The Incomparable Secretariat
Author and journalist Lenny Shulman shares his insight to Secretariat’s enduring popularity from a historical perspective in this nostalgic narrative.
“THE INCOMPARABLE SECRETARIAT”
By Lenny Shulman
Recently, in my job as an editor at The Blood-Horse magazine, I received a letter from a gentleman who had recently seen film footage of the 1938 match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. He gushed that from the camera’s placement, under the rail and looking up the stretch, that Seabiscuit’s thrust and acceleration down the stretch made him as impressive a winner as Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
In the past month, I read quotes from a veterinarian who had autopsied a horse that died on the track. The vet stated that the horse’s heart was larger than normal, but disease-free. He added, by way of comparison, that the heart, while big, was not nearly as large as Secretariat’s.
As Monarchos crossed the finish line of the 2001 Kentucky Derby, race-caller Tom Durkin intoned to his television audience, “He was as fast as Secretariat.” The statement wasn’t quite true, but the comparison to the most famous and dominant Thoroughbred of the past 60 years comes as no surprise. Apparently, everyone is doing it.
What is it about Big Red that makes him the gold standard for all manner of comparisons? After all, Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown while undefeated; Affirmed won his in the high drama of a photo finish with Alydar, a classic rivalry missing in Secretariat’s one-sided decisions.
The 31 lengths? Absolutely a contributing factor. The stuff of which legends are made. The move on the first turn of the Preakness? One doesn’t see anything like that, before or since. The brilliance at Churchill Downs that confirmed once and for all what we all thought we knew? Yes, yes, and yes.
More than Forty years after Secretariat’s Triple Crown feat, the magic still runs strong, both from those who remember and the generations that were not yet on the scene. Having been fortunate enough to talk with owner Penny Chenery and jockey Ron Turcotte and write a series of stories throughout 2013 that commemorated the 40th anniversary, I can tell you Secretariat’s popularity hasn’t diminished a whisker. Fans can’t get enough of his story, and new fans seek to learn all they can about this legend. And his connections remain, through all these decades, the finest ambassadors for Thoroughbred racing that the sport could ever hope for.
He stands alongside Willie Mays and Jim Brown, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. Gifted. Charismatic. Champions. And Secretariat, though he didn’t need it, had even more going for him: Timing. He came to us during a great drought, and gave two generations their first taste of classic greatness, quenching a decades-long thirst.
Moments after the New York Rangers won hockey’s Stanley Cup in 1994, ending 54 frustrating seasons without a championship, a fan at Madison Square Garden held a handmade sign high over his head. It read, “Now I Can Die in Peace.” Like any great punch line, it had the ring of truth to it.
Secretariat’s conquering of the Triple Crown was the first since Citation turned the trick exactly 25 years previous in 1948. That meant any person born in 1940 or after would have been hard-pressed to remember what a Triple Crown felt like. We Baby Boomers would be 20 or older before we got to experience the poetry of equine perfection through Secretariat’s conquering of the sport’s most demanding test.
Hungry? You bet we were. Twenty-five years is an awfully long time, particularly given the times, the stark changes of the 1960s that changed so much about American society. The straight-and-narrow gave way to the questioning of authority. A country that spoke for so long with one voice split apart by the war in Viet Nam. Families stretched to the breaking point by generational fissures. And the specter of the American President as a crook.
Yes, the stage was set to the final theatrical detail for the emergence of a hero. For those that thought it would be a human, well, if they were disappointed, they were in the minority. This Big Red “tremendous machine” was made for the role. Perfect in the absence of human foibles that seem to level even the finest-appearing of our two-legged heroes.
Secretariat would have been a Thoroughbred superstar no matter when he came along. But the times lifted him to greater heights. Today, when racing has been marginalized to the point where the Kentucky Derby winner has little chance of making the cover of Sports Illustrated, let alone a major story therein, it bears remembering that Secretariat graced the covers of that magazine, Time, and Newsweek simultaneously.
In 2014, our Triple Crown drought stretches 36 years, the longest since the coining of the term. It is a fast seemingly without end. New generations have yet to witness the ultimate feat in Thoroughbred racing. They are hungry all over again.
We can only hope that another special horse comes to us. And when he does, we can hope he too has the magic of the great Secretariat, and can somehow withstand the inevitable comparisons.
Lenny Shulman is an Emmy Award-winning writer who worked in TV and film in Hollywood for two decades. For the past 15 years Lenny’s work has appeared in The Blood-Horse magazine, Thoroughbred racing’s leading weekly publication. He is also the author of “Ride Of Their Lives,” a behind-the-scenes look at the triumphs and turmoil of Thoroughbred racing’s top jockeys and the recently released “Long Way From Home,” his first novel.