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Secretariat: Poetry In Motion
I have been in awe of thoroughbred racehorses since I was ten years old and attended a horse race at the Puyallup Fair with my dad and uncle back in 1958. I knew nothing about the sport other than the fact that horses raced around an oval. I knew nothing then, as I do now, of the number of deaths that occur each year to these magnificent creatures nor did I know anything about the billion dollar gambling industry. I only knew that the horses were the epitome of raw power and speed and from that first race on I was hooked.
Fifty-four years later I am still in awe. Perhaps a part of it is remembering that fine afternoon when I bonded with two important men in my life, feeling a comradeship that was worth far more than the return on a Daily Double. Perhaps my awe is fueled by a love of sports, the duel of athletes at the top of their game competing head-to-head. I suspect, however, that the main contributor to my awe is simply a love of horses.
By 1973 I was a casual follower of thoroughbred racing in this country. I would read articles on occasion about the leading horses in the country and of course I would watch the Triple Crown races. I was aware that it had been quite some time since a horse had won the Triple Crown (25 years) and I was prepared for another failed attempt that spring.
How many times in a lifetime are we lucky enough to see the greatest athlete of all time in a sport? Once? Twice? I was fortunate enough to see Muhammad Ali in his prime. Was he the greatest boxer in the history of his sport? I’ve seen Michael Jordan, Mark Spitz, Willie Mays and Wayne Gretsky. Were they the greatest? Those debates will be argued for years to come and I can see the “for and against” in each argument.
In the sport of horse racing I may have truly seen the greatest in 1973.
His name was Secretariat.
FROM SERIOUS BLOODLINES COMES A CHAMPION
Horse breeding is not an exact science. Oftentimes millions are spent on a horse with impeccable pedigree only to have mediocre results. Not so with Secretariat.
“Big Red” was born March 30, 1970 on The Meadow Farm in Virginia. He was the son of Bold Ruler, himself a winner of the Preakness and the Belmont, and Somethingroyal. A large, bright-red chestnut colt, he grew to be 16.2 hands (about 66 inches) and in racing form he weighed 1,175 pounds with a girth of 75 inches. To say he was large would be somewhat of an understatement.
What was not known until his death, however, was that he literally had the enlarged heart of a champion. A normal racehorse has a heart that weighs, on average, seven pounds. Secretariat’s heart was estimated to weigh twenty-two pounds at the time of his death.
Owned by Penny Tweedy, Secretariat spent the next two years preparing for his destiny.
THE FIRST STEPS TOWARDS GREATNESS
Endless days are spent preparing a horse for racing. Sleepless nights, constant worries about possible injuries, the nagging fear that all that time and money is for naught, these are the constant companions of thoroughbred owners and trainers. I would imagine the concerns only intensify as the time approaches to begin the two-year old racing season.
On the 4th of July, 1972, Secretariat began his racing career at Aqueduct Racetrack where he finished fourth, a length and a quarter out of the lead. An inauspicious beginning for sure; little did his owner know that this would be the only time he finished out of the money in his twenty-one starts.
He went on to win his next five races and by the end of the year had won the 1972 American Horse of the Year Award, a rare occurrence for a two-year old. He had a rather bothersome habit of breaking late from the gate, usually dead last, but once he found his stride he was virtually unstoppable. Those who saw him saw unbridled power in his stride, a rare combination of speed, strength and heart that is the dream of every horse breeder.
As 1973 loomed on the horizon Secretariat was perched on the edge of greatness. It was now time to find out just how great he could be.
THE TRIPLE CROWN OF HORSE RACING
Considered the ultimate test in horse racing, the Triple Crown consists of three races of different lengths spanning five weeks. It begins with the Kentucky Derby, a mile-and-a-quarter test of speed and strength, followed in two weeks by the Preakness at a mile-and-three-sixteenths and ending three weeks after that with The Belmont, a grueling mile-and-a-half that all too often spells defeat for any horse hoping to capture the Triple Crown.
Secretariat won the Derby by 2 ½ lengths in a track record 1:59 2/5 and the Preakness by the same 2 ½ length margin. There were subtle signs that the best was yet to come. In the Derby Secretariat ran each quarter mile faster than the previous, meaning that by the end of the race he was still accelerating. In the Preakness he took the lead with almost six furlongs remaining in the race and then coasted to the finish line, never really extending himself as if he knew there was no threat or reason to worry.
The stage was set for June 9, 1973, and a moment in history that transcended time and place.
Breaking easily from the gate at The Belmont, Secretariat waged a two-horse race with Sham for the first six furlongs. As Sham began to tire, Secretariat began a one-horse race towards immortality. I will forever remember watching “Big Red” race around the final turn and seeing no other horses, as if he was just out for an afternoon solo gallop. He finished the race 31 lengths in front, the largest winning margin in the history of the race, and his time of 2.24 flat was a world record on dirt. To give you a better understanding, his race time computed to 37.5 mph and to this day no other horse has broken the 2.25 time, let alone a second faster at 2.24.
His performance made him the ninth Triple Crown winner in history and the first in twenty-five years. More than that, though, his performance that Saturday afternoon filled the racing world and the general public with a sense of awe and wonder.
I clearly remember sitting in front of the television as the race ended thinking that I had just witnessed one of the greatest performances of all-time in any sport. It was pure excellence. It was pure dominance. It was ungodly power and incredible beauty….it was Secretariat!
THE REST OF THE STORY
In the spring of 1973 Watergate was dominating the news as Nixon aides were quickly resigning and/or facing criminal charges. U.S. bombing in Cambodia was continuing, there was violence in Ireland and London and the American Indian Movement had seized Wounded Knee in South Dakota.
Turmoil surrounded us that spring but for two minutes and twenty-four seconds there was elation as a four-legged champion rose above it all and gave us a reason to celebrate life.
Oddly, there would be two more Triple Crown winners in that decade. Seattle Slew won in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. It has now been thirty-four years without another one.
Secretariat finished his racing career after the end of 1973. His record consisted of twenty-one races with sixteen firsts, three seconds and one third, but really, those are only statistics. They chronicle the winning percentage, the record times and the earnings won, but they in no way tell us about the heart of a champion. During one five-week period we were witness to the greatest of all time, a rare freak of nature who reached within himself and single-handedly gave the world a respite from its problems.
Secretariat died on October 4, 1989, the victim of laminitus, a painful hoof disease. He was buried on Claiborn Farm in Kentucky and millions mourned his passing.
The legend, however, will never die!
2012 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
To purchase my Kindle books go to:
- Secretariat - a Horse to Remember
Secretariat was one of only 11 winners of the Triple Crown. His record at the Kentucky Derby have never been broken. In 1973, Secretariat was the most famous horse on the planet.