Pigskin and Horsefeathers

Paul Camarata

On Monday, a horse racing stable in California named one of its fillies Tebowing.  This comes as little surprise, considering in 2000 the same ownership group saddled up a Breeders Cup Mile winner named Singletary.  These thoroughbred news makers are only recent additions to the long history of king football and the Sport of Kings: a pony tale that seems to intertwine everything from Paul Brown to Big Brown, fingertip catches to Finger Lakes Racetrack.

Take Chad Ochocinco.  Long before his work stoppage inspired soccer tryouts, the receiver became a two sport athlete in 2007 when he raced Restore the Roar at Cincinnati’s River Downs.  Given a head start, man defeated beast that day in the third known match race between a horse and a Bengal.  Cris Collinsworth had previously lost a dash to Mr. Hurry in 1983, and was defeated again a decade later by Sir Trace.  With his 0-2 lifetime mark, it’s no wonder Cincinnati’s Gator never crossed the Ohio to compete in the Kentucky Derby.

In the summer of 1937, Steelers owner Art Rooney – a legendary horse handicapper – rode a winning streak at Saratoga and Empire City Racetracks to reported winnings of more than a quarter million dollars.

That fabled Fastest Two Minutes in Sports was born in 1875, more than three decades prior to the birth of football’s original famous horse Bronko.  Nagurski.  Bronko sired Bronko Jr., who played at Notre Dame where the first famed backfield was known as the Four Horsemen, in the same colorful era that Red Grange became the Galloping Ghost.  He was hired away from the Fighting Illini’ by a Chicago chief called Papa Bear, and in 1925 stampeded into the Polo Grounds.

There, the buzz over Grange’s running gait padded the Giants’ paid gate and helped improve the odds for an old bookmaker named Tim Mara that his New York football franchise would survive.  Because those were lean years at the box office for Mara and the NFL owners, who still didn’t know if pro football would stick or be sent to the glue factory.

Long time Giants owner Wellington Mara (pictured in 2004) attends the races at Saratoga.

The answer came in 1958, Mara’s last season in the Giants saddle, when he witnessed his now thriving club in The Greatest Game Ever Played.  New York lost it to a team wearing horseshoes that rallied down the stretch behind a stud quarterback and a man called Ameche – nicknamed the Horse.  His touchdown captured the NFL championship for Baltimore, where previously the most famous title was always the one the city gave away, at its race course Pimlico in the annual Preakness Stakes.

Hosting the second jewel of the Triple Crown helped make a horse-racing hotbed of Maryland, where the idea of horses inspiring men makes perfect sense to the natives.  Take the case of the boy reared in the Old Line State — Annapolis to be exact – who learned that whether you have hooves or a helmet, heart is what makes you a champion.  That boy became Belichick, a coach with a classroom, in which he invoked moments from the Belmont and the Breeders Cup to spur his New England players on a ride as famous as Paul Revere’s.

This century’s Patriots captured their own triple crown of titles, and might have won three more if not for playoff losses to the Broncos in ‘05, the Colts in ‘06, and in ‘08, the longest of long shots, Manning to Tyree.

Above, the original brown and mustard logo of the Denver Broncos.

Their play led to Big Blue’s third Super Bowl win, the first two coming under a horse lover named Parcells.  He owns a home barely a quarter pole from Saratoga, America’s oldest thoroughbred track, where the great colt Man O’War lost the only race of his career to a horse named Upset.  The world’s word for an unexpected win by the underdog came from that defeat in 1919.  Half a century later, just as great a Colt upset occurred in Super Bowl III, a game that so stung Baltimore that not even their Super Bowl V win over Dallas could fully ease the pain.

When the football Colts did kick past the Cowboys for the title, Tom Landry’s team recovered quickly enough to win its first championship the following year.  Since then Dallas has lassoed four more Lombardi trophies, been branded America’s Team, and a Cowboy has inspired a rule about a practice called “horse-collaring.”  It all fits like a finely shooed hoof, considering that from Roy Williams to Hank Williams, sports history has proven that yard lines and equines always seem to end up in a twist.

Click here to see the answers to the above quiz.

%d bloggers like this: