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"Immortality has been realized once the roar of the crowd has been united."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Shadows of Cassaleria

Nothing lifts the spirit of a ten-year-old boy quite like a moment that is shared with his father. It was 1983, a year of colossal awakenings in the Western world. Dr. Barney Clark had just become the first artificial heart transplant recipient, and in the progressive realm of technology, the Commodore 64 computer lengthened its reign as society’s latest craze. Entertainer Michael Jackson was on the verge of thrilling a generation, while an unearthly little being named E.T. continued to charm the affections of moviegoers everywhere.

Steven Spielberg Strikes Cinematic Gold

It was a year of trendsetting and unique fashion. Denim jackets were in high demand and feathered hairdos were all the rage. Cabbage Patch Kids sprang to transitory life and the Valley Girls conversed as if they had totally hatched mankind’s earliest spoken language. Camcorders preserved a bevy of childhood firsts, and the most inquisitive minds of the day were pacified by encounters with the Rubik’s Cube. It was a far simpler era, an era when families sat together for supper, an era when text messages were scribbled out on paper.

Closer to home, rains fell over the San Francisco Bay Area in early 1983 with a ferocity that had not been seen in some ninety years. Mudslides in the mountains above Santa Cruz were televised nightly on the evening news, while levee breaks along many of the local rivers had communities feeling as though they would never get out from under the water.   

Sports have a distinctive knack for bringing other parts of our lives back into perspective. They supply us with well-measured hints of constancy in an age of unending change. Sports arouse vitality in times of indifference, unity in times of dissension, and hope in the face of adversity. Such was the case for one particular family on the morning of February 5, 1983.

Life leading up to this unexpected day had not been without its fair share of hardships. Mom had survived six weeks in the intensive care unit after suffering a brain aneurysm in 1978. Aside from the brilliantly clear memories of driving up to that hospital, or of my father as he tried to conceal his own pain from us kids, it would be many years before we were able to fully grasp how desperately close we came to losing her.

The following year, tragedy struck again, only this time it surfaced in the cruelest of ways. Anthony, my older brother, was diagnosed with Lupus at the tender age of thirteen. He was a kind and fun-loving boy, the type of youngster who could brighten the disposition of most anyone simply by being in their presence. Anthony’s love for family was rivaled exclusively by his love for athletics, yet it was not on a grassy field where his greatest battle would be fought. As his eyelids fell for the final time, childhood dreams of soccer stardom were laid to infinite rest along with a family’s sense of innocence.

Brothers pose with the Anthony Burke Memorial Soccer Trophy

By the time the El Camino Real Derby was primed for its inaugural run, life had assumed a semblance of needed normality. Mom’s recovery had been nothing short of a miracle, and our entire clan had made gallant strides to find peace with Anthony’s unthinkable passing. Gifts need not come in fancy packages or be adorned with decorative bows, for in the year of 1982, a family’s capacity for healing became the most magical gift of them all.

Another type of magic was simultaneously unveiled in racing that year at Bay Meadows. Trainer Ron McAnally was busy conditioning a one-eyed, claustrophobic wonder named Cassaleria. The horse had lost his left eye in a stable incident shortly after being foaled. McAnally took Cassaleria under his wing at the request of owner James Brady, and it would not be long before the yearling’s giftedness became apparent to the Hall of Fame trainer.

Cassaleria's Trainer Ron McAnally

Cassaleria flourished under McAnally’s guidance, performing admirably enough to earn himself a spot in the starting gate for the very first running of the El Camino Real Derby. The colt would have to overcome a decidedly troubled trip to win the race, one in which jockey Darrel McHargue dove down to an opening near the rail, pressing the horse’s blind eye flush against the backdrop of the Bay Meadows infield. McHargue’s well-timed decision helped erase a twelve length deficit at the top the stretch as the twosome went on to claim victory in California’s newest stakes contest.

Despite the drama that unfolded during Cassaleria’s win in the 1982 El Camino Real Derby, Bay Meadows executives were hoping to pique the public’s interest further for the second installment of Northern California’s marquee racing event. After much consideration, it was decided that a pair of newly contrived activities would be staged as a sort of prelude to the El Camino Real Derby itself. Both activities were slated for the early morning, the first being a five-kilometer fun run for participants of all ages over the grounds at Bay Meadows. The latter of the two programs would be a fundraiser for the American Heart Association, an event the track’s marketing team was billing simply as Man versus Beast.

Organizers of the Man versus Beast event had little trouble locating their horse, but finding the man who would square off in a foot race against this horse proved to be a slightly more difficult task. Jesse Owens had gained notoriety for racing a horse decades earlier, but that was largely for the publicity-fueled dollars that were up for grabs years after he had tasted Olympic glory. Therefore, the good people at the American Heart Association set out to find their man through a series of suitably placed advertisements in local publications.

Never have I met a person who enjoys a lively contest or competition more than my father. As a young man, Pop was quite the accomplished track and field athlete. He took part in the California State Championships as a senior year in high school, and was widely recognized as one of the fastest sprinters in the area during his time in organized athletics. His passion for sports did not stop once his days on the track had ended. If someone or something was fast, be it a football player, a collegiate sprinter, or even a horse, then Pop just had to watch. He remained in great shape himself throughout his thirties, so when the advertisement by the American Heart Association caught his attention, the rest was merely a formality.

Pop with the Burke Boys, Circa 1981

The family spilled out of the pine green station wagon and into the Bay Meadows parking lot shortly after sunrise on February 5, 1983. We were the first to arrive, although a steady stream of visitors would soon follow. Seagulls were working hard on the remnants left by Friday’s departing crowd, while the parking lot attendants smiled and welcomed in each new car as if they were greeting English royalty. There were no imminent signs of rain, but sharp winds seemingly choreographed a waist-high dance of scattered paper all around us.

It was cold for a February morning in California. Pop was decked out in his runner’s attire, which included sneakers, satin jogging shorts, as well as a terry cloth headband that surely would not be fashionable for long. He was unusually quiet as he made his way from our car to the track’s entrance. My brother and I skipped along in our jeans and Patagonia jackets, right in behind my grandfather. Mom had bundled up my baby brother as though we were destined for a remote location in the Yukon. This made us giggle. Others were also on their way to show support for my father as he attempted to take down the mighty beast.

Navigating our way through the building and down onto the track’s apron became an exercise for the senses. Recent rains left small beads of water draped across every exposed surface in sight, and the smells coming from both the track and paddock areas were unlike any I had detected before. The family looked for a favorable viewing spot to set up camp as Pop began his warm-ups for the seventy-five yard war. My brother and I could not contain our excitement, darting in and out of the countless rows of seats, and running our fingers over the hardened plastic from which they were made. Soon, a small crowd began to gather near the finish line. The sound of unclear chatter filled the once silent air, while onlookers readied themselves for the Bay Meadows spectacle known as Man versus Beast.

Pop was nervously pacing back and forth when the beast was led out onto the race track. Her name was Buttercup, and to this day, we continue to poke fun at my Pop, not solely because of the horse’s endearing name, but also alleging that Buttercup may very well have been a donkey dressed in a horse’s costume. That clearly was far from the truth, however.

The man was ready, the beast was ready, and we too were ready. Bang! The starter’s gun sounded and Pop shot away from his crouched position like a bolt of lightning. Buttercup got off to a slow start, and by the time the two combatants reached the midway point of the race, Pop had established a noticeable lead. My brother and I were screaming, flailing our arms wildly about in the air as Mom looked on with growing belief. My grandfather cupped his hands around the sides of his mouth, hoping to better project the motivational words he was outwardly howling.  

And then, it happened. Buttercup found an extra gear just as the two of them approached the wire. Horsepower would defeat manpower in the charity fundraiser, and Pop’s valiant bid to outrun a horse would fall ever so short. The notion of losing never crossed my mind, but an admiration for competing did. Not all triumphant stories end in victory. Our family was in need of someone or something to rally around, and my father provided just that.

Two incredibly special things occurred on this day. Here, in the house that Seabiscuit built, a bright-eyed little boy began a lifelong love affair with horse racing, but more importantly, a father became a hero to that same little boy. Several hours still remained until post time for the El Camino Real Derby. Together as a family we sat, talking and laughing, united and hopeful, all in anticipation of a race that would eventually be won by Knightly Rapport.

Over the years, there have been many memorable moments at the track, yet none could ever compare to the day we waited patiently in the shadows of Cassaleria. 

Dan and Kathy Burke, some years after Man versus Beast

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The author is a horse racing enthusiast determined to offer a unique vision of the sport's most paramount stories.