It will be written about in history books, of that I'm sure. This weekend is a special one for many reasons. Three momentous events happened, two in one day, one in the next, all in the span of 48 hours. Just two days, what would have been a normal Saturday and normal Sunday in early June. But these two days, June 5 and June 6 of 2004 were anything but normal. No, indeed heroes were created in these days.
And yet all these heroes are surrounded by the same thing.
One of them was a horse.
One of them was a president
Many of them were on a beach 60 years ago.
But they are all heroes.
I am, of course, speaking about the death of President Ronald Reagan, the running of the Belmont Stakes, and the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Who would have thought that these three events could have such an impact—D-Day anniversaries, sure, but the other two? Especially the Belmont, a race in a sport that is in desperate need of a boost to save it from the pit of despair boxing has fallen into.
Indeed you don't find many people talking about horse racing much these days. It's a sport for the upper class, a gambling sport that some find to be uninteresting. Yet during the Great Depression and through the 70's, horse racing gripped America. Names like Seattle Slew, Cigar, War Admiral, Seabiscuit, and the great Secretariat have graced their way into the history books and are rarely every looked at with confusion. If you hear those names the chances are you know what someone is talking about.
What horse racing has to offer is a set of three races over a five-week span called the Triple Crown. The same horse must win all three races (the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness Stakes, then the Belmont Stakes) to be crowned—a feat not easily achieved. The last time a horse won the Triple Crown was in 1978, when Affirmed took the title. Since then 17 horses have won two of the three races, only to lose at the Belmont, the oldest race in the sport. I remember Thunder Gulch and Charismatic not too long ago—and Funny Cide last year, but they did not have the affect on me—heck, the affect on America--like the horse than ran the Belmont on Saturday.
His name was Smarty Jones.
Now it could be that horse racing received a tremendous boost from the overwhelming success of the movie Seabiscuit. The underdog story of a little horse that never gave up during a time when America needed a boost of confidence is one that touches us all. Either way, one thing is for certain: not for a very long time—dare I say decades--has America been excited about a horse.
But why was this country united behind a horse, especially one like Smarty Jones? The same reason we were behind Seabiscuit—this horse should not be where it is and yet it defied the odds and was favored to win the big one! Smarty's a very small horse compared to his compatriots. He comes from a very blue-collar town and a very blue-collar track where he used to run in suburban Philadelphia. The stables he lives in are called "Someday" and indeed most of Philly say that same word each morning.
You could say that Smarty Jones was the horse from "the wrong side of the tracks." And I think that's what drew the country towards him. Either way, in the first leg of the Triple Crown Smarty Jones was a favorite, but few people outside the sport knew who he was. Then, this little chestnut horse from Philly (who's first trainer was murdered and who's owners were old worked-my-ass-off-to-get-where-I-am-today people) took a commanding 11 ½ length lead and decimated the rest of the pack at the Preakness.
Two in the bag, one to go—the "ol' Heartbreaker." And that's when a country picked up more interest in Smarty Jones.
I work at a very expensive golf course where I talk to a lot of people. And for the past week most of what's been in most of the conversations I've had is one thing: Smarty and the Triple Crown. It was as if nothing else was going on. For the two weeks between the Preakness and the Belmont only one thing mattered to America, and it was a beast of burden.
Then came the race. Taking off just before 6:40 PM I listened to my friend on the phone as he called the race for me (I was supposed to be working) and listened to the many who had gathered near the bar to watch what everyone believed was sports history.
Smarty jumped out to a quick lead, but fell back to third as the pack came off the front stretch and around the first turn. He settled into third for awhile, running hard as the pack came around the next turn. That's when Smarty made his move. Slowly he powered forward, taking second and then moving on first.
And down the stretch they came.
Smarty Jones, extremely excited and not relaxing for the entire race, pulled way out in front, a 4 length lead on the backstretch. Goosebumps tingled on my skin as I shouted into the phone for Smarty. Over at the bar, the huge crowd watching the race began to cheer. Indeed all over America the nation collectively held it's breath. Four hundred yards to go in a grueling mile and a half and Smarty Jones would make history.
The cheering got louder, my heart pumping faster. I shouted louder, my co-workers not happy I was on the phone, but who cares, this was history! The bar was louder and all around me the world stopped. My friend on the other line began cheering louder. C'mon Smarty!
But then it happened. His lead began to dwindle. "NO!" the bar shouted collectively. So did I.
But it became smaller and smaller. A horse named Birdstone came up fast, gaining on the exhausted Smarty Jones. And as they crossed the finish line Smarty Jones was about ½ a length behind the winner of the Belmont, Birdstone. The number of horses who had won two of the three Triple Crown races was up to 18.
Some cried, my dad almost cried. And yet Smarty Jones was still a winner in our hearts. The people of America were still so proud of a little horse from blue-collar suburbs that was so close to glory. Why? Because, in a time when this country is divided on its political axis and bad news constantly permeates the media, we could still come together for something positive, forgetting our political differences, and cheer and support the same thing: a horse facing impossible odds to win a near-impossible title. Smarty might have lost, but he lost in one of the most exciting races in a long time. He won, however, the hearts of a country and became a hero.
And yet in the same day the United States lost another hero. A man who'd been shot once, faced some of the most damaging political scandals ever, and battled Alzheimer's Disease. Oh yeah, and he single-handedly brought down the Soviet Union.
The former 40th President of the United States of America, Ronald Wilson Reagan, died June 5, 2004, at the age of 93.
He'll be remembered for many things: the freeing of the hostages in Iran, Grenada, Iran-Contra, Star Wars, and most importantly, the SALT treaties and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Reagan was a president that defied the odds everywhere he went. First by being elected governor of California not once but twice, then in a stunning come-from-behind victory Reagan won the presidency in 1980. Then he defied odds even more when, in 1981, a deranged man name John Hinkley shot Reagan in hopes of winning the heart of Jodie Foster. Reagan was 70 years old at the time, and yet in mere weeks was up and going again, even making jokes about forgetting to duck when the shots were fired.
Facing a devastating recession first term, Reagan pushed an economic package later to be known as "Reaganomics" and was able to bring the economy around and pull us out of the bear market. He stepped up the War on Drugs, putting much more pressure on the Colombian cartels and strengthening port cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, which were havens during the Eighties for drug lords. His wife Nancy also started the famous anti-drug campaign of "Just Say No," a saying almost everyone I know has heard once in their lifetime.
While putting pressure on drug dealers, he also went after terrorists, setting the stage for the next three presidents to follow. He also sent a fighting force of the Nation's best soldiers into Grenada to show Fidel Castro what would happen if he got a little too ambitious. To say the least, ol' Ronnie "Ray-gun" was anything but passive.
What I always loved about Reagan was his ability to read and understand the Soviet economy and expose the weaknesses that were running rampant with the new programs Gorbachev was instituting. And so Ronnie came up with the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) more commonly referred to as the Star Wars system. The idea was to put a complex missile defense system with high-tech lasers high in the atmosphere. There the lasers would sit, ready to shoot down any ballistic missiles the Soviet Union might fire at the USA. Supposedly funneling billions into the project, Reagan actually had the numbers smudged in order to scare the Soviet spies into reporting back to Moscow and telling the head cheese they would need to spend more money to defeat this American missile shield and create one of their own.
While we spent imaginary dollars, the Soviets spent real ones.
And in 1991, only a few years after Reagan left his second and final term in office, the Soviet Union, it's economy floundering for years, collapsed. Finally, after almost 50 years, the ultimate stalemate was over.
God Bless Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).
What this weekend was first going to be remembered by was today, June 6, when the world would recognize the 60th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the largest land assault in history.
It happened in 1944 (for those of you who have problems in math like myself). With Europe all but in total Nazi control, the Allies needed to get within the continent and begin a push east, hopefully meeting the Soviet Union who were beginning to push west after defeating the ill-fated Operation Barbarossa, a Nazi mission that broke the Germany-Russia non-aggression pact and really pissed off the Soviets to no end.
Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, along with many top Allied commanders, came up with Overlord, a plan that would seal itself in history. Making Hilter believe that an Allied invasion was coming much farther away, the Allies prepared to invade through a quiet little French coastal town in the north of the country called Normandy. There, the largest invasion force ever assembled (made up of Americans, British, and Canadians) would assault five beaches, codenamed Gold, Sword, Omaha, Utah, and Juno.
Months before June 6, on April 28, the Allies were involved in a training operation for D-Day, Exercise Tiger. With only one ship protecting the practice force, German E-boats (torpedo boats) raced into the training area and began sinking hundreds of ships, resulting in a devastating one-day loss of 728 men. Some believed Overlord would end the same way against the mighty Nazi war machine.
On June 5, because of fog, the invasion was cancelled. The next day, early in the morning with the stars still out for another few hours, paratroopers from British regiments and the American 82nd and 101st Airborne made harrowing jumps behind enemy lines to secure certain areas for the coming invasion. Popularized by the recent mini-series Band of Brothers, these paratroopers were scattered all across the French countryside—but, because they knew their job and knew how important it was for them to be successful, they threw caution to the win and completed their mission.
Meanwhile, in the early dawn of June 6, hundreds upon hundreds of assault craft landed on the sand of Nazi-occupied France and, for the most part, found little resistance. Except for Omaha Beach, where part of the American contingent faced an overwhelming Nazi fighting force. Also brought to light by a movie (Saving Private Ryan which was released on a special 60th Anniversary edition DVD last week), the assault on Omaha Beach was bloody and unrelenting, and in the end it was Allied fortitude and sense of duty that won the day and the beach. By June 7, 1944 (D-Day +1), Normandy was secure and the Allied invasion of Europe had begun, an invasion that would see the end of the war in Europe in not more than a year.
Today, 60 years later, just days after opening a long-awaited and extremely late World War II memorial, we remember those brave men who took part in the "Longest Day." We realize that what we have today was brought on by the sacrifice those men made, and so they are most definitely heroes.
In a weekend that is surrounded by loss, I can't help but be overly optimistic. While we lost a Cold War hero, he will always be remembered. While a horse that unified the country lost, you couldn't help but smile and wonder how a sporting event could bring us together. And while we remember a somber day in which hundreds died, I can't help but smile and feel a sense of pride in the fact that I live under the same flag those men fought under.
So I say thank you to these heroes on this heroic weekend for showing the world once again what this great country is capable of, because nowhere else would this have happened. Nowhere else would the entire country simply forget their political differences and band together to watch and cheer on Smarty Jones, an animal that represented a little something in all of us. Or how we can celebrate the life of one of the greatest presidents the United States of America has ever seen. Or how we can look back 60 years ago today and pay homage to a group of young Americans who were capable of defeating one of the most powerful military machines ever.
God Bless America and her heroes.