes studs.)
“Naw, he’s still nice,” said the handler. Then his expression softened as we rounded a bend. “There he is. You wait outside. I’ll get him.”
Even more than 100 yards away, nibbling grass at the far end of the pen, his form and color--burnished mahogany touched off with that white blaze on the face--were unmistakable in the late morning sun. The handler walked slowly up with a bridle, calling, “Hey Red, come on over here.”
Secretariat looked up, arced away from the handler and galloped slowly over to me. Galloped! It was like Olivier welcoming you with a soliloquy, Picasso sketching your arrival. I was entranced.
He’d put on some bulk, but his heavy muscles still had definition; a mythic neck tapered under his handsome head. He stepped out quietly while I feverishly cranked out a roll of film. He posed. He knew the routine. Then he stretched his neck, curled out his lips, and gave a great, comical horse laugh. A stranger, I touched his shoulder. He didn’t flinch. He stood gently, as though conscious of what appreciative joyous current flowed through my fingers.
In a minute or so, he turned back into the pen. The show was over. He and a white stallion across the road eyed each other as if they wanted to say something, but changed their minds. It seemed a melancholy silence. Secretariat walked back up the field, away from the road, from any more visits, to graze away full of the memory of a brief, fabulous career, whose aftermath he was still handling with the aplomb of a retired dignitary.
I hardly felt the long drive back to the airport. I hadn’t been so elated by meeting a star for years. Secretariat, my new celebrity is still you!