About Secretariat

Today, I’m thinking about Secretariat, the thoroughbred that won the Triple Crown on this day in 1973. That’s only a vaguely familiar name to a lot of people now, but he was a stunning champion at a time when that still mattered. I remember his victories well — especially his Belmont Stakes triumph.

Horse racing today is not like horse racing in 1973. Online betting that keeps fans from the track, a decline in public interest overall, and a pile of corruption and horse deaths have turned the sport into a shell of what it once was. Heck, even in 1973, its popularity was on the fade. And then Secretariat came along.

I’d never heard of him until he won the Kentucky Derby, which is no surprise — I was a tween kid and I paid about as much attention to the ponies as you might suspect. But he broke the track record and sportscasters started talking about him in absolutely reverential terms, especially the rumpled old railbird types who obviously spent a lot of hours at the track. After he won the Preakness (also in record time), he was in position to be the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

Now, to the 13-year-old that I was at the time, 25 years was unimaginably ancient history. I assumed no horse was going to get the Triple Crown in my lifetime — that the nature of racing appeared to have changed too much for this to happen any more. A number of horses had scored the first two legs of the Triple Crown in those preceding 25 years, but the very different nature of the Belmont — it is a mile and a half, a really long distance that doesn’t get used much — looked like too much for any horse that had already won two incredibly demanding races in the preceding five weeks.

But, hey, this was still definitely worth watching and everyone was talking about it, so the family tuned in to the race.

What happened was…well, unbelievable. I still can’t believe I witnessed it.

Secretariat just crushed…destroyed…humiliated the competition. He won by a record 31 lengths. Fields of this caliber don’t have horses that win by 31 lengths, or 21, or 11 or usually even four or five. But there was Secretariat, crossing the finish line so far ahead that he looked like he was having a solo training romp. He also set another record. Those three race records still stand today, nearly half a century later, despite all of the presumed advances in breeding and training (that mostly seem to have created much more fragile horses).

After this, I kept following the horses for a bit, as Seattle Slew and Affirmed also scored Triple Crowns. In my mid-20s, I became a proper racing fan, thanks to living within easy driving distance of the Oaklawn track in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It had a racing scene in the 1980s that looked like something Damon Runyon dreamed up. That interest faded for me after I moved away, but a little spark returned this year thanks to Rich Strike’s crazily improbable Kentucky Derby win.

I suspect Rich Strike will be beaten like a rented mule at the Belmont, but even if he comes through on Saturday, all it will do is remind me of Secretariat once again.

Want a little digestible geekiness about what makes a horse great? Read this excellent Wikipedia entry about Secretariat.

The horrors

I was a cop reporter back in the day, and I saw a number of bullet wounds in person. They often looked just like they do on TV — a small hole, often more or less echoed on the other side of the body. Even most murder victims didn’t look that awful, and they died at the scene because they bled out or got shot in the heart or brain. Honestly, a lot of auto accidents I covered were far more grisly — a fact that got me to start wearing seat belts at a time when a lot of people didn’t.

I’ve never seen in person what someone looks like after getting shot with an AR-15. I’ve seen photos, though, and have talked to emergency personnel who treated victims. Let’s just say that you can lose a chunk of meat if you’re shot with one of these, especially if you get hit repeatedly. There’s often no coming back from that.

I thought about that yesterday after the latest school shooting in Texas. Nineteen kids and two adults are dead in the latest high-powered-weapon mass shooting. You’d think people would be horrified into action en masse but, you know, guns.

The parents of these dead schoolchildren lined up for DNA testing just hours after the shooting. They’re not suspects. This is how the remains of their children will be identified. And this is the only place in the allegedly civilized world where these shootings have become commonplace.

If this is OK with you, if you think that accepting this somehow protects your freedom, you are lost. It’s never too late to find your way, though.

Musicians (and audiences) of a certain age

It used to be that as you got older as a musician, your options for getting gigs shrank. Nowadays, unfortunately, that’s true for all musicians. The hangout/live music/stuff-on-the-TV bar that I took for granted for decades is fading, and with that is going lots of places for live music.

But there are a few still around, where you’ll see bands with decades upon decades of experience still throwing it down, often with a level of talent that will make your jaw go slack. We lost one recently — the Lahinch Tavern in Potomac — but we also gained one a while back when Hank Dietle’s Tavern in Rockville returned to action. Still, the trends for this sort of place are not favorable, so you should seek them out while you still can.

All of the places below are in the DC metro area. There are a bunch of others that aren’t far away — places like the Griffin Tavern in Flint Hill, Va. or Apehangers in Bel Alton, Md. — and lots of wineries and microbrewers in the distant-ish ‘burbs will book music for grownups during the summer in particular. But I’m going to focus on the locals here. Here are the ones I know:

JV’s: This absolute Falls Church institution got an overhaul a few years back, doubling in size and just becoming a much better music venue overall. The food is still good-diner quality, the beers are still cold, they don’t serve hard liquor and you’re still likely to meet Lorraine. And there is live rootsy music every night, from open mics to all-pro acts. On weekend afternoons/nights there are often two shows.

Hershey’s Restaurant & Bar: It looks like a roadhouse, it’s next to some railroad tracks in Gaithersburg, you probably aren’t going to find it accidentally and it has the best damn fried chicken I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant. It’s another joint that’s been around for more than 50 years, and they have music on weekends. They also serve breakfast on Saturday and Sunday.

Hank Dietle’s Tavern: One of the dangers of being an old dive-ish bar is that it might suddenly burn down. That’s what happened to Hank’s a few years back, and given its unlikely location on Rockville Pike, surrounded by strip-mall suburbia, that should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t.

219 Restaurant: Speaking of burning, this Old Town Alexandria complex-in-a-townhouse puts its live music in a cigar bar. That requires all sorts of restrictions in this no-smoking era for clubs, but the all-the-way-upstairs space (it’s a memorable hike if you’re a musician with gear) features live music most nights. The place has a strong New Orleans flavor and brings in some of the best local blues and jazz musicians, and my harmonicas have tasted like cigars for weeks after doing a show here.

The Hamilton Loft: On the second floor of the big D.C. restaurant that bears most of its name — which itself is atop a large live music club that hosts national touring acts — sits this sometimes-open performance space. It’s another roots-jazz-blues kind of place that’s often ideal for hanging out after the show in the basement.

Hell’s Bottom VFW: The fact that there’s a VFW hall in the People’s Republic of Takoma Park at all seems odd, but there is, and this one has live music on a regular basis. Shows are early, in part as a nod to the neighbors, drinks and cheap and the vibe is excellent.

Old Bowie Town Grille: This place is a longtime supporter of live music with one of the better-known open mics in the area. Musicians generally work for tips and/or the door here, so you should act accordingly with your tip money.

New Deal Cafe: If you’ve played rootsy music in bars for any time in this area, you’ve probably done a show or two here. The place is run as a cooperative and calls itself “Greenbelt’s living room” (an accurate claim). It has live music almost every night.

Weird wheels

I’ve owned or co-owned nine cars in my life, starting in 1982 and continuing to this day. Most of them have been what a lot of folks would think are weird choices, but they’ve been surprisingly practical as well.

I’ve been pretty lucky on the car front — I’ve generally been happy with and have enjoyed every one except the first, a 1975 Ford Mustang II that was craptastic in every way a car could be craptastic. Since my jobs were also craptastic at the time and I couldn’t afford a replacement for years, it taught me how to perform all sorts of minor repairs. It also taught me that I didn’t want to perform minor repairs going forward, and that became a big part of my subsequent car decisions.

Here are all of them, ranked in reverse order of how much I liked them:

1975 Ford Mustang II. Think of a Ford Pinto in a different skin. I think the moment I absolutely snapped came with the half-covered-in-vinyl roof suddenly peeled away one day on the highway, exposing a big pile of rust underneath. This was one of the most terrible cars from the era of the absolutely most terrible cars, and an ignoble death in a car crusher was too good for it. I’m still bitter.

1981 Plymouth Colt. This was from an era where small Dodges and Chryslers were actually made by Mitsubishi, and I bought this car out of a rental fleet. It was white, it was bland, it was a boring small 4-door sedan, it was completely and utterly reliable and that’s what I cared about after the Mustang debacle. It served me well for many years.

2002 Ford Ranger. It was a decade old when we bought it as a get-around-after-work vehicle for my wife, and we kept it for another decade. She loved it and I hardly ever drove it. The truck did truck things perfectly fine, was generally reliable and only ranks here because I just never messed with it much. It was a decent truck.

2005 Nissan Murano. This was my commutermobile in an era when I drove about 40 miles a day to and from work. It was comfortable, it was easy to handle, it was reliable, it could haul Home Depot stuff and it had some power. It also was embarrassingly big for a vehicle that contained one person most of the time, and a sudden surge in gas prices made it a whole lot less desirable. Still a worthy car, though; would have been better as a family hauler.

1992 Isuzu Amigo. The blandness of the Colt finally got to me and I may have overreacted when I bought this as its replacement, especially since I lived in D.C. where this Jeep-like vehicle wasn’t the best choice. But it was fun to hop around in and was easy on the gas, and the tailgate-mounted spare bounced away more than one urban driver who decided to follow too closely. However, it was very, very vulnerable to break-ins.

2001 Chrysler PT Cruiser. We got this in an era when I was a fairly busy musician, and I liked the old-school look. But the best part of this was its highly configurable interior — the rear seat folded flat, or vertically to create a barrier, or could be removed completely. The front passenger seat also folded flat and provided a nice platform. Unfortunately, it was underpowered, drank gas like a much more powerful vehicle, and had reliability problems (brakes needed replacement after 30,000 miles; radiator had to be replaced after 60K). The latter problem made me realize that a lot of other expensive repairs were probably coming, so I dumped it.

2022 Ford Maverick. This is my wife’s current vehicle; she had a company car for years but they pulled it, and now she drives this to/at work. It’s really a SUV that replaces the typical back end with a truck bed; it rides much more comfortably than a typical truck. It’s an excellent value and gets good gas mileage for what it is. I like it but I’m not a hopeless fanboy; this wouldn’t have been my choice but my wife is doing 90 percent of the driving in it, and she loves it. And people ask us about it all of the time.

2015 Mini S 4-door coupe. This is my current driver. Almost all of my driving is in the city, and this is an unbelievably fun city car. The ‘S’ designation, with its larger-horsepower turbo, also means this thing can hop up and go. I’ve torn away from rednecks on the interstate who think it’s hi-larious to tailgate a Mini, and this vehicle is also just big enough to be more useful than its smaller 2-door sibling. It’s getting up there in age and I’m concerned about long-term reliability (and repair costs), but I’ve certainly enjoyed it so far.

2008 Volvo C30. Here it is: My favorite car. Small without being too small, an actual hatchback made by Volvo, surprisingly utilitarian, funky, safety-oriented and sneaky-powerful, this was what I drove during my busiest car-commuting period of my life. I put about 100K miles on this thing in a little more than six years, and decided to move it when it became clear it would need a good chunk of work for the next 100K. It never was a big seller; if it had done better, I would have replaced the old C30 with a new one, but new C30s didn’t exist when replacement time came. I still miss it.

Bad baseball is better than no baseball

I have steeled myself for this version of the Washington Nationals. After the Great Talent Dump of 2021 (you knew the Nats had given up when they traded away Trea Turner), the upcoming pain was apparent. In fact, the Nats have been one of baseball’s worst teams since winning the World Series in 2019, as a combo of pitching injuries, trades of talent for prospects and declining skills among veterans have conspired to sink the team.

The current version of the Nats is 4-6, about where you’d expect them to be as a winning percentage for the entire year, and have disappointingly lost two out of three to the Pirates as of this writing. Only six team members are hitting above .200, although Juan Soto is still Juan Soto, and Josh Bell has started out hot. Victor Robles, once the organization’s biggest propsect, is 0 for 18. Carter Kieboom, he of the multiple failed attempts to make it in the bigs so far, is out indefinitely with a forearm injury. Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, two big reasons why the Nats won the 2019 series, are hurt again and possess an ERA of nearly 11, respectively.

But the bullpen has looked OK and it’s fun to have Sean Doolittle (who has looked good so far) back in town. Erick Fedde, Josh Rogers and Josiah Gray have been solid starters. Anibel Sanchez is on the cusp of returning (whether he’ll be effective is another matter), Strasburg might pitch again in a few weeks and Joe Ross also might be back in June.

But for now, we grind. I desperately hope we don’t become Orioles South and echo baseball’s most incompetent franchise — one so bad that it hurts the Nationals through their terrible O’s-controlled joint TV network and the long-outstanding TV payments the Orioles have foot-dragged. O’s fans: You definitely deserve better.

It’s sometimes hard to pick out the path ahead with what looks like a pieced-together team. But there are some rays of sunshine in here, and it’s not absurd to think this Nats team will at least be reasonably competitive and entertaining.