Horses and history

A word about history.

It is, of course, the 71st anniversary of D-Day, the world-changing day when tens of thousands of courageous young men stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, to save humanity from the face of evil. I’ve thought about that today, about the endless, silent journey across the English Channel, about a fear I will never know, about what heroism means and demands.

A horse is not a hero. Not in that sense. But the thing about words is that they are not beholden to one straight-spined, rigid definition. Words have meaning, for sure, and one cannot be higgledy-piggledy substituted for another without head-shaking consequences. Earlier today, when an ESPN announcer said that a player with a bum knee looked “ginger” running to third base, I understood what he meant, but gingerly is its own word, in adjective form for a reason, and has nothing to do with the player’s hair color or spice preferences.

So, no, a horse is not a hero in the way young men stepping into chilly waters lit by a sliver of rising sun, M1 carbines in their hands and hearts in their throats, were. Of course I understand that. But this afternoon, watching a big, brown horse charge toward the finish line, my voice shook nonetheless, and my eyes filled with tears. I witnessed something powerful.

It’s not technically correct to say American Pharoah delivered the first Triple Crown of my lifetime. I would have been four in May 1978, when Affirmed completed the trifecta, and three when Seattle Slew did it the previous June. (Sadly, I was three months from being born when the immortal Secretariat decimated the field in 1973.) But I wasn’t really paying that much attention to horse racing then, and to be honest, that didn’t really change in the intervening 30-some years.

The sport of kings is the spoils of rich men, trainers with ties that cost more than my entire shoe collection and owners who ooze entitlement from their blinding white teeth. I’ve covered the odd horse race here and there, including a fun and enlightening day spent at the now-closed Colonial Downs in New Kent, Virginia. And like most everyone else, I’d glance up from whatever bar I was standing around on the Saturday Cinco de Mayo was celebrated to catch the Kentucky Derby.

In the sports department where I spent eight years, we’d put the names of horses into a hat. The person who drew the winner would score whatever cash could be scraped together and immediately enjoy an inflated sense or his (not or her, because I never won) horse sense.

The one Triple Crown event I truly remembered before today is one I wish I could forget. In 2008, I watched in horror as Eight Belles stumbled and fell, compound fractures shattering both her ankles. I cried as emergency workers erected a medical tent around the prone body of a beautiful animal that would never stand again.

I hadn’t even watched this year’s Derby or Preakness Stakes. However, with the Triple Crown on the line for the 13th time since Affirmed’s feat, I flipped channels to see the horses loaded into the starting gate.

My stepdaughter sat beside me on the couch. (Her sports interest mostly extends to her softball team, which is largely a social club with a dress code of gloves and spikes, and the occasional trip to an MLB game, where she will stoically endure her father’s intense rooting and her stepmother’s effusive outbursts.)

American Pharoah took the lead early and showed no inclination to surrender it. With an eighth of a mile left, the 15-year-old looked up from her Instagramming and started to cheer, too. She looked askance at the tear trickling down my cheek, but let it pass.

My husband, a history buff and former Army National Guard member, scoffed at calling the Triple Crown history, and I understand his point. It is not history in the way that D-Day is history, and American Pharoah is not a hero in the way that the thousands of men who died on June 6, 1944, were.

But definitions have nuance. Look in any dictionary – there is a preferred definition, and sometimes spelling (such as pharaoh, for example), and then there are secondary and even tertiary ones. Meanings evolve throughout time, sometimes shedding their former skin and acquiring a new one, sometimes adding a layer of communal understanding.

Which is not to say that I accept ‘selfie’ as a word because you can now find it in the dictionary, or that I will ever endorse the blasphemous idea that literally can mean its opposite because it’s too hard for people to get otherwise.

It does mean, though, that courage can be what those young men in Normandy summoned from the marrow of their bones – and what someone displays in becoming who he or she really is in a world all to ready to ridicule that honesty. Accepting one definition of a word does not diminish another. Language is big, and strong, and elastic. Like grace, it can cover a lot of things.

Today, a horse was a hero. And he made history.