EACH YEAR AT Belmont Stakes time, my sister has some explaining to do. My family frequently names those we love for sports idols. For instance, among the dozen cats and dogs who have come and gone in my life there was Saratoga Roach, a terrier of a beagle, named for the late-summer racetrack in upstate New York, and Cleveland, a hapless chocolate lab, named for the Browns. Then there is my sister, Margaret, named for the 1954 winner of the Belmont Stakes.
At one point in his life our father was a turf reporter, spending his winters at Hialeah, his summers in Saratoga and the time between at the racetracks in the East. Amid the crowd he covered one of the great pastimes was naming thoroughbreds. It’s an art—no name can be more than 18 characters, including punctuation and spaces—as well as a science: Names frequently reflect breeding, sometimes with great flourish. For instance, the year before my sister was born, the great horse of 1953 was a colt whose father was Polynesian and mother was named Geisha. Their champion offspring was crowned Native Dancer. It’s a great tradition.
And one that continued into my family. My father had a horse named for him—it was called Sportseditor. I have a sailboat named Ruffian, for the magnificent dark filly who didn’t know the meaning of the word quit, until she broke down at the mile marker in a match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.
But all this really started in January 1954, when my father and mother, on their way to Hialeah, stopped off to see Max Hirsch, the great horse trainer, at his winter quarters in South Carolina.
In due course it was revealed that there was an offspring on the way in our household.
“What are you going to name the baby?” asked Mr. Hirsch.
“Well, it will be right at Belmont Stakes time,” said my father, thinking of favorites to win that third leg of the Triple Crown, “so I guess it will have to be Fisherman Roach or Porterhouse Roach,” he said.
“No,” said Mr. Hirsch, “I don’t think so.” And with that he took my parents to a stall of a colt and said, “It just might be that you’ll have to name your baby High Gun Roach.” The groom led out an unprominent 3-year-old who had raced only a few times and who had impressed few people except his trainer, and his rider, Eric Guerin.
Five months went by. One June 10 a 6-pound, 9 ½-ounce daughter was born to the Roach family. Two days later the Belmont had its 86th run with High Gun in the Number 5 post position for the once-around-the-track run of a mile and a half.
The father of the newborn in Flushing Hospital invested $10 on High Gun, acting as agent for the baby.
High Gun did a late-running job under a superlative ride by Guerin, who had been given explicit instructions by Mr. Hirsch. The pace-setter was Fisherman. High Gun was a dozen lengths back of him, in eighth place, with half a mile to go. Then under a vigorous hand ride, High Gun went to work. He cut the lengths to ten, to eight, to five, to three, to one. And right at the end he ran down Fisherman and won by a neck. Porterhouse, he was ninth—for which my sister, Margaret High Gun Roach, is grateful every day.