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Saturday, April 27, 2013
Secretariat was born a few minutes after midnight one March 30 at The Meadow in Doswell in southeastern Virginia, far from Kentucky’s fabled bluegrass. This year, original owner Penny Chenery, jockey Ron Turcotte and others gathered there to celebrate his birthday and the 40th anniversary of his dazzling Triple Crown win.
Secretariat is not remembered through the haze of sentimentality but stands firmly, an iconic piece of history, fame draped around his shoulders like a flag. For any who might have somehow been oblivious during this period, here is a retelling of the legend.
The time was 1973. The country was weary of Vietnam. The rifle fire of Kent State still echoed in the distance. Watergate was taking up major airtime. America needed a break, needed a hero. A Virginia native was on his way, one that author George Plimpton deemed “the only honest thing in the country.”
With his physical beauty and glowing red-gold coat, people turned their heads toward him as though he were the rising sun. When he ran with ground-gulping strides, he evoked comparisons to immortals like Man O’ War and Citation. But Secretariat was the Second Coming of no one but himself. That May, with late spring on the cusp of summer, he was as unstoppable as the tide.
In the week preceding the Belmont Stakes, you could not easily overlook the blinkered face of Secretariat. On June 11 editions, he peered at us from the covers of three periodicals: Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. He was called “Super Horse” for good reason.
This chestnut comet went streaking across the record books and left them smoldering, setting records in the first two races of the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Big Red, as he was fondly known in racing society, saved the best for last, a performance that eclipsed all that had come before.
He won the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes by a stupefying 31 lengths, erasing the rest of the field. They simply vanished. His only rival was the clock, and this earthbound Pegasus burned more than two seconds off the existing track record. Those records still stand, still hot to the touch. The crescendo that began as Secretariat started mowing down opponents in the Belmont like “a tremendous machine” turned into a joyful, unbridled roar. Those in the stands and the millions of fans viewing on television could barely take it in, watching what was transpiring in near disbelief.
One sportswriter there, realizing this performance transcended words, simply described the aftermath: “People were crying, others were speechless, others were jumping around like mad hooligans waving both fists in the air, others were hugging and kissing, it was 69,000 people exulting in the feeling of having seen the impossible dream come true.”
Secretariat ran his last race on a rainy Sunday in a Canadian November. He won, and victory was misty with sadness. Then the 3-year-old was spirited away to Claiborne Farm to live out his life as a sire, treated as the royalty he was. Perhaps, being far away from the crowds and cameras he had loved posing for, his eyes were closed at times with something less than contentment. Perhaps not. Yet his coat always reflected fire even when there was no sun.
He died in 1989 from complications of the hoof disease laminitis. Again he claimed newspaper headlines (including in The Roanoke Times). Even in death, he hadn’t lost the ability to astound onlookers. His autopsy revealed that his heart was significantly larger than that of the ordinary horse. (Nothing was ever ordinary about Secretariat — the adjective “wow” was hung on him at birth.)
Dr. Thomas Swerczek, head pathologist at the University of Kentucky, stated, “We just stood there in stunned silence. We couldn’t believe it. The heart was perfect. It was just this huge engine.”
“Nothing gold can stay,” lamented poet Robert Frost. But no matter the year, when the Earth quickens and transmutes winter’s sienna and silver into red roses and black-eyed Susans, some of us are always aware of a doorway, an escape route into the amber of the past. It can never be found in the ether of the Internet.
There is no reality on this oasis of memory except this charismatic animal and the spell he cast. We remain forever bewitched by him. His Belmont lasted less than three minutes, but Secretariat ran that day as though supercharged, blasting a hole right through eternity.
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