This column originally appeared in The Times and The News-Star Oct. 7, 2010.
“Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Ky., where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.
‘We were all shocked,’ Swerczek said. ‘I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.’”
So begins the classic piece from Sports Illustrated’s William Nack, whose 1990 tale of 1973 Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing winner Secretariat is worth reading over and over again. (Sadly, Nack passed away in April. Hurt me. I’ll always love him for his coverage of Secretariat.)
I hope the movie is as good. I hear it is. Can’t see it fast enough. (And not just because it stars Diane Lane. Hello!)
“Secretariat” opened Friday. Columnist Cal Thomas calls it “‘The Blind Side’ meets ‘Chariots of Fire’ meets ‘National Velvet.’ It is ‘Annie’ on four legs.”
“The sun’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there’ll be sun…”
Like Annie, we all run on hope. It’s trite and hints at sentimentality, but a healthy optimism and focused hope sure makes the day brighter. Like the story of Depression Era underdog Seabiscuit, another horse who became a national celebrity, a story like Secretariat’s reminds you of the possibilities, of all the good that, with heart, can happen. You gotta have heart…
In beautiful blue and white checkered colors, Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, the final leg by an absurd record of 31 lengths. In the Belmont Stakes, Nack wrote that the thoroughbred ran “rhythmic as a rocking horse.” Secretariat started sprinting from the gate – and never stopped. One of the most magnificent photographs in all of sports is the jockey Ron Turcotte looking over his shoulder down the stretch – and being all alone. Just the horse and the rider, and Belmont Park rocking.
Secretariat was euthanized 21 years ago this very week, victim of a painful hoof disease that in this case was incurable. But in retirement, tens of thousands had come to see him, a chestnut colt who, in 1973, had given the nation a break from the confusion and discontent of the Vietnam War and Watergate. When he died, millions mourned him, including Nack, a rookie turf writer for Sports Illustrated in 1973 but a longtime friend of Secretariat’s by the time the famous horse died.
Nack wrote about the time Secretariat had snatched his notebook away and refused to give it back. He wrote about the time Secretariat picked up a rake in his teeth and began cleaning his own stall. And “I told about that magical, unforgettable instant,” Nack wrote, “frozen now in time, when he turned for home, appearing out of a dark drizzle at Woodbine, near Toronto, in the last race of his career, 12 lengths in front and steam puffing from his nostrils as from a factory whistle, bounding like some mythical beast of Greek lore.”
Heart makes the difference. In stories like Seabiscuit’s. In stories like Secretariat’s. In stories like yours and mine.