The immortal Secretariat

“An animal became a sports star became an American hero became an enduring icon of untouchable greatness “- Pat Forde, The Daily Cover

It’s been 50 years now and you still can’t escape Secretariat. He refuses to become a nostalgic act that you occasionally blow the dust off, remember, nod with a smile and ship him back into yellowed sports pages and black and white video footage.

He refuses to fade away with much the same disdain he dispatched his competitors. We were always welcomed to run with him and still are through the portals of time. He encouraged it and reveled in it, the attention and adulation. The horses he ran against were shown a permanent back seat for the duration. Their privilege was to run on the same track, nothing more.  Maybe he didn’t notice since the only sight ahead of him was the finish line.

Over these five weeks (May 6 – June 10) the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing will grab its share of the sporting world’s attention with the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and concluding with the Belmont Stakes. New names and new fame will emerge; maybe a shot at the Triple Crown will spice up the attention.

But at best the stage will be shared. The overwhelming shadow of Secretariat can’t be denied. It is always there. But anniversaries enhance. Half of a century and `Big Red’ is still fresh, still stealing the will of those who dared to challenge, thundering down the track into legend.

It was 1973 and Secretariat offered a temporary tonic for so much of what had sapped the spirit – Vietnam, Watergate, inflation. He ran the Derby and came from last place to win in record time, covering the 11/4 mile track in 1:59 2/5. He ran the Preakness and came from last place to win in record time, covering the 1 3/16 track in 1:53.

Then there was the Belmont a performance that sent chills up the spine, caused tears for the years and produced stunned disbelief from both racing experts and multitudes of those who witnessed.  Many have called Secretariat’s performance in which he reduced the field to spectators as one of the greatest in sports history. Not just horse racing, all sports.

A 31-length victory and absurdly brilliant time of 2:24, more than two seconds ahead of the old record. Secretariat coronated himself. He didn’t need a pen, typewriter or even today’s computers to tell him what he had done.  It was a performance of unearthly quality even to those who thought they had seen it all. “ It was like the lord was holding the reigns. Secretariat was one of his creatures and maybe he whispered to him – go,” Pat Lynch of the New York Racing Association told ESPN. Writer Jerry Izenberg of the Star Ledger added, “I believed in Pegasus that day because I saw.”

“He was a grand looking horse. He was big and strong.  He had legs of iron. He had a tremendous mind. He had an iron constitution. He had it all. He was the total package.” – Seth Hancock, President Claiborne Farms.

Brilliance is not unique. Every sport can come up with its legends. Baseball has Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, basketball has MJ and LeBron, soccer has Pele and Messi, football has Brady and Lawrence Taylor. The list goes on. The records and moments are always there. But time for so many inevitably puts the brakes on the blood rush.

Secretariat seems different.  He wasn’t perfect. He lost five times although one was a first place finish erased when he was disqualified for bumping and the others were due to injuries. Yet, 50 years since the magnificence of 1973 and 34 years since his death he exudes a presence and is not lost in yesterday.

Certainly the notable anniversary has magnified the power of his presence. A movie on his life in 2017 contributed to his enduring allure and introduced him to new generations.  The almost unfathomable idea that he still holds all three triple crown records 50 years later in a world where sports records are broken with regularity with few exceptions like Wilt’s 100-point game and Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hit streak  demand prolonged awareness and admiration.

“I ask strangers……who is the best horse you ever heard of and I’m hoping they say (American) Pharaoh (2015 Triple Crown winner). They say Secretariat.” (American Pharaoh trainer Bob Baffert)

Yet there is more with Secretariat. So many of the great ones grab your mind. Secretariat grabbed mind and hearts.  Jack Nicklaus admitted to crying watching Secretariat in the Belmont. Fans cheered and cried at the Belmont. Fans adored the performances but loved the author.

There is not just talk about the accomplishments; there is an attraction to the horse that produced it all. It went beyond the track. He has never been just another horse or animal.

“I have never seen any horse / animal that had the personality and charisma that horse had. God he was a magnificent animal.” – Bill Cooke, International Museum of the Horse. 

“He seemed to know he was something special.” – Television commentator Heywood Hale Broun.

The media saw more than a horse. “If he could’ve talked he would’ve been a son of a bitch because he was arrogant. He was the heavyweight champion of the world and he knew it, “Ed Schuler of the Associated Press told ESPN.  Famed sportscaster Chris Schenkel said,” Secretariat would look at you like you were a pretty girl.”

Secretariat was a dazzling combination of the complete show. The performance demanded appreciation. The personality just added to the attraction.

Back in 1973 Secretariat was on the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Later on a U.S. stamp with his picture was issued. There are more than 250 streets named after him and a park. He has been ranked by both ESPN and Time as one of the top 100 athletes of all time.

Those who watched him run know something extra special. New generations are learning. They don‘t have to look far. He hasn’t gone anywhere.  A half century later Secretariat shows no signs of slowing down.

“Anytime you see a great horse you compare him to Secretariat…..He is the standard that you compare every other horse to. And they all fall short.” – Mike Battaglia, Kentucky Morning Line.

(Author’s Note). I am not an avid horse racing fan. Like many I take notice of the Triple Crown races every year and watch but that is where it starts and ends. A casual fan, nothing more. I remember being quite aware of Secretariat in 1973 and that stunning May and June. Something caught me. Maybe the power of his performances, the overall stunning magnificence.

The thing is it has never left me. I have read Bill Nack’s wonderful book about Secretariat several times. I have watched his Triple Crown races tens of times and they never get old. I have watched Secretariat’s final race in Canada and the Marlboro Cup where he blistered most of the top horses in North America.

I have watched the last footage of Secretariat taken three days before he was put down with laminitis, a painful hoof disease. I have watched countless videos comparing Secretariat to so many other great horses and read so many news stories. I have watched Risen Star win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1988, winning going away in the Belmont just like his daddy, Secretariat, did.

Fifty years later, 34 years since his death, he still runs for me. I will watch the Triple Crown races as always. The eyes will be on the horses, the mind will be on Secretariat.

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