Secretariat. I had forgotten just how much I loved that horse.
Time has never washed away the memory of the greatest horse ever stampeding down the final straight to win the Belmont by an incredible 31 lengths. However, all the drama and excitement of the time had faded until Friday night. Laura and I finally got to the theatre to see the movie, Secretariat. Everything came flashing back as we watched, cried, clapped and even cheered along with others watching the movie. It was all that real again.
There was just something about that horse that fascinated people from the moment he was born until his final day. America was a fractured country in 1973. The three-year-old Secretariat magically brought us all together. We cheered on a horse that would be the first Triple Crown winner since 1948.
Whether you were a right-wing warmonger or a hippie, commie freak, everyone loved Secretariat. At the end of the century, ESPN listed their top 100 athletes from the past 100 years. Secretariat was #35, ahead of Mickey Mantle, Julius Erving, Billy Jean King and many more.
The movie did an outstanding job of capturing the feeling of the times and drama, even if everyone in the theatre knew the outcome of the Triple Crown races. Just as important to the story were owner Penny Chenery Twitty and trainer Lucien Lauren. Played by the beautiful actress Diane Lane and the remarkable actor John Malkovich, the movie traced their key roles in Secretariat’s success and the determination it took to overcome some dramatically long odds. Lane’s performance captured her character’s determination wonderfully.
The movie was based on the book Secretariat: The Making of a Champion by renowned writer William Nack. In the movie, owner Twitty questioned the young Nack about his writing. She said his work read like a poem. Truly, poetry is what Nack wrote about Secretariat as well as many other athletes. A farewell tribute to the great horse by Nack is attached.
The pleasure of meeting Nack has been mine twice, first at Muhammad Ali’s final fight in the Bahamas, and then again at the wedding of mutual friend Dan Lauck, where we both served as groomsmen. At the wedding, Nack spoke of his frustration while trying to track down the elusive chess genius Bobby Fisher. With that same poetic style, Nack had everyone enthralled.
Another pleasure came from covering horse racing at Turf Paradise for the Arizona Republic. The glory of morning workouts as the sun rose from the desert, lighting the sky with rich reds and yellows and the sunny afternoon’s racing revealed one undeniable fact. There is nothing in sport as beautiful as a horse steaming down the home stretch at full speed.
No horse did that as well as Secretariat. He still holds the records for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont. The Belmont record remains the fastest race ever run on dirt. He would hold the Preakness record as well. However, the massive rush of fans flooding the Pimlico infield in Baltimore damaged the electronic timing.
When Secretariat was put down after contracting a life-robbing hoof disease, the great horse’s heart was found to weigh as much as three times the normal size of a thoroughbred. In a final testament to the honor bestowed on the Triple Crown winner, Secretariat was buried whole.
Most racing horses have only their head, heart and legs buried. These symbolize the intelligence, the strength and the power of a horse. Secretariat had all those traits and so much more.
This tremendous machine deserved to be buried whole. Always remember, for one wonderful stretch in 1973, Secretariat made our country whole again.