Spokane native Jon White is part of a thirsty generation that remembers when the elusive Triple Crown was won in the high-stakes Sport of Kings.
But today, if only for one day, horse racing – regarded as a dying sport by many – was on track with a new set of keyed-up followers.
Those fans arrived to the equine party in late May after the 2-year-old chestnut colt I’ll Have Another won the first two legs of the elusive Triple Crown – the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes – and looked like it might end the sport’s 34-year drought at today’s Belmont Stakes.
But instead, we’ll have another winner.
News quickly spread on Friday morning that the thoroughbred, looking to become only the 12th horse to accomplish the feat, was scratched from today’s Belmont lineup after an exam revealed a swollen left front tendon.
Most disappointed, of course, are those immersed in the thoroughbred racing arena – like White, who fell in love with the sport in Spokane in the 1960s while watching the well-known gelding, Turbulator, co-owned by Spokane resident Marguerite Crawford (now 96), at the once-thriving Playfair Race Course.
“You feel cheated on a chance to witness history,” White said.
And so the hope of seeing one more of those historic moments today, that the 56-year-old White “used to read about but now remembers because he lived through them,” turned to sadness on Friday morning.
For White, I’ll Have Another brought back fond memories of his all-time favorite horse: Turbulator.
Ghosts of Playfair
In early April 1965, a local star was born in Veradale. Tom and Marguerite Crawford, who eventually shared ownership with friend J.M. Farnsworth, named the foal Turbulator.
The horse almost never saw a live race. He was nearly sold in 1966, but Tom changed his mind and began training his horse in 1967 at Playfair. That was followed by a dramatic set of circumstances that almost assured the horse might never be the star they felt he could.
Turbulator nearly died from a virus that year that killed a handful of horses at Playfair. Though Turbulator recovered, Tom was advised to put running the horse as a 2-year-old out of his mind. Tom heeded, and sent the horse to his ranch in Montana. Hope sprung in early 1968 when Turbulator began training again. But later that spring, Tom he received a call. Turbulator had wounded his right knee.
Tom drew the line, and offered to trade his gelding for two cows. The Montana rancher turned down the offer, and in the ensuing months, Turbulator healed and began training again.
Turbulator arrived at Playfair – a 4-year-old maiden – in 1969. On Sept. 6 that year, he raced his way into White’s heart when he won his third race at the Spokane track.
White, once the youngest steward in the history of American racing when the Washington Horse Racing Commission hired him at the age of 24, is a prominent national horse racing journalist and commentator for HRTV living in Los Angeles.
He never forgot the resilient horse.
“He is still my all-time favorite,” said White, whose California license plate reads “TRBLTR.” “He closed with such a rush in the stretch that day that I felt I had just seen a very special horse. He would go on to break a world record (in 1970). I own the four shoes he wore for that race.”
Tom died in 1972, but Turbulator went on to become the only horse to win a stakes race on all three of Washington’s major tracks at the time – Longacres, Playfair and Yakima Meadows. Marguerite retired her beloved horse in 1974, at the age of 9, and in 1985 Turbulator became the only non-human inducted into the Inland Empire Sports Hall of Fame.
Turbulator died in 1989. Playfair went a little more than a decade later.
That haunts White to this day.
“It’s terribly sad,” White said. “If I ever hit some big wager … one of those huge deals … I would love to build a track in the Spokane area. People would say I’m crazy, but I think it’s missed there.”
White isn’t the only one that misses the departed Spokane track, and he’s not the only one whose heart sank with Friday’s news from Belmont.
For Marguerite, who was alive when Sir Barton won the first Triple Crown in 1919 and the 10 that have followed him since, it was always about the horses. And just like White, Playfair is where her life’s passion was born.
“It’s kind of like raising your own kid,” she said. “A man once said to me, ‘They’re all just alike.’ I said, ‘No, watch them. Pay attention. They’re smart animals, and they won’t tolerate people being mean.’ There are some animals, like people, that don’t know how to fight back … but horses do.”
Marguerite missed Ruler on Ice defeat Stay Thirsty in last year’s Belmont Stakes. She fell asleep. With no Triple Crown bid, a lot of other people skipped that race because of lack of interest.
“My neighbor came by and reminded me not to miss the race this year,” Marguerite said. “He always wants to talk about the horses and look at the pictures on my wall. I love it. I love it with all of my heart and I miss the old track. That was a fun place to be back then.”
Especially when there was a Triple Crown on the line, or better yet, won.
“It didn’t matter what track you were at,” she said. “Nobody knows each other, but you all come together to talk about a horse and everyone participates. It didn’t matter if you were a doctor or a farmer. That’s what I liked … the hoopla.”
This year’s hoopla was something White was sure would end today with a 12th Triple Crown winner.
White woke up Friday morning to jaw-dropping rumors and almost immediately went into a short-lived period of denial.
“In 1973, there were rumors before the Belmont that Secretariat was lame,” recalled White, who predicted in the Lewis and Clark High School Journal prior to the Kentucky Derby that Secretariat would win the Triple Crown that year and end the 25-year drought.
That’s the thing about rumors.
“Not only did he win, he won by 31 lengths and set the track record that stands today,” White said.
But with I’ll Have Another, it quickly became clear to him that, “where there was smoke, there was fire.”
He publicly picked I’ll Have Another to win the Triple Crown before the Kentucky Derby. A follower of his work, Ryan Stillman, wrote him an email when he heard.
“You were his first fan, before others recognized his talent, before the world jumped on his bandwagon!” the email said. “I am so sad and sorry.”
So are the rest of us that remain thirsty for a horse to again claim the throne that has been empty for more than three decades.
“It will be a while before we get another one,” Marguerite said.
“It’s so sad for racing,” White said. “There was no question that this was going to be very exciting and generate a lot of interest. When Secretariat won, people in my high school actually were congratulating me – people I didn’t know. It was as if I’d hit the game-winning shot in a basketball game.
“It showed how something like this could really catch on and mean something to people everywhere, even if those people only breathe new life into the sport for one day.”