The movie SECRETARIAT comes out tomorrow. To tell you the truth, I've been a little skeptical. It looks at little too Disney-esque, a little too much like a Dakota Fanning movie. As it turns out, the movie is getting good reviews like this one from Roger Ebert (Thanks to Barry Traylor for the tip.)
But regardless of what the reviews are like and of my misgivings of what I think it is going to be like, I am still going to go, if only out of loyalty to the horse and to what he meant to me when I was growing up.
In the spring of 1973, I was 15 years old. A miserable, acne-ridden, insecure, cigarette-smoking 15 years old. I had already gotten in with a bad crowd - in a small town in the early seventies, there were plenty of us that were going through personal and family hells and self-medicating to cope.
We were living in the mountains above Arnold, California, in an isolated cabin. I had already started to ride horses quite a bit in the summers before, but in the winter snow I was grounded. I had spent the previous winter in my room, looking out at the darkness and the snow flurries that blanketed the trees outside, smoking cigarette after cigarette, listening to my small radio. I daydreamed about being a jockey. I imagined myself at Bay Meadows as an exercise rider, picturing myself perched on the back of a colt, pounding down a backstretch. The track ahead was wide and clean and uncomplicated.
One night, as I sat at the dinner table and watched the news with Huntley and Brinkley, a horse appeared on the news. A big chestnut colt that everyone was starting to talk about. He was the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. His owner had syndicated him - a new term in those days - for a staggering $6 million dollars.
I was raised on children's books that idealized horse racing. According to these books, horse racing was nothing but foals romping in bluegrass pastures and kindly black grooms devoted to their charges. It was all a fantasy, of course. I didn't know a lot, but I did know that it had been a very long time - 25 years in fact - since there had been a Triple Crown winner, when Citation did it in 1948.
Secretariat, with his 99% perfect confirmation (horse experts grudgingly wouldn't say he was 100% perfect) and with the media frenzy that followed, carried me through that spring. I knew, just like the rest of the country, that this was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. I became swept up in the obsession along with everyone else. My mother and stepfather seemed slightly startled when I would march out to the living room on Saturday afternoons and turn on the Wide World of Sports, but I didn't give a shit. I watched, uncaring and ready to kill them if they interrupted, as Secretariat won the Derby, the Preakness, and then gave us one of sport's finest moments when he won the Belmont by 31 lengths.
Secretariat was a hero not only to me, but to a country that was suffering from a series of tragedies with no end in sight. We were just getting out of the Vietnam War, after a mind-numbing decade and 50,000 American troops lost. Watergate was just beginning: H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned the month before the Kentucky Derby. Two days before the Preakness, the Watergate televised hearing began. We were in the middle of our Long National Nightmare.
The world of sports was reeling also. We had all grieved the autumn before when terrorists hijacked the Munich Olympics and kidnapped the Israeli wrestling and fencing team members, and we all had our hearts broken when Jim McKay of Wide World of Sports had announced on television that "They're all gone." We had survived the sixties, but barely. And that summer was the beginning of the first great Oil Crisis and resulting gas shortage. (Remember the lines at the gas stations?)
We needed a feel-good moment, and the huge strapping colt did just that. At the Kentucky Derby he galloped every furlong faster than the previous one, meaning that he was still accelerating at the 7/8 pole. His time record at the Kentucky Derby still stands as a track record. The record he set at the Belmont, 2:24 for a mile and a half on dirt, is still a record too.
He also gave a 15-year old something to look forward to. He may have been the headliner for a quick six weeks, but it carried me through the entire summer. I hung on to my dream of being a jockey. Although it never transpired (which is probably a good thing) I did keep riding. I took riding lessons and started to stay away from those friends that were dangerous. Seems odd that a horse would be one of the things that would save me from self-destruction. But it wasn't the first time, nor would it be the last.
Secretariat retired at the age of three; the demands of owners wanting to get their $6 million dollars’ money’s worth did not allow his to run after that. He “had” to retire to stud. Big Red ended up being euthanized at the age of 19 due to suffering from laminitis.
Secretariat’s legacy has been tarnished slightly due to the fact that his offspring, for the most part, were not the spectacular performers that he was. What many people don’t know is that Secretariat has earned a reputation of being a sire of outstanding broodmares. Who knew that Big Red would end up with such a strong feminine side. The mares that produced A.P. Indy and Storm Cat were fathered by Secretariat. Storm Cat has, for many years, been the most sought-after stallion in the world, commanding a stud fee of $500,000.
Which brings me to my last connection with Secretariat. Many years later, in the late 1980s, I was riding horses regularly at a hunter-jumper training stables in Pasadena. One of my friends was married to an ex-jockey and had access to racehorses that hadn't "made it" at the racetrack. The lucky horses get second lives as pleasure horses; many become fine jumpers, dressage and event horses. (We won’t go into the ones that aren’t so lucky, one of the reasons I don’t follow racing anymore.) One day Gayle had a new arrival: a small and pretty chestnut filly with a flaxen mane. She was a granddaughter of Secretariat and was his spitting image. Unfortunately she was on a small size and not fast, so she didn't inherit all of her grandfather's traits. But maybe it wasn't so bad: getting kicked off the track and banished to being a pleasure horse is, in many instances, a better outcome for a Thoroughbred. I don’t know what eventually happened to her, but I’m thinking that eventually she became a broodmare.
When I first saw her, memories of that summer of 1973. On at least one occasion, I stood at her stall door and watched as she ate her alfalfa cubes, oblivious to her pedigree and of her grandsire, who captivated an entire nation and helped a lot of people get through a very tough time.
Nowadays, the closest thing we have to a racehorse of the same caliber is Zenyatta who, as of today, is unbeaten in 19 races.
Zenyatta’s great-grandsire, Princequillo, is the grandsire of Secretariat.
Here's the footage of Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes. Thanks again, Barry.