Big Red

by Cantinker Moss

Around this time each year, I begin to get excited about horse racing…thoroughbred horse racing.  In fact, a few weeks ago my wife and I headed down to central Kentucky and checked out the horse country around Lexington.  The sweeping vistas of grass, known scientifically as anything from Poa trivalis (rough bluegrass) to Poa pratensis L. (Kentucky bluegrass), and the white fences of Calumet Farm near Keeneland animated a kind of idyllic impressionism found on calendars and postcards.

If you look at the history of thoroughbred horse racing, you find many names that stir the emotions, particularly those who have won any race of the Triple Crown.  These include the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.  Even more so are the names of the horses who have won all three races of the Triple Crown.  This includes perhaps ten or twelve in the over one hundred years of American competition.  One of the greatest of all racehorses is Man O’ War, who oddly did not win a Triple Crown, but was still the equine great of the golden age of sports in the 1920’s.  He won twenty of twenty-one races, and one by one hundred lengths.  It has been said that no other horse had a stride equal to his: twenty-eight to thirty feet.  Possibly equal to Man O’ War is Secretariat, winner of the Triple Crown in 1973.  In the troubled times of Watergate and Vietnam, Secretariat was a horse to gladly behold.  He won all his Triple Crown races decidedly; the final one at Belmont Park, New York, by thirty lengths.  And though the margin for victory for Man O’ War was higher, his was a match race (two horses) and that against an inferior challenger.  Secretariat raced against the greatest horses of his day, and under the greatest pressure and scrutiny.  Though purists may disagree, in my opinion, they both were the greatest in history.  They were also both known as “Big Red.”

Almost twenty years ago I wrote the following poem under a different name, close to the thirtieth anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown triumph.  (Actually, I wrote it as a song, in the American folk tradition, and I would sing it accompanied by my five-string banjo, and my wife on guitar.)  In approximately two weeks, the Triple Crown season will begin with the Kentucky Derby:  a glorious celebration with hot brown, mint juleps, and ladies with beautiful big hats.  I have a good feeling about whom I would pick to win the Derby, though I have never bet on the race and probably won’t this time.  But this time of year has a way of reminding me of the greatest racehorse of my generation.  It is little wonder that they call it the “Sport of Kings.”


Big Red

by Cantinker Moss

When you’re down ’round Bourbon County in that old Kentucky home

Where the fence posts frame the big sun as it sets,

There’s a big colt in the pasture up the road on to the west—

Faster than the rest—ol’ Big Red!


Big Red, Big Red, Virginia-born and bred,

Running on ahead!—ol’ Big Red.

Big Red, Big Red, that is what they said:

Running on ahead!—ol’ Big Red.

Well, they talk of all the legends in this bluegrass land of lore:

Tenbrooks, Molly, and that Sea Biscuit.

And they raise ’em, and they train ’em so the folks will come and bet,

But seems they just admire that Big Red.


And he traveled up to Louisville, the roses for to run,

In Baltimore, the doubts were laid to rest.

When Sham made his challenge near the sidewalks of New York

By thirty lengths he beat “em—ol’ Big Red.


He was buried one October before the falling snow,

Though his big-hearted story isn’t dead.

And the papers wrote the praises of a Secretariat,

But we all knew him as ol’ Big Red!


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