Why we love Secretariat.

What really happened.
Oct. 8 2010 12:09 PM

Why We Love Secretariat

It's more than his speed.

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It is the race that is the apogee of his career and indeed of every race that has ever been run. It is, in a sense, the race that everyone dreams a fast horse can run when they first see a two-year-old break his maiden with the decisiveness that suggests potential greatness. But it's also the race that no one believes could possibly exist—and perhaps that's the source of its power: It seems counterfactual, though there the fact stands. The other day my brother and I were talking about why we both cry watching this footage from the Belmont Stakes. It has something to do with our mother, who died in 2008. But it also has to do with the race itself, and it's not just that Secretariat represents perfection, I think. (As Sylvia Plath wrote, "Perfection is terrible"; she was speaking of a mannequin, but she meant that perfection can seem inhuman, cold, exclusive.) Every time I watch it I get tears in my eyes when Secretariat pulls away from the pack in the turn, and CBS's announcer, Chic Anderson, starts to get excited, exclaiming first "Secretariat is blazing along," and then, "He is moving like a tremendous machine."

Anderson compares Secretariat to something inhuman. But it is precisely because that word like reminds us Secretariat is not a machine but an animal—neither perfect nor terrible—that his line is so moving. We like to watch the Belmont Stakes because while Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine, he seems, unlike a machine, to know what he is doing; he appears to have will and conscience. In the moment when he pulls away from Sham, his brilliant archrival (who would've been a champion in any other year), we have the sense of an animal exceeding the boundaries of the category of animal. His will seems almost human. And yet because it is not human it contains a kind of stoic purity: There was nothing material in it for Secretariat—he didn't know about the cash prize, or so we presume. He did it for what we imagine to be the feeling of winning. His, we believe, was the pleasure of doing well what you want to do. And that would seem to be the purest sportsmanship there is: aspiration without worldly ambition.

When that corresponds to the kind of tremendous athletic talent we see in the Belmont—talent that sets him not just above but a whole category apart from the other horses—we see what seems to be impossible, a vision of where our understanding of limitations and categories breaks down, and something almost supernatural emerges. Not for nothing did Jack Whitaker on national TV resort years later to the Andalusian term Duende, usually applied to the effects of the performing arts or poetry, to describe Secretariat's eerie accomplishment in the Belmont. As Whitaker explains on air, "Duende means that certain thing–a certain person, place, or thing that sends chills up your spine. The 1970s was the best decade thoroughbred racing has ever seen on either side of the Atlantic. We had giants. … Seattle Slew and the handsome Affirmed. But they didn't have duende. Secretariat had a barnful of duende."

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Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.