Bard of Racing

By Bud Lamoreaux -- Tradition is what the Triple Crown is all about. Thoroughbred aficionados can cite chapter and verse about the lack of a king since the "Golden Age" of the '70s, when the regal bearers were Affirmed, Seattle Slew, and Secretariat.

Remember television back then? Remember the gentle, all-knowing face with the mischievous mustache? Surely you can visualize the multi-colored jackets and the wordsmanship? But can you? Time has a way of galloping on almost as quickly as our wordsmith's alliteration. Which is why it's time to start the drums rolling for the most memorable broadcaster ever to do a Triple Crown race, the late Heywood Hale Broun.

He belongs in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga. I know, I know, there's no chance of getting him in. He wasn't a participant; he doesn't qualify. And as he once told me, "I'm too old, too heavy, and too cowardly to ride in a race." But he loved the game and surely there is a place for a shrine to him, be it Churchill Downs, Keeneland, or Saratoga.

If you had heard the accolades bestowed on the "Bard of Racing" at a recent memorial service in New York, as I did, you would have been moved to say, "there has to be a way." Here was a truly 19th century man, who liked his toothpaste from Sweden, his cologne from Britain, and his whiskey from Ireland: "soda, no ice." No one ever looked at racing quite as elegantly as he did.

With his colorful coats, trademark mustache, and metaphor-rich prose, Woodie Broun gave every CBS broadcast its signature. The backstretch worker and the railbird identified with him. So did the casual racing viewer. After CBS lost the Triple Crown to ABC in the mid 1970s, a newspaper critic wrote, "People who watched the Derby this year felt like outsiders peering through the fence. With Heywood Hale Broun, the paddock was home to us, the horses warm flesh and blood that solicited our involvement."

Woodie once confessed to me that after college he considered becoming a gypsy owner at a small track. He had grown up on horses as a boy in Arizona, had a bookmaker's account as a teenager, and was a frequent visitor to Saratoga with his father, the columnist Heywood Broun, who taught the boy how to handicap. He said he wasn't sure he could make a living betting. But, he said, "at least historically, I think of myself as an expert."

One winter day, after his hero Secretariat had been retired, we went to see the great stallion for CBS. Woodie was mesmerized. He wrote, "To say his name is to sound a chorus of horns. And to watch him in proud stride spurning the red leaves which seem respectfully to ape his color, is to see a mixture of strength and grace which makes Nureyev look like a talent contest tap dancer."

At his memorial, Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner and a longtime friend, offered the following, "H.H. Broun looked to be the epitome of an old-time gentleman of the Turf. He trained as an actor, but he lived as a hard-core racing fan."

As a sometime owner, he secretly yearned to win the Kentucky Derby. It would have been his crowning achievement. A few years ago, he had a quite promising filly that needed a name. She was by Blushing Groom out of the mare Duty Free. He named her Careless Heiress, a perfect Woodie-ism. But she wasn't a Derby horse, not ever. He was a true backstretch sentimentalist.

Jack Whitaker, one of his broadcast colleagues from the old CBS days, wrote this for the memorial service, "He brought to television sports his twin passions of the theater and writing and thereby gave the genre a rich and rare dimension, which unhappily departs with him."

Is there anything racing can do to keep his image alive for the future? Just as Saratoga and Keeneland and Churchill shine as reminders of what racing was and can be, there has to be some way to enshrine the Broun legacy. He once said, "You know, fame is fleeting, but immortality is immortality. You take it the way you can get it."

About Secretariat's retirement, he wrote, "In his totality like such brothers in beauty as the eagle, the lion, and the hunting leopard, he reminds us that Darwin and his theory of natural selection left out poetry, a factor unmeasurable, unnecessary, and yet, oddly unbearable to be without. This is Heywood Hale Broun in Paris, Kentucky."

Former "Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt" executive producer Bud Lamoreaux is a four-time Eclipse Award winner.