Secretariat holds a special place in my heart, because he won the Kentucky Derby on the day I graduated from college. Both of which were unlikely outcomes. And yet, we did it.
When Secretariat had to be put down in 1989 at the age of 19, due to laminitis, the author of the book (William Nack) was 48 years old. Before that day, he said he could only remember one other time when he cried. That was in 1982, when his own father died. Suddenly, he said, he felt very old.
Once Secretariat died, they performed a necropsy and found that his heart was almost twice the size of a normal horse heart. Well, that explains it. He won the Belmont Stakes in 1973 by 31 lengths. The other horses in the race were probably pretty good. They just had the misfortune of being born around the same time Secretariat was. He ran that 1 1/2 miles in 2 minutes and 24 seconds, a record that still stands.
Like Seabiscuit, the book is mostly about a horse, but it’s more than that. It’s a portrait of horse racing in general, and the people who inhabit that world.
There is no shortage of poignant moments in the book. But I finally decided on one passage that says it best.
Nack was a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated, and was not prone to be poetic. I guess he forgot himself for a moment.
The situation is when Secretariat is retired from racing and sent to stand at stud. That was always his destiny, always. But here is a horse who literally had never spent a moment without humans. From birth. He had grooms who slept with him. He wasn’t always happy about it, and could curl his lip and kick with the best of them. Everyone said he was easy to handle and even-tempered, but that seems to be relative. You know, compared to who? He was still a thoroughbred and still a stallion. He had an entire entourage.
So he goes to stand at stud and is dropped off at his new home in the stallion barn at Claiborne Farm. Then every human he’s ever known departs and leaves him alone.
Nack says: “Outside the sun was down and it grew colder now in the grove of trees in the dark by the stallion barn. Leaves fell, and a faint wind strummed and turned along the trees that rose along the paddocks in the back. Then in the distance, beyond the Claiborne fields toward the home called Marchmont, the sound of a horse whinnying rose. Secretariat came to the window of his stall, and through the darkness of it you could see nothing but the rims of his eyes and hear the breathing in the quiet. The sound of the whinnying rose again, and beyond that and beyond the rows of fences and the fields of grass and the salmon-colored sky, beyond the strands of trees strung out along the skies of Paris, there was the sound of horses charging the bend and the crowd on its feet roaring and the announcer calling the name of a lone figure of a horse reaching and snapping, pounding in a rush, at the turn for home”.