Occasionally, we'll select stories — old and new, sports and otherwise, relevant and merely sublime — that we urge you to read for one reason or another. Today: Charlie Pierce walks into a barn and encounters the first undefeated Triple Crown winner engaged in a New Age relaxation technique — with a man named Ricky Williams, no less — to keep the stallion business-ready during his stud years. Equally entertaining is what Pierce had to say about the karmic scene yesterday on Chris Jones's blog (excerpt attached at the bottom of the post).
"The Stud" by Charles P. Pierce (originally published in the August 2001 issue of Esquire):
RICKY WILLIAMS, A PREACHER and certified master of Reiki energy healing, is thinking at the greatest horse in the world, and I have interrupted him, and the master is not altogether pleased. Birdsong rides the sweet spring breezes into the barn, where it is drowned out by circular new-age music that rounds back on itself in a kind of inchoate instrumental drone that sounds to admittedly old-age ears like the slow disembowelment of a herd of cellos. There are three crystals on the shelf next to the CD player: two chunks of rose quartz and a smaller, smokier wedge that runs more to deep gray and white. The crystals stay there all the time, and the greatest horse in the world does not attempt to eat them. He stands calmly in his stall on this fine Kentucky morning, and the master thinks at him, at least until some clumsy infidel comes stumbling in and blows the energy flow all to hell and gone. The master gives off a bit of a glare—if Reiki energy worked like laser beams, I'd be nothing more than a shadow on the floor by now—so I leave. And Seattle Slew, the greatest horse in the world, tosses me a look as I go.
He is twenty-seven years old now, old for any kind of horse, let alone the only undefeated horse ever to win the Triple Crown, let alone one that retired with nearly $1.2 million in earnings. You can see the years mainly in his flanks, the deep chestnut lightening with age, and around his mouth, too. He walks stiffly, more in angles than in the deep arcs of rolling muscle within which he once uncoiled. It is his eyes that are young. Bright, with great wide whites to them, the eyes are expressive, soulful even. Seattle Slew doesn't simply look at undifferentiated human beings who pass his stall in the fluid spring. He looks at you. You can feel it.
He's the last of them now, the last living Triple Crown winner, even though his victories in 1977 have been obscured in history by those of Secretariat four years before and by the Affirmed—Alydar duels of a year later. Slew did not demolish the competition the way Secretariat did, and he had no Alydar to push him to the wire. He ran tough and he ran smart, with smooth and dependable acceleration. He looked at them all with that great white eye of his, and he simply would not let another horse beat him.
Since retiring that year, he has produced offspring that have won more than $70 million. He has great-grandchildren winning stakes now, and he has lived to see them do it despite nearly dying in January of 2000, when his life was saved by a delicate spinal operation. Secretariat is gone now, and so is Affirmed, and Slew is the last of them, the greatest horse in the world.
"Back when I was a little more verbal about my preference for this horse, I was at the track one day, and there were a couple of experts there, and so I asked them, 'Who are the two best horses you ever saw?' " says Tom Wade, the groom who literally has devoted his life to this horse. "They both said, 'Secretariat and Seattle Slew.' He's on the list, and that's good enough for me."
A great horse builds its own universe. So give him his sunny morning and his mares, and give him his crystals, too. Give him his owners, the husband who is the Idaho hard boot and the wife who brought in the crystals. Give him the groom who has devoted twenty years to him. And give him a chance with Ricky Williams, the local Reiki master, who's thinking at him again.
"Tell you what," says Mickey Taylor, who, with his wife, Karen, bought Slew for $17,500 in 1975. (Three years later, he was insured for more than $100 million.) "You'd have to ask Karen about the Reiki stuff, but I'll tell you one thing, when this horse was constipated, they came in and had a session, and the horse was passing gas pretty quick."
And, honestly, is it all that different from the hundreds of quasimystical calculations by which thousands of railbirds bet ranches they do not own on horses named after their cats, their dogs, their maiden aunts, or the girls who dumped them at the prom? Is tapping into an energy field any farther out on the fringe than laboring like a monk over the unfathomable cuneiform of a dozen tout sheets?
Chris Jones was particularly taken with one sentence: "A great horse builds its own universe." Pierce explains what inspired him to write it:
...I walked into Slew's barn at Three Chimneys and saw that he was in the middle of his twice-weekly Reiki healing session, complete with candles, New Age music, and a Reiki healer who cautioned me to stand in the middle of the barn and not get in the way of what was going on. (To this day, I have no idea.) While I was standing there, leaning against some old tack, I went through my immediate reaction, which was that this was one of the funniest things I ever saw. (Which is not to say that this reaction was entirely incorrect. It was just the reaction I had first.) But then I began to wonder at the happiness this great animal had brought to people that it didn't know from a bag of oats. All the horse people who'd watched him grow up. All the horse people-and all the non-horse people-who'd watched him run. And, now, all the people who'd devoted themselves to taking care of him throughout his extended retirement. All of them seemed to me to have left a portion of their lives in orbit around him. When I sat down to write, the sentence just popped out and, damn, if it didn't feel great.
Artwork by Jennifer Morrison