Harry would relatewith Alex’s stumble

May 24, 2005 4:43 AM

The Preakness, with Afleet Alex clipping Scrappy T’s heels, going almost to his knees, and recovering to win the second jewel of the Triple Crown, brought back a host of memories.

In 15 years of calling thousands of races in my callow youth, and watching countless races since that time, I have seen a lot of horses stumble, some with disastrous results, many escaping serious trouble, but only one ever winning after as close a call as Afleet Alex encountered.

That one came in a race decades ago at Maywood Park in Chicago, with a pacer driven by Harry Burright, a brute of a man with incredible arm strength. His horse stumbled nearing the wire and went to his knees, and Burright literally picked up the falling horse with the lines and his forward momentum carried him to the wire in front.

Burright was a brawler when needed, and one night in a bar called The Jockey Club, across from the track, three punks taunted him about a drive. He stood against a wall and dispatched all three, something I had never seen done except in the movies.

Burright also had some very nasty moments with his temper and liquid refreshments. He and his wife Margie had a dispute one night in the bar at the Abraham Lincoln hotel in Springfield, -Illinois, after a day of racing. Leaving the premises, Margie either stumbled or was knocked down by Harry. My recollection of that incident also is burnished deep in mind, for she fell in the hotel’s revolving door, and Harry stood there spinning the door with Margie inside.

Jeremy Rose, to my knowledge, was not a scrapper, but he was a wrestler in high school. Given that, it was not surprising, even though there was no comparison in size and bulk to Burright, that he was able to help right Afleet Alex by grabbing his mane and then hanging on.

Jockeys’ arm strength is often unrecognized, but they develop it naturally in steadying their thousand pound mounts, and supplement it artificially with electronic horses, as a shot in the jock’s room at Pimlico showed on NBC’s excellent telecast. Tom Hammond and the rest of the talent crew were at their very best in this one, with the features exceptionally well done and the transitions superbly smooth.

The Afleet Alex near-disaster brought back another memorable moment.

It happened years ago doing a Breeders’ Crown telecast with Alan Kirschenbaum, then a promising young kid but now one of television’s leading producers on the West Coast. His credits include Coach and Everybody Loves Raymond.

The race in question carried a big purse — $200,000 or $300,000 as I recall. In the post parade, a horse stumbled and went to his knees. Under the rules of the race, he had to be scratched from the rich event.

A little later in the telecast, Kirschenbaum was interviewing Bill O’Donnell, a Hall of Fame driver who was scheduled to drive the horse that went down.

I could have warned Alan if the segment was taped, but it was live, and O’Donnell, a very bright and articulate guy, says whatever comes to mind. Kirshenbaum, referring to the scratch of O’Donnell’s mount, asked a perfectly logical question. "Tough luck, eh Bill?" O’Donnell, ignoring the national audience, responded, "No S---."

That episode brought to mind still another show I did with a lovely lady who had been represented as being the knowledgeable wife of a horseman. She may have known the guy, but she didn’t know racing, and she was rightfully concerned about going on the air. I assured her the first three segments were taped, and we could redo any flubs. I suggested that when the horse came on the track in the fourth and final segment, I would tell her that raising horses is like raising kids, with all the good and bad, and that she should expand on that. She thought it a wonderful idea.

She started down that path, and then stopped, and said, "Oh, this is terrible. Let’s do this over." The fourth segment was live. I said, lamely, "It’s just like life, honey. There’s no turning back."