Horses are like music. They take you back to a specific time and place in your life. To anyone, the name Little Current evokes tranquil images of a gently flowing river or stream. To me, it evokes a different kind of tranquility; one of lazy spring afternoons and newborn foals and carefree yearlings dashing up and down rolling hills with joyous abandon. It also evokes images of a very special Triple Crown.
The name Little Current brings me back to the spring of 1972. Staying at Darby Dan Farm as a guest, I was able to witness the birth of a foal for the only time in my life. The mare I saw, Luiana, gave birth to a chestnut filly by Stage Door Johnny. Coincidentally, earlier that day, I watched Luiana's yearling colt, by Sea-Bird, being led out to his paddock. He was a long, lean colt with a narrow stripe down his face and he had a certain undeniable presence about him. I whipped out my new Canon AE-1 and took a photo of him as the groom stopped and allowed him to pose for the camera.
My next image of Little Current is from the spring of 1974. A year earlier, racing had undergone a dramatic change. It had infiltrated mainstream America unlike any other time in memory. The sport had been hammered into public consciousness by a big, handsome chestnut named Secretariat, who graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week. With the equine genus raised a notch, all eyes were on the 1974 Kentucky Derby. America was anxiously awaiting an encore performance. Who would be the next superstar?
All the elements were right. It was the centennial running of the Derby. Princess Margaret of England was in attendance. The day shone brightly. Unfortunately, of the record 23 horses who cluttered up the Churchill Downs track, none had hoofprints that could remotely fit in the ones Secretariat had left from the year before. When Cannonade, the lesser half of the Woody Stephens-trained entry, came home victorious for only his seventh victory in 22 career starts, racing's new groupies found themselves without a star to idolize.
But few had noticed a chestnut colt named Little Current hopelessly trapped in back of the massive throng of horses. Few noticed a desperate Bobby Ussery snatching him up and yanking him to the outside, winding up 15-wide turning for home. And few noticed the colt charging by 12 horses in the final quarter-mile to finish fifth.
Two weeks later at Pimlico, Little Current single-handedly brought back the groupies who had been searching for another exciting, handsome chestnut to revere. They had been spoiled by Secretariat, and longed for a new golden idol. Little Current gave it to them by turning in one of the dramatic moves in Triple Crown history, coming from a dozen lengths back on the far turn to win by seven.
Little Current did it again three weeks later, winning the Belmont Stakes by seven lengths. Secretariat's hoofprints were starting to fill in. But that would be Little Current's last moment of glory, as all comparisons to him and Secretariat evaporated in the summer heat following two heartbreaking defeats in the Monmouth Invitational and Travers Stakes, in which his furious closing charges fell a nose and head short, respectively. An injury later in the summer ended his racing career.
Little Current's story never did die. A combination of longevity and the efforts of his number one fan, Kevin Grace, who works for Pimlico and Laurel, kept his heroics alive and brought him close to new generations of racing fans. He became a national equine treasure residing in Washington state, where he was pampered like a king by veterinarians Ann and Mark Hansen until his death Jan. 19 at age 32. Racing had lost the oldest living Belmont winner.
Little Current didn't fill Secretariat's shoes, but the way he was treated, he sure lived a long time thinking he did. For me, I never got a chance to see Little Current again after his brief stay at Darby Dan as a stallion. All I have are wonderful memories and an 8"x10" color photo of a yearling who captured my heart. When you come to think of it, that's plenty. Steve Haskin is senior correspondent for The Blood-Horse.