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Former horse racing writer recalls the past

June 8, 2012 - Mitch Rupert
BLOOMSBURG - Take a walk down five or six carpeted steps in Ed Schuyler Jr.'s modest home in the shadows of Bloomsburg University, turn to your left and you'll find the cozy office of the former Associated Press sports writer.

There's artifacts from the places Schuyler has been and the events and people he's covered hanging on the wall, or stored away on his book shelf. In the corner rests a red boxing glove which bears the signature of Muhammad Ali. Schuyler points to the wall on the left and says, "there's one of my prized possessions."

It's a photograph of Schuyler and former Sports Illustrated boxing writer Pat Putnam standing alongside Ali. A personalized message to Schuyler is scribbled on to the photo and signed by Ali.

Walk a little deeper into Schuyler's office and hanging on the wall is a framed black and white photograph some 3-feet wide. It's the grandstand of Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, stuffed to the gills, prior to the running of the 1979 Kentucky Derby.

For all the great fights Schuyler covered as the AP's boxing writer - which includes all three fights between Ali and Joe Frazier - the 77-year old Bloomsburg resident said he enjoyed covering horse racing more.

He pulls out his 2000 Belmont Stakes media guide from the top shelf of his bookcase. He turns to 1973, looks through the bottom of his bi-focal glasses and starts reading the split times for Secretariat. He looks at me and we both just laugh. Much of our hour-long visit Friday afternoon was spent talking about potentially the greatest racehorse that ever lived. And the absurdity of those split times hasn't subsided in the nearly 40 years since Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths.

"Secretariat ... Geez," Schuyler said earlier in the afternoon, sitting in a maroon armchair in his living room. "There will never be another race like that. You don't do what he did that day. You don't do what he did in those three races. No horse who ever lived would have beaten him on Belmont day, that includes Man o' War and any horse who ever lived."

The tone of the day changed early in our visit. It was supposed to be an opportunity for Schuyler, who covered horse racing and boxing for the AP for more than 30 years, to talk about I'll Have Another's quest for the Triple Crown. But as I stepped out of my car, the news of I'll Have Another's scratch from today's Belmont Stakes was less than three hours old, Schuyler walked up his driveway on the sunsplashed afternoon with a disgruntled look on his face.

"Well, I guess your story is shot," he said with a laugh.

If there's an authority in this country on horse racing over the last 40 years, Schuyler is it. He covered three Triple Crown winners within the first 15 years he was on the job, including the last horse to win the Triple Crown, Affirmed. Like the rest of the world, he'll have to wait another year to potentially see another Triple Crown winner after I'll Have Another was scratched with a swollen left front tendon Friday.

Horse racing is in the midst of its longest drought of not having a Triple Crown winner in history. Affirmed was the last to do so in 1978 and Schuyler was there, as he was in 1977 for Seattle Slew and 1973 with Secretariat.

Schuyler said there's a million reasons it's been so long since there's been a Triple Crown winner. There's more foals born now than there were 40 years ago. Horses now are bred for speed, not the endurance to run three high-profile races over the course of five weeks.

And then there's the luck factor. It was luck when Kentucky Derby favorite Union Rags stumbled out of the gate in the Derby, effectively eliminating him from contention and opening the door for the likes of I'll Have Another and Bodemeister. And it was luck, even if it was bad luck, when I'll Have Another came down with the swollen tendon that ended his Triple Crown try.

"It's just another race now," Schuyler said of today's Belmont Stakes. "Just another race. This is really disappointing. I'd rather see him run and get beat, than this."

Schuyler thought I'll Have Another was going to win. It's a feeling he's had before about a horse that has won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Since Affirmed won in à78, Schuyler covered eight horses who won the first two legs. None he felt more confident was going to win the third than Spectacular Bid in 1979.

Spectacular Bid was upset in the Belmont by Coastal and finished third.

"I don't have strong feelings for anyone like I did Spectacular Bid," Schuyler said. "Spectacular Bid was better than Affirmed."

The conversation Friday floated from topic to topic. But eventually, each topic turned back toward Secretariat. There's just something polarizing about the horse. The records he set in all three Triple Crown races still stand ä although his record in the Preakness is unofficial because of the track's malfunctioning clock.

Secretariat was on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week in 1973. Schuyler remembers watching that Belmont in 1973 and enjoying the run. While others screamed about jockey Ron Turcotte taking Secretariat out too fast, too quickly, Schuyler was busy watching the horse run.

"That's the greatest event I ever covered. No fight ever beat that," Schuyler said. "The Belmont Stakes was the most exciting race I've ever seen and the margin was 31 lengths. Everyone was waiting for that big red son of a bitch to fall over.

"He knew he was good. If he could have talked, nobody would have like him."

Horse racing has become a sport that enters into the realm of American consciousness just three days of the year. And if there's not a Triple Crown on the line at Belmont Park, it's just two days out of the year.

Schuyler blamed the "competition for the leisure dollar" partly for the decline of general interest in horse racing. The fact that people can go to off-track betting sites and no longer have to go to tracks to wager was another factor.

But horses like Secretariat and Seabiscuit came to the forefront of American news for similar reasons. Seabiscuit gave Americans something to cheer about during the Depression era. Secretariat's historic run came during the close of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

"Horses make wonderful heroes because they're never going to say something stupid. They're never going to (tick) anyone off," Schuyler said. "Seabiscuit was an underdog. He was little and he caught the public imagination. Animals always make good heroes."

Before Secretariat ended a 25-year drought of Triple Crown, Schuyler said reporters went to the Kentucky Derby every year asking Citation trainer Jimmy Jones if there would ever be another Triple Crown winner. By the time Secretariat ended that drought in 1973 and Seattle Slew and Affirmed followed with Triple Crowns of their own in 1977 and 1978, people began asking, 'what's the big deal?'

It's clear now, 34 years after Affirmed's win, that it is a big deal because it is so difficult to accomplish. Even without I'll Have Another making a run at ending the drought today, it's worth sitting down and spending the two minutes to watch a sport filled with beauty, pageantry and excitement.

"It's not what it once was," Schuyler said, "but it's still a great sport."


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