Why we love Secretariat.

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

Why We Love Secretariat

It's more than his speed.

The Secretariat.

Every home has its household gods and in our rather pagan one their names were Ruffian and Secretariat. It was our horse-race-loving mother who taught my brothers and me the litany of these great thoroughbreds' accomplishments, usually on days we spent together at Belmont Racetrack, the wind ruffling the manes of the colts and fillies dancing out to the post. Ruffian was the undefeated front-running filly who had broken down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure in 1975, and Secretariat, of course, was the gawky, brilliant colt who in 1973 became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown, doing it with the kind of authority never seen before or since. As a three-year-old he not only set the track record for the Derby—1:59 and 2/5 for a mile and a quarter—he demolished the field in the Belmont Stakes, the third and most challenging leg of the series, and broke the world record by an extraordinary 2 and 3/5 seconds, finishing in 2:24, an accomplishment that has not yet been rivaled. Numbers don't really convey it, especially if you're not much of a railbird.

Because he stopped racing in 1973, before I was born, Secretariat's feats occupied the vague realm of legend—at least until the day my mother gave me her copy of sportswriter William Nack's wonderful Big Red of Meadow Stable(as it was then called), a biography of Secretariat that I read and reread, scouring it for every detail of his races. Now that book has been used as the basis for Disney's new film Secretariat, starring Diane Lane and John Malkovich, opening nationwide today. The film doesn't capture Secretariat the way the book does, though in a sense, Secretariat was destined for a Disney film, because his accomplishments had something of the fairy tale about them. (If anything, they're more incredible, in the true sense of the word, than they are in Disney's version.) As if second-guessing the power of the story—which lacks the underdog propulsion that fuels most sports films—the film focuses less on the extraordinary horse and more on owner Penny Chenery Tweedy's transformation from laundry-folding homemaker to a self-empowered owner of a champion horse, in what amounts to a kind of conservative version of bra-burning feminism. As legendary racing writer Andrew Beyer noted in the Daily Racing Form, in the past weeks many turfwriters have dissected the film's oversimplifications and omissions, but to me, one of the most striking has to do with film's assertion of an abiding bond between Penny Tweedy and the big red colt, when, in fact, the opposite was true, at least initially: Tweedy was so enamored of Secretariat's older stablemate, the homely Riva Ridge (who is not in the film although he won the 1972 Kentucky Derby), that when she first saw Secretariat win a race she "resented" him. "I thought, 'This isn't fair; this lousy dude is so good-looking and if he can run, too, it isn't fair. … In my heart I didn't want him to jeopardize Riva's eminence."

In her resentment, though, Tweedy was nearly alone—and of course pretty soon she came around. Secretariat inspires an extraordinary faith in people, then and now, and watching the film, I found myself wondering, why does Secretariat move people so? Partly, of course, it is his extraordinary athleticism. Unlike Seabiscuit, Secretariat was never truly the underdog: Despite being a slow developer, he was always the champion. As a two-year-old he garnered the attention of exercise riders who hoped they'd be picked to work him out, because he was so good-natured, and easy to gallop. He lost his first start but he quickly began to win—in startlingly fast moves. Over the course of his brief two-year career, Secretariat raced 21 times and won 16 of those races. When he lost, he almost always had an excuse: In his first race, he was badly bumped (as you can see here, it's a bit of a miracle he didn't go down); in the Wood Memorial, the Derby prep in which he finished a dismal third to a lesser stablemate, he turned out to have an abscess in his mouth, and so on.

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Nack makes much of Secretariat's breeding: His elegant conformation (his great height at his withers, which makes for speed); his elegant head (unlike his sire Bold Ruler, who apparently had a funny-looking one) and the "extra layer of muscle along the haunch," inherited from his forebear Nasrullah, which, again, spelled out speed. With a barrel chest and great height (he weighed about 1,175 pounds and stood just over 16 hands), he looked the part as well as walked the walk. Then, too, there is the legendary fact that after Secretariat's death at 19 (many horses live to be much older), it was discovered at his autopsy that his heart, which was estimated to weigh almost 22 pounds, was twice the size of an average thoroughbred's.

But in other ways, in crucial ways, Secretariat was not perfect, and it's these things I think that humanize him and are part of why people love him so; in some small way we recognize ourselves in him. He was, early on, a lazy and roly-poly colt. He was calm and "generous." He didn't startle easily. He was a bit of a ham, cutting up for the camera. He liked to eat—and eat some more. When he began racing, he never was quick out of the gate—probably, Nack suggests, because he was so big and it took him a while to find his stride. So his races often began with him laboring at the back, trying to figure out how to make up for lost time. This meant that he often had to take the long way round—going wide on the turns—making it harder on himself. And yet—and yet—there he'd be, coming out of the second turn, going into fourth gear, and powering past the horses that had outraced him in first furlongs. Then, too, there was the long-voiced suspicion that perhaps as a son of Bold Ruler—who tended to sire sprinters—he did not have the stamina to "go the distance," an idea that resonates metaphorically.

Because, of course, he did go the distance, and in doing so won the crowds wildly over. On YouTube, in addition to many uploaded videos of Secretariat's races, there are tribute films, blending footage of his wins with rousing music and footage of the various magazine covers he graced. The comments suggest the identification that many feel. "Greatest creature _ever_ born on the planet earth. ..." one commenter wrote. "God-like perfection no one will ever see again. … The mythical, magical, irreplaceable Secretariat." Someone named "Kierkegaard 73" posted several videos called "EXISTENTIAL SECRETARIAT," noting, "The Belmont Stakes of 1973 certainly has its wondrous memories for those who witnessed it. … This event serves as a metaphor for Individuals to understand what is Noble, Ethical, and Heroic."

When my mother was very ill, we would download clips of horse races and watch them over and over, but the one that I recall moved us most was Secretariat's Belmont. You simply must watch it yourself.

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."

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.