One of my enduring memories of the early 1970s (not a particularly happy time in America, what with Watergate ramping up and the nightmarish debacle of Vietnam in its death throes) is of my grandfather shaking his head in a kind of tickled-pink euphoria and reiterating for our benefit: “He’s a beautiful horse!” Rising from the table for another cigarette, his back bent from decades of toil in shipyards and sheet metal factories, he had this faraway look, his face radiant with an exuberance rare in his life of scrimping and hardship. Like many hardworking and disillusioned Americans of the time, he had wanted something to rejoice in, something to love and hope and believe in. He found it unexpectedly in a red colt, who was then almost literally flying his way into the pages of history. My grandfather had always loved horseracing, but no swift-footed creature so transformed him as this one.
In the wee hours of a bone-chilling, foggy morning in Virginia in March 1970, a gangly chestnut foal with three white socks and a narrow blaze on his forehead was born to a thoroughbred mare named Somethingroyal. Secretariat was a large but unremarkable colt, aside from his eagerness to get to his feet, and would soon become the property of the loser in a coin toss between breeders.
As he grew and began to train, the young chestnut acted clumsy and lackadaisical, seemingly unable to manage his long legs and large girth. He was later remembered by his early riders as “lazy,” “sleepy,” “a big clown,” “an overgrown kid,” giving “no signs of speed in excess.” When he began working the racetrack, he appeared perplexed as to what he was meant to do, running with his head down, loping awkwardly, getting sideswiped by other horses, and breaking slow out of the gate.
Then something turned: All the physical elements that made up the horse seemed to come together in synergy. His body formed itself into a “running machine” with all the right bulges and planes. He began to take hold of the bit; his strides became rhythmic. He seemed suddenly to understand, on his own, what racing was all about, and had developed the explosive power and endurance to make it happen. The jockey who would later ride the colt to glory began to understand something, too, about the colt’s unusual personality: He could not be controlled like other horses. To call the shots from the saddle, to use the whip, only crippled the horse’s style. As his biographer William Nack later reflected: “His chief problem in life was that he was handled by people.” The jockey literally had to unlearn the tricks of his trade, to leave the horse alone to run his own race. And run his own race he did.
In one characteristic match, the Sanford in Saratoga, he found himself deliberately boxed in by the rest of the field in a blind switch. He waited for the slightest of openings and burst through “like ‘Orange Juice’ Simpson plunging the line and scattering a bunch of rookies from the second team,” according to Charles Hatton, a leading turfwriter of the day. “In action he can be terrifying. He swoops down on his field like a monster in a horror movie, and in the Sanford he left shambles of them reeling around the racetrack.” In the Hopeful Stakes, the colt exploded, running from dead last to the lead in 290 yards, and winning by five lengths. In the Bayshore he did it again, lunging through the smallest of openings and racing to the wire to win by four and a half lengths, causing the son of his trainer to scream, “He’s too much horse! They can’t stop him!”
Nack wrote about the red colt’s trainer in his biography: “[He] did not know it then, but he was moving gradually toward a time in his life that would strain his capacity for understanding, wrench his beliefs in what he had learned about long odds and about a sport shot through and through with chance. After more than forty years on the racetrack, he was about to go to the races.”
The chestnut colt was dubbed Horse of the Year. Then he wintered in Florida, until the time drew near for the most celebrated trio of thoroughbred horse races – the Triple Crown: The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the longest and most gruelling of them all, the Belmont Stakes in New York. No horse had won the Triple Crown in twenty-five years, since Citation in 1948, and for a television generation emerging from the angst and dashed hopes of the 1960s, the handsome chestnut became everybody’s hero, something to love and believe in.
Then, in the final preparatory race before the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial, the colt appeared to have utterly lost steam. He refused to take the bit and run as usual. He seemed listless; his jockey couldn’t even whip a response out of him. Horse and rider were mocked, cast rhetorically upon the heap of thoroughbred racing’s “could-have-beens” who had also been hyped up and come to nothing. The jockey was beside himself with dismay and perplexity until he found out about an abscess on the colt’s lip, which had caused a lot of pain but had now burst and was healing. The jockey pleaded with the owner not to take him off the horse. Everything would be okay, he said. But sceptics held the day. Overnight, the red colt was written off. One veteran horseman said he “had never seen such wholesale abandonment of faith in a racehorse, and executed with such suddenness, and all on the basis of just one race.” All bets were off. Now the colt’s rival, Sham, at the top of the list in the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times Derby ratings, became the Triple Crown hopeful, the one to watch.
The Kentucky Derby that year took the record crowd of 137,476, and most of America, by storm. The red colt was tuned to perfection, taut as a string. He was “back again,” and seemed to relish drawing the sceptics along. True to form, he broke last out of the gate, and in those first moments his owner and trainer nearly turned away, afraid to watch their worst nightmare. “My God! Not another one of these,” the trainer exclaimed. “I’m getting out of here.” “You’ll stay here and face this with me!” the owner fumed. They were ready to call it a day. But something held them transfixed. The red thoroughbred began to accelerate. Passing one horse in the field after the next, the colt ran each sixteenth of a mile faster than the one before – something never before done in the Kentucky Derby. In a last ditch effort, Sham’s jockey whipped him toward the wire, but to no avail. The red colt continued to accelerate and won by two and a half lengths.
In an instant, the handsome chestnut was back in the limelight and the accolades – everybody’s hero once again. Talk of a “superhorse” returned. The red colt had broken the record time for the Kentucky Derby. Ironically, so had Sham – a beautiful, lightning-fast horse, who would have been a Triple Crown winner in his own right, had it not been his bitter misfortune to be born the same year as the red colt. His plight was reminiscent of the gifted Salieri pondering the unsurpassable musical greatness of his contemporary, Mozart.
The finish of the next race of the series, the Preakness, was a repeat of the Derby. But the contest featured one startling exception. Midrace, the red colt, reading the slightest turn of his jockey’s wrist as the signal, “You can make your move now,” burst forward with explosive speed on the first turn, looping around the entire field of horses on the outside and coming to the lead. To his trainer, it was too fast, too soon. Shouting, “He blew it!” he declared the race lost. But even though Sham made a valiant effort to regain the lead, he simply couldn’t match the pace of the bounding red, and again finished two and a half lengths behind.
On the day of the final race of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes, the thing jockeys feared most was seeing the blue-and-white checkered colors of the red colt coming up from behind. Experts may have wondered whether the chestnut could go the distance of one and a half miles, but his trainer knew everyone would witness something spectacular that day – something that would go down in history. Unlike his previous races, this time the red colt broke fast, coming to the lead out of the gate. The Belmont became a match race between him and Sham, and they sizzled the track nose-to-nose for the first half of the race in record time. Everyone knew it was a sprinter’s pace, impossible to sustain. Trainers, expert horsemen, could be heard screaming, “Slow him down! You’re going to kill the horse! That’s suicidal! He can’t stand up to this!” Oblivious, the red colt bounded along unperturbed, stretching out and finding his stride, while Sham’s legs grew rubbery and he finally began to give way.
Shouts of dismay were silenced as everyone gaped, awed by a spectacle heretofore thought impossible. The red colt continued to fly along effortlessly, pulling away from the field with ease, seeming to settle into a race all his own. The commentator cried huskily, “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” The colt was breathing regularly, snapping the ground away beneath him, moving with a rhythm and power that made enthusiasts weep at the rail. It was poetry in motion. At the wire, he was all alone – a full thirty-one lengths ahead of the field! It was something never before done in Triple Crown history. And – incredibly – the red colt’s jockey never used the whip. The horse had done it all on his own, broken the record for the Belmont Stakes by more than two seconds – a record that stands to this day.
In fact, the red colt’s times for all three races of the Triple Crown stand as records still unbroken. “His only point of reference is himself,” wrote Hatton after witnessing the red colt’s 31-length victory in the Belmont. On top of all that, Secretariat gave Americans something to glow over in the midst of troubled times, his face appearing on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sport Illustrated.
My uncle was with my grandfather to witness Secretariat’s withering solo performance from the grandstand at Belmont. “Being railside at the walking ring before the race was an experience,” he told me recently. “‘Presence’ hardly does justice to how Secretariat commanded the awe of all there. Your grandfather and I then scrambled up to the grandstand for the actual race. I will never forget the look on his face when I turned to him as Secretariat drew away in the stretch, just after the one-mile time had been posted... Dad’s head in both hands, eyes wide in disbelief. For sheer transcendence, the ’73 Belmont has no parallel. That’s why someone like golf champion Jack Nicklaus wept as he watched the race at home, awestruck. Something otherworldly had taken place.”
Years later, looking back, trainers, horseracing enthusiasts, commentators, and journalists still stood in awe. Pat Lynch of the National Racing Association remembered Secretariat and his phenomenal run in the Belmont: “It was a beautiful thing to see. It was the way God intended to make a horse… It was like the Lord was holding the reins. Secretariat was one of his creatures, and He maybe whispered to him a “Go!” and that horse really went. It was really an almost supernatural experience.” Jerry Izenberg of The Star-Ledger mused: “You can’t anticipate greatness. You can’t really define it, I suppose. It’s something that God every once in a while sticks in somebody. And because it comes from God, the gift can’t be ignored. And it can’t be defeated.” In a film about the red colt, just as he breaks into the field of view coming around the final turn of the Belmont, moving with the momentum and purpose of a freight train, the narrator quotes from the 39th chapter of the Book of Job about the horse: “He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. He does not shy away from the sword. He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.”
On Labor Day, 1989, Secretariat came down with laminitis, a life-threatening hoof disease. A month later he was led into a van, injected with barbiturate in his jugular, and let fall to the ground. He was nineteen years old. The veterinarian who performed the necropsy was shocked when he saw the horse’s heart; it was twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart he’d ever seen. God had given Secretariat a unique central pump, which surely enabled him to run like he did. God had also given him an equally remarkable character. Together these gifts won the hearts of millions, at a time when they needed it most.
God knows how fickle we human beings are, how slow to believe, how quick to judge and condemn, to follow praise with mockery and censure, how quick to take the glory to ourselves instead of giving it to him. Maybe that’s why he sends us reminders from time to time that he can do anything. Isn’t that what he is trying to tell his servant Job in the closing chapters of that most remarkable book of the Bible?
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Do you give the horse its might?
Its majestic snorting is terrible.
It paws violently, exults mightily;
It laughs at fear, and is not dismayed.
With fierceness and rage it swallows the ground; it cannot stand still at the sound of the trumpet.
When the trumpet sounds, it says, ‘Aha!’
From a distance it smells the battle, the thunder of the captains, and the shouting…
Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.”
Then Job answered the Lord:
“See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth… I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me.…”
For me, at least, a legendary creature like Secretariat gives the same assurance that God will take care of all unfinished business in the end, and that he has the power to do it. He can set the stars in their places. He can summon the dawn. He can make the perfect horse. He can even make a new heaven and a new earth.