Friday, October 8, 2010

Secretariat - the horse, not the movie

All the hoopla about the new Disney movie, Secretariat, has brought back some wonderful memories of an amazing animal. I'm not really a horseracing fan like my husband who eats this stuff up every day of his life, but I was a Secretariat fan like millions of other people in this country and, indeed, around the world.

In 1973, when he won the Triple Crown of racing, there wasn't much to cheer about. We were still mired in the Vietnam War and every day brought news of the sad total of casualties from half a world away. Richard Nixon was president and was deep into his paranoia, dragging the country along with him. The Watergate scandal was on the horizon. We desperately needed some good news. And along came Secretariat.

He was a gorgeous horse, right out of central casting. He was a big flashy red with three white stockings and a white blaze on his face, and he had personality. He seemed to love the limelight. Maybe that is anthropomorphizing. Who knows what a horse really feels? But from the outside, it certainly appeared that he relished his celebrity and enjoyed having his picture taken.

And when he ran, oh my! He was Pegasus flying around the track. Such grace and power.

I watched all three races of the Triple Crown that year, something I had never done before and I don't remember having done since. When he won the Kentucky Derby, it was obvious even to one who knew next to nothing about racing like myself that this was a special horse. Then he won the Preakness and the racing world was electrified with the possibility that there might actually be a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 25 years. By this time, the rest of the world had picked up on the story and realized what was happening. We all waited for the Belmont Stakes.

Only four other horses were entered in the Belmont, including Sham, who had run second to Secretariat in both the Derby and the Preakness. When the race started, both Sham and Secretariat set a fast pace and quickly left the other three horses behind. But soon Sham began to tire in this longest of the three races and from that point, there was no doubt, if indeed there ever had been.

As Sham faltered, Secretariat seemed to get stronger and faster. He blazed his way around the track getting farther and farther ahead. By the time he finished, he was an amazing 31 lengths ahead of the next horse in the race. He set the track record that day and it still stands today. It may stand forever.

When I think of Secretariat today, that is the race that I remember - a magnificent red horse running all by himself with no real competition. Running, seemingly, just for the pure joy of running. And that was the emotion that I experienced watching him that day. Pure joy. In all the sad, tragic, and hateful world of 1973, here was something that was pure and beautiful and without blemish. Even today, when I want to evoke that feeling - that feeling of pure joy - I remember Secretariat's Belmont race.

Secretariat was euthanized in 1989 at the age of 19 after he contracted a painful hoof disease. After his death, a necropsy examination was performed. When his heart was removed, it was found that it was two-and-a-half times the size of a normal horse's heart. That was no surprise to his fans. We always knew he had heart.

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