He was so accomplished at his craft that when Jerry Izenberg decided to semiretire, he suggested to the chiefs at The Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, that he continue to write about boxing and horse racing and the other sports, when so moved, as the newspaper’s “Columnist Emeritus.”
It was a title he made up.
They went for it.
So it was that Izenberg, who is 87 and has a panoramic view of Las Vegas from his home in Henderson on the road to Lake Las Vegas, found himself at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, witnessing another horse win another Triple Crown.
This horse’s name was Justify. It had been only three years since a horse last won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing — Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes. But it remains a big deal when it happens, because though American Pharoah did it in 2015, before that it had been 37 years since Affirmed in 1978.
The year before that, Seattle Slew won all three. And four years before Seattle Slew, Secretariat did it as only Secretariat could — “like a tremendous machine,” according to the track announcer, Chic Anderson.
Before the tremendous machine that was Secretariat, it had been 25 years since Citation had won the Triple Crown in 1948.
Izenberg was 17 when Citation won; he didn’t start writing about sports until 1951. So though he missed Citation, he was on the rail and in the paddock for Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and now Justify.
Which makes Jerry Izenberg something of a tremendous machine in his own right.
“In 2015, there were 22,936 thoroughbred horses born in North America. Now, three years later, only one remains with the chance to prove to future historians that he, alone, was the golden foal.”
That was Izenberg before Justify and the other horses were put into the starting gate at Belmont Park. It was only Friday, and already he was up in the irons.
By Tuesday, he was back in Henderson, enjoying the panoramic view, when he was asked how Justify fits with the other Triple Crown winners he has witnessed.
“We have to wait. He’ll probably go in the Travers (Stakes, in August), and you know he’ll go in the Breeders’ Cup,” said Izenberg, who in 2000 was inducted into the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association Hall of Fame.
“Honestly, you’re talking about absolutely great horses with these five Triple Crown winners. I’d have to say there’s Secretariat, and then there’s the other four horses — and that’s not to denigrate the other four horses.
“They each had a different style of running.”
Seattle Slew reminded him of a football player he wrote about a few times.
“He ran like Jimmy Brown — power. Just total power. Nothing subtle about it,” Izenberg said.
“Affirmed was a brilliant horse who would not let (another) horse past him. You’d have to look it up, but in the three races, the margins were a neck and a head and — Alydar was the unluckiest horse ever born. Had he been born a year earlier or a year later, he would have been a Triple Crown winner.”
I looked it up. Affirmed and Alydar ran 10 times against each other. The last nine, they finished first and second. Affirmed won six times; Alydar, three. Affirmed won the 1978 Triple Crown races by a total of 1½ lengths, a neck and a head.
Jerry Izenberg has a pretty good memory.
“And then there’s American Pharoah,” he said, fast forwarding 37 years. “Among the previous winners, he was closest to Secretariat, and his times were pretty good.
“Then you get to Justified, and we’ll have to wait. I now go back to Secretariat …”
Pegasus checks in
Down the stretch the anecdotes came, until Secretariat was running out front, alone, by 25 lengths — until the TV monitor in Jerry Izenberg’s mind was having trouble putting the tremendous machine in the same frame with the other Triple Crown winners.
“I was doing TV back in those days,” he recalled of Secretariat’s solitary romp in the 1973 Belmont, “and just as we started to go on the air (for a recap), there was a tremendous crash of light — we were off the air for about four seconds. Lightning had hit the grandstand.
“When we came back on, I said there was nothing wrong with your television set. That it was just Pegasus yelling down to Secretariat, “Now that’s what I’m talking about, son.”