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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Revelations in Death: Genuine Risk

“Events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order...the continuous thread of revelation.”—Eudora Welty

Perhaps not unexpected given her advanced age of 31, but the death of Genuine Risk this past Monday still profoundly grieved me.

In the spring of 1980, I was a high school freshman who, not long after the U.S. men’s ice hockey team pulled off the memorable “Miracle on Ice”, suffered an excruciating shattered ankle after an ill-executed balance beam dismount. Laid up at home for nearly three months, my boredom was only intensified by weekly visits from a Spanish/Algebra tutor who knew virtually nothing about either topic. Instead, I dove further into what had become my childhood passion—horse racing.

Foolish Pleasure (obviously) had been my first serious crush at the ripe age of 9, followed by the Derby disappointment of Honest Pleasure, and then the glorious campaigns of Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid. I loved them all. So who was to be my new Derby horse? As April rolled around, my choice emerged—Genuine Risk. After a game third-place finish in the Wood Memorial—a race my Foolish Pleasure had won—I became entranced with the idea of a filly beating the boys.

Nothing new really for me, as I myself was a tomboy through-and-through, having grown up in a neighborhood populated nearly entirely with boys for playmates. No girls’ softball for me—the first year Little League baseball admitted the “fairer sex” I was one of three girls on my hometown team. Hell, it was the 1970s after all...women’s lib and all that. That’s not to say my father necessarily changed with the times, and my growing sense of gender empowerment caused no small number of forceful clashes with him.

It was rather ironic, given my own fractured ankle, that I never questioned nor doubted Genuine Risk’s soundness or ability to run versus males, and especially too considering the fate of the great filly Ruffian whose breakdown unfairly seems to have tainted Foolish Pleasure’s status. Instead, I identified myself with Genuine Risk as a fellow female warrior against male domination in the game of life, and, above all else, as an underdog.

When she went off as a 13-1 longshot in the Derby, I took it as a sign—I was born on the 13th. Her jockey silks were green, my absolute favorite color. The clincher for me: that sharp white blaze down the center of her chestnut face. It reminded me of lightning, just like the way she ran.

I knew it was over when she moved around them going into the final turn, even though there was plenty of race yet to be run. It was fate, destiny. They couldn’t pass her in the stretch, although one then another tried and failed. The daughter of Elusive Native wouldn’t be denied, and finally, redemption for the Firestones for Honest Pleasure—and for LeRoy Jolley, some sense of karma restored.

Like many Americans (most who belatedly jumped on the Genuine Risk bandwagon), I viciously cursed Angel Cordero, Jr. in the Preakness—how dare he unbalance providence! But she came back again for the Belmont, and why not—her damsire Gallant Man not only won the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths over Bold Ruler (setting a track record that stood until Secretariat), but also took the Jockey Club Gold Cup over older foes—when it was a two mile-long race! She was bred for it.

On a muddy track, she kicked Codex aside only to be outfinished by 53-1 Arkansas Derby winner Temperence Hill. He went on to win the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup that year, on his way to being named Champion 3-year-old Male.

After a well-deserved break, Genuine Risk returned to Belmont in September, finishing second by a nose to future Hall of Fame filly Bold ‘n Determined in the 8-furlong Maskette Stakes and then winning the 9-furlong Ruffian Handicap by the same margin over Misty Gallore. What’s striking in retrospect is how strong that year’s 3-year-old filly crop was, with Alabama winner Love Sign in the mix.

An injury caused her to be scratched from the Beldame, and misread X-rays resulted in a premature retirement announcement, but she was back at 4, winning an allowance race at Aqueduct before finishing third in her first turf try, at Belmont. Emerging at Saratoga that August, she won an allowance race in preparation for taking on the boys again in the Woodward. However, her career ended after she got loose one day at Belmont and crashed her knee into a fire hydrant of all things!

Of her life after racing, much has been written, particularly the breeding and foaling difficulties she suffered, but from all accounts she was much beloved by her owners the Firestones. It was at their Newstead Farm—her home—where she died.

The Genuine Risk I remember is the powerful, almost freakish force of nature streaking down the stretch at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May 1980—a symbol of all my childhood ambitions and idealism about how I wanted the world to be. When I cried at news of her death this week, it was for far more than the loss of the magnificent race horse that inspired a fourteen-year-old tomboy—it was also for my heightened awareness of my own mortality, with the ever-increasing chasm of time passage from my youthful optimism to middle age pragmatism that increasingly seems to border on pessimism. A fleeting reminder of youth encapsulated in recalling a most pleasurable memory...farewell, Jenny, and slán abhaile—safe home.


Unknown said...

Genuine Risk was "before my time" (I didn't see my first Derby until '87, when I was 12), so I could only appreciate her achievements in replay. My own obituary was factually solid, but lacking this sort of organic, tangible warmth.

So thanks for this, Val. ^-^

I had much the same feeling when Winning Colors passed earlier in the year. It was numbing, and a kind of grief that I couldn't quite put into words. I mourned her deeply, and none of my friends understood why. But you just put it out there: "A fleeting reminder of youth encapsulated in recalling a most pleasurable memory."

Truer words, to my heart, have rarely been spoken.

Wind Gatherer said...

The grey rain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass...and then you see it. White shores. And beyond...a far green country under a swift sunrise.

I'm sure she has found her safe home.

suebroux said...

An eloquent eulogy

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a lovely eulogy of the wonderful Genuine Risk. I got to go visit her at the farm a few years ago during a tour of Virginia horse farms, and she graciously greeted her admirers and enjoyed all the attention. I hung around her stall for ages -- it was such a thrill to finally see the grand lady in person and I didn't want to leave.

I remember standing on the rail at Saratoga the year of her Triple Crown campaign, and every time Cordero came by on a horse, a guy near me would yell "Angel, show us your whip!" Obviously referring to the whip I still believe Risk took in the face at the head of the stretch in the Preakness.

We miss you, Jenny.