A Triple Crown Season to Remember
By Sheryl McAlister
Sheryl McAlister is a former sports writer and editor with The Aiken Standard and a former sports copy editor with The Greenville News.
I had just graduated from high school the last time a horse won the Triple Crown. I sort of remember the hype – it was a long time ago. So I, like everybody else, am eagerly anticipating Saturday’s running of the Belmont Stakes. I’ll be cheering for California Chrome to be the 12th Triple Crown winner in horse racing history.
To put in perspective just how difficult this achievement would be… The Kentucky Derby is considered the most exciting two minutes in sports; the Belmont Stakes is considered one of the longest and most grueling horse races, and the Preakness Stakes is sandwiched between the two. And all this occurs in about a 5-week period every spring.
The excitement over this year’s favorite takes me back 30 years when the contender was Swale.
Horse racing was not something I knew anything about. Still don’t know much about it. What I have is a deep appreciation for exceptional athletes. And Swale was one of them. I also have a deep appreciation for the kindness of strangers. In 1984, those strangers came in the form of Mr. Woody Stephens and Mr. Sam Siciliano.
I was a sports writer at The Aiken Standard in May of 1984, when Swale came on the scene. Sired by 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, Swale was everybody’s pick to follow in his father’s footsteps. I covered horse racing’s next superstar from a particularly special vantage point. You see, the Aiken Training Track was the winter home to some of the biggest names in horse racing. It was an important training ground for 2-year-olds.
Swale was something special. Owned by Claiborne Farm and trained by the legendary Woody Stephens, Swale spent some time in Aiken as a 2-year-old. The late Mr. Stephens – who had trained many champions in his long career — once referred to him as the best of all of them. I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Stephens. He was a kind man and quite patient with a young, green reporter.
Swale won the 110th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs and went on to run the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Racetrack in Baltimore, Md. I covered both races. When I arrived at Pimlico to pick up my press credentials, I was told there were none for a reporter from The Aiken Standard. Obtaining press credentials for these horse races was no small feat, given the size of our newspaper and compared to the international press in attendance. Clearly, we had not been a priority.
It was the day before the race. I remember trying to talk my way past the security guards to no avail. Going back home wasn’t an option. I finally summoned the nerve to ask to speak with Mr. Sam Siciliano – the man in charge. Mr. Siciliano was the public relations director of Pimlico Race Course. I figured there was no way he was going to believe my sob story. He sure as hell wasn’t going to fall for any rookie bullshit one day before the big race.
So I played it straight, but with a slightly heavy southern drawl. “Mis-ter Si-cil-i-a-no,” I said….. Anyway, you get the idea. He had his office manager retrieve me, and deliver me to his office. He took me by the hand and said “We’ll get you set up. No problem.”
Swale lost the next day – badly.
He went on to win the Belmont Stakes 3 weeks later in grand style, and it was thrilling to witness – even on television. About a week later, with no warning, he died.
I covered the Kentucky Derby the following year. After that I don’t think I ever wrote about horse racing again. In retrospect, I guess it wasn’t really about that anyway. When you have an opportunity to be a part of something special — even as a spectator — it just stays with you.
Mr. Stephens died in 1998 at the age of 84. Mr. Siciliano died at the age of 89 in 2006. I doubt I did justice to any of them, Swale included, with my writing in 1984. They certainly would not have remembered me, but I remember them like it was yesterday. Champions, all three.
California Chrome will be the fan favorite headed into Saturday’s 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. I hope we’ll witness another historic athletic achievement. I also hope he knows how much we appreciate being along for the ride.
Copyright 2014 Sheryl McAlister.