FANS OF HORSE racing hear all the time about what their sport supposedly isn't -- exciting enough for young people, endowed with a bright future, blah, blah, zzzz.
But the lectures never include what horse racing irrefutably is -- the sport with the greatest capacity to astound, leaving people shaking their heads in amazement, hardly believing what they just saw.
Baseball also can do it, but the worst teams in the major leagues don't win the World Series, as 50-1 Giacomo essentially did in winning the Kentucky Derby on May 7.
When that race ended, millions of people across the country looked at one another and said, "How in the world did that happen?" Only in horse racing.
The sport's history is full of such moments. There's a new one on display in a new ESPN Classic documentary about Whirlaway, the 1941 Triple Crown winner, set to air today at 3 p.m. for the first time.
This isn't just any documentary; it's from Bud Greenspan, the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who has concentrated for decades on Olympic athletes and moments. He's also a longtime racing fan who values compelling storytelling above all.
"Racing is such a wonderful forum for that," Greenspan said yesterday.
It's fitting his new documentary is debuting around the Preakness instead of the Derby (it re-airs tomorrow at 11 a.m.), because Whirlaway's Preakness is among the most astounding sports events you could see, easily the showstopper among the many historic film clips Greenspan dug up.
"I was quite pleased to see it," said Greenspan, in Baltimore this week to promote the film.
Whirlaway was a headstrong, unpredictable colt who did things his own way; he raced in the middle of the track instead of along the rail and ignored attempts to school him to the contrary.
When the starting gate opened in the 1941 Preakness, seven of the eight horses in the race leapt forward and began to run.
Whirlaway sauntered out as if he planned to stop and chat with people in the infield.
"There they go -- at least, there go seven of them. Whirlaway walks out of the gate, counting the house," said the newsreel announcer calling the race.
A smallish chestnut with a long, dark tail, Whirlaway dropped 10 lengths behind the nearest horse in the first quarter-mile, seemingly not trying. On the first turn, he disappeared into clouds of dust raised by the herd far in front of him.
"It was like he was running in a different race," Greenspan said.
The newsreel announcer, whose comments were added later, had fun describing the scene: "The Derby winner is almost out of the picture. Doggone it, he is out. How do you like that?"
Whirlaway remained so far behind for so long that the camera, focused on the leaders, did not pick him up until the horses approached the second turn.
But then Whirlaway came running with such force that he caught and passed the entire field before turning for home.
"He's moving up, coming fast, traveling wide-open!" shouted the newsreel announcer. "Now he's pouring it on!"
He won by 5 1/2 lengths after walking out of the starting gate.
"Things happen in horse racing that you can't explain," Greenspan said. "I fall in love with the stories."
An associate of his once made a film about Red Rum, the British steeplechase legend that overcame foot ailments by jogging in the Irish Sea.
Then there's Devon Loch, the steeplechaser owned by the mother of the Queen of England. Fifty yards from winning the 1956 Grand National, he inexplicably fell trying to jump over a fence that didn't exist. His jockey was Dick Francis, who later became a famous mystery writer.
It's doubtful Greenspan will make a documentary about Giacomo, but the horse's impossible Derby victory was an eerie reprise of Whirlaway's Preakness.
Giacomo, too, was out of the televised picture until the second turn, racing far behind the leaders.
"I had to watch the tape of the Derby three or four times until I started finding him," Greenspan said.
The 50-1 shot came running with force similar to Whirlaway's, passing every horse until none were left in front of him. Although he won at the wire instead of easily, he, too, had astounded.
"I guess that's what makes this game so great," mumbled disappointed trainer Nick Zito after a Derby in which none of his five starters hit the board.
Of course, Zito has known the other side of such stories. Nine years ago, he brought to Baltimore a horse that had run 16th in the Derby, reprising Whirlaway's dismal Preakness start without the hard-charging finish.
Everyone said Zito was nuts to run the seemingly outclassed horse again.
What happened when the starting gate opened at Pimlico? Zito's horse, Louis Quatorze, led all the way around the track and won the Preakness by five lengths.
Only in horse racing.
The Preakness field
PP Horse Trainer Jockey Last race Odds
1 Malibu Moonshine King T. Leatherbury Steve Hamilton 1st, Federico Tesio Stakes 20-1
2 High Fly Nick Zito Jerry Bailey 10th, Kentucky Derby 9-2
3 Noble Causeway Nick Zito Gary Stevens 14th, Kentucky Derby 10-1
4 Greeley's Galaxy Warren Stute David Flores 11th, Kentucky Derby 15-1
5 Scrappy T Robbie Bailes Ramon Dominguez 1st, Withers Stakes 20-1
6 Hal's Image Barry Rose Jose Santos 1st, Unbridled Stakes 50-1
7 Closing Argument Kiaran McLaughlin Cornelio Velasquez 2nd, Kentucky Derby 5-1
8 Galloping Grocer Dominick Schettino Joe Bravo 3rd, Times Square 30-1
9 Wilko Craig Dollase Corey Nakatani 6th, Kentucky Derby 10-1
10 Sun King Nick Zito Rafael Bejarano 15th, Kentucky Derby 15-1
11 High Limit Bobby Frankel Edgar Prado 20th, Kentucky Derby 12-1
12 Afleet Alex Tim Ritchey Jeremy Rose 3rd, Kentucky Derby 5-2
13 Giacomo John Shirreffs Mike Smith 1st, Kentucky Derby 6-1
14 Going Wild D. Wayne Lukas Robby Albarado 18th, Kentucky Derby 30-1