1973 was a tumultuous time in history. Between the Watergate scandal, which was only beginning to unfold, and the end of the Vietnam Conflict, the U.S. desperately needed some cheer. Then. . . along came Secretariat! We cheered and cried through our laughter. (I’m not sure what to call that feeling, though there’s probably a German word for it.) It didn’t matter if you were a hippie, a buttoned down businessman, a bra burner, a housewife, or a child. . . everybody cheered!
It’s been forty years. Yes, forty years since Secretariat won the Triple Crown. Forty years since he became the first horse to grace the cover of Time Magazine. Forty years since a large portion of the U.S population was glued to their television sets to watch the horse that ran away with our hearts . . . by thirty-one lengths. In case you’re wondering, that makes this the Ruby Anniversary. That’s a fitting way to celebrate a big, red, gem of a horse, dontcha think?
The Horse that wasn’t Just a Horse, of Course
In my reminiscing, I went back and read Secretariat’s “Time Magazine” feature article from June 11, 1973. I confess that I let out a most unladylike snort when I read the part where writer, Pete Axthelm, described Secretariat as having “a neck like a buffalo” and “a back as broad as a sofa”. Secretariat really was larger than life in more ways than one. Like Man o’ War, he earned the nickname “Big Red” from fans. Hey, no one ever said horse racing fans were particularly original. Sometimes we just calls ‘em like we sees ‘em.
Horses don’t usually become household names, but Secretariat was. Even if you’ve been living under a rock for the past forty years, you know it’s a name you’re supposed to recognize. In 1975, Bill Nack first published his book, Big Red of Meadow Stable. It was later revised to include the final chapters of Secretariat’s life and was given the new title, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. It is that revised book which served as the basis of the 2010 Disney film, Secretariat. And then. . .a whole new generation fell in love with the story of Secretariat’s triumph, and how he enriched the lives of his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, his trainer, Lucien Lauren, and fans all around the world.
See Secretariat Run? Run, Secretariat! Run!
Secretariat still holds the record for fastest time in the Kentucky Derby and in the Belmont Stakes. He would hold the record for the Preakness, as well, if a glitch hadn’t damaged the electronic timing. Eh, we don’t need to see it in a record book to know that he holds the record.
Sometimes I find myself piddling around on the computer when I should be working. (I know that shocks you!) What I’ve learned from that experience is that other people can keep their grumpy cats and pet gifs. All I need is the clip of Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes to lift my spirits, and occasionally the Carol Burnett spoof of “Gone with the Wind”. But mainly, I just need Secretariat at Belmont!
Seeing Secretariat run a race was like watching Louis Armstrong walking on the moon. No, wait! That’s not right. That was Neil Armstrong. . .and anyway, it was not exactly like that. It was like watching Muhammad Ali rage over knocking out Sonny Liston. . .like Joe Namath winning Super Bowl III. . .like Reggie Jackson hitting three straight home runs off of three different pitchers in the 1977 World Series. . .like “Miracle on Ice” in 1980. It was something deeply, truly, incredibly memorable! Lawdy! How I love when the cameras have to switch to a wide angle lens because that was the only way to include another horse on the screen! I don’t want to give it away, but Secretariat won—by almost 1/16th of a mile!
We Fell in Love with Him, Heart and Soul
Secretariat retired to Claiborne Farm after winning the Triple Crown in 1973. In September of 1989, writer Bill Nack was at Claiborne Farm when Seth Hancock, President of Claiborne Farm received devastating news. Secretariat had contracted the dreaded hoof disease, laminitis. The outlook was grim.
Bill Nack wrote about Hancock’s reaction to that in the updated version of his book. Nack quoted Hancock as saying, “Ten thousand people come to this farm every year, and all they want to see is Secretariat. They don’t give a hoot about the other studs. You want to know who Secretariat is in human terms? Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world. The greatest. Now make him six-foot-three, the perfect height. Make him real intelligent and kind. And on top of that, make him the best-lookin’ guy ever to come down the pike. He was all those things as a horse. He isn’t even a horse anymore. He’s a legend.”
To prevent further suffering, Secretariat was euthanized on October 5, 1989. He was nineteen-years-old. An autopsy revealed something extraordinary about him—his heart. Secretariat’s heart was found to be nearly three times the size of a normal equine heart! Dr. Tom Swerczek, who performed the autopsy, was the research and diagnostic pathologist at Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Dr. Swerczek noted, “The heart was perfect. There were no defects. It was simply the largest heart I’ve ever seen.” Dr. Swerczek estimated that Secretariat’s heart weighed between twenty-one and twenty-two pounds. The average horse’s heart weighs 8 ½ pounds.
Fans of Secretariat didn’t need the official autopsy findings to tell us what we already knew. This horse had a lot of heart! And he brought that heart to the track. In 1999, ESPN compiled a list of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Secretariat was #35. His ranking was two spots higher than Mickey Mantle! He really was a legend. I guess that’s why we’re still celebrating his career, forty years after he won the Triple Crown.
Happy Anniversary, Secretariat! There will never be another horse like you. But your fans keep hoping for something close. I suppose that’s what keeps us going.
Watch the most famous race in world history. . .Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes in 1973, and at that moment, capturing the Triple Crown!
Happy Trails, y’all!