A Current Affair
But Grace is less exercised about this Saturday's 127th running of the Preakness than the 99th edition, run in 1974, when he was 5 years old. That's the one Little Current won.
You remember Little Current, a rangy chestnut with an explosive finishing kick who, after languishing for much of the race in last, blew by 11 horses to claim the second jewel of the Triple Crown by a resounding seven lengths, then went on to win the Belmont in similar fashion three weeks later. Or maybe you don't. And that's what bothers Kevin Grace.
Grace views Little Current's obscurity as nothing less than an injustice. Today, while Little Current--at 31, the oldest living Preakness winner--enjoys a peaceful dotage at a veterinary clinic outside Seattle, his biggest fan mounts a campaign to get the old boy his due: induction into the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Grace has spent three years on the effort, calling racing writers and setting up a Web site to promote his equine hero.
"It's kind of like finding a treasure chest in your back yard, and you start researching it and more and more comes to life," says Grace, who grew up and still lives in Northeast Baltimore's Chinquapin neighborhood a few miles east of Pimlico.
To Grace's mind, Little Current would get the recognition he deserves if not for two cruel twists of fate: a rough trip in the ridiculously crowded '74 Kentucky Derby that may have prevented him from joining the 11 winners of racing's Triple Crown, and the perverse luck of being born only a year after perhaps the most illustrious of those 11, Secretariat.
"Everyone is 'Secretariat, Secretariat, Secretariat,'" says Grace, referring to the legendary big red colt who captured the country's imagination in sweeping the '73 Triple Crown. "[Little Current] will always be in the shadows of Secretariat."
Grace himself was largely unaware of Little Current until 1997. A racing enthusiast since a teenage trip to Pimlico (for a giveaway of free Ralph Lauren merchandise, he recalls), he developed a vacation hobby of visiting prominent thoroughbreds stabled where he travels, meeting the likes of Triple Crown winners Affirmed and the recently deceased Seattle Slew. Five years ago, after paying his respects to Little Current on a trip to Washington state, he saw, for the first time, a tape of the 1974 Preakness. Watching Little Current thundering past horses around the tight final turn and down the stretch, Grace says, he recognized that he'd been in the proximity of true greatness.
"This track has one of the sharpest turns in North America," he says, standing by the finishing pole at Pimlico. "When I saw Little Current's race I was definitely hooked, and I would do anything for that horse."
Hungry for more, Grace got hold of a tape of the '74 Belmont and saw Little Current march to another come-from-behind seven-length victory. Then he went back to that year's Kentucky Derby to see what had gone wrong in Louisville. Trained to lay back in the pack, then sprint to the finish ("Like a cork out of a champagne bottle," Grace says), Little Current was trapped behind the biggest Derby field ever--23 horses. Pinned down in heavy traffic, he still managed to put on his patented stretch run but only made it to fifth behind winner Cannonade.
"The best horses don't win the Kentucky Derby," Grace says with disgust. "I call it a cavalry charge." (Apparently, Derby officials agreed. The '74 race led to the adoption of what Grace calls the "Little Current rule," limiting the field in the Run for the Roses to 20 horses.)
After the Belmont, Little Current ran into more misfortune. He narrowly lost his next two starts, then, racing on turf for the first time, he chipped a bone in his right front ankle and was sent to stud, first in his native Kentucky, then in Louisiana. (He had a middling career as a sire, the highlight of which may have been being bred to a mare from Queen Elizabeth's stable.) His present owners, veterinarians Mark and Ann Hansen, bought him in 1995 (like Grace, Mark Hansen had became enamored of the horse after watching his explosive finishes) and gave him a quiet retirement in the Pacific Northwest.
Grace travels regularly to Monroe, Wash., to see Little Current, reportedly a spry, playful old stallion who perks up at the sound of the videotapes of his races shown in his stall to visitors. And the horse has taken a shine to his East Coast admirer. "Kevin is his number-one fan," Ann Hansen says. "When he hears Kevin, he gets the look like a little kid when Grandpa comes. His eyes light up."
Grace has also gotten in touch with Little Current's former owners, jockeys, and trainers about the Hall of Fame campaign, even sending Lou Rondinello, who trained the horse to winning form, a clipping from Little Current's mane.
"It's an obsession, really," says Rondinello, now retired to Melville, N.Y., of Grace's quixotic quest. But he confesses his own love for the charismatic horse: "What can I say? I'm a trainer, and he was like one of my kids."
But Rondinello's 31-year-old "kid" isn't any closer to joining his sport's historic elite in Saratoga. When the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame announced this year's inductees on April 30, Little Current wasn't among them. He hadn't even been listed on the ballot.
Grace says he'll continue to lobby the racing writers who cast the Hall of Fame votes to overlook Little Current's Derby mishap and modest overall record (four wins in 16 career starts) and see the gutsy champ who'd blow by horses in the stretch as if they were barely moving at all.
"I want him to get the roses that he was denied in 1974," Grace says. "I want him to get his just due."
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