Thursday, September 30, 2010


Lexington, Kentucky.  Visited April 2006

Time Cover Story - Spring 1973

I’ve been looking forward to this post. I get to talk about my favorite athlete of all time – Secretariat, the great thoroughbred. The opportunity for this blog right now is to commemorate the release on October 8 of his ‘biography’, the Disney-produced “Secretariat”. Disney has done a great job with a number of its sports biographies (Remember the Titans, Miracle and The Rookie come to mind), so I have hope for this.

It may seem odd to say that a horse is your favorite athlete. I mean, does a racehorse even know he’s in a competition? In days where sports stars are often either trouble makers or drug takers (or both), choosing an animal for a hero could look like a cop out. So I’ll need to need to make my case for “Big Red” as my favorite athlete. But first some bio.

Secretariat was foaled in March, 1970 and was put down due to laminitis at the ripe old horse age of 19 at historic Claiborne Farm in Lexington, KY. His birthday made him eligible for the 1973 Triple Crown races. As a two year old he had begun to show real promise, but nothing indicated what he would accomplish in three races over five weeks in May and June of 1973. No horse had won the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont) in a quarter of a century, and many said it could no longer be done. Secretariat not only won the Triple Crown, it was the way he did it that created the legend.

Big Red won the Kentucky Derby by a respectable two and a half lengths over a hard running colt named Sham. In the process though, he set a track record at Churchill Downs that still stands almost forty years later. Even more remarkable, his quarter mile fractions decreased throughout the race, which means he was accelerating the entire time.

The second race, the Preakness, is the shortest of the three. Secretariat beat a game Sham once again by two and half lengths, setting one of the lowest times in track history. But it is the Belmont race that will forever define Secretariat’s greatness.

The Belmont is the longest of the Triple Crown races at a mile and a half. Given that Big Red had come from last place to take victory going away in each of the first two races, only four other horses (including Sham) challenged him in the Belmont. This time Secretariat and Sham went to the lead together, but on the back stretch Secretariat nosed ahead. By the turn the race was effectively over; the only question would be the margin of victory. As captured by announcer Chick Anderson’s classic race call (“Secretariat is widening now. He’s moving like a tremendous machine!”) the horse simply took off – widening his lead ultimately to 31 lengths! As he crossed the finish line no other horse was even in the TV picture. At first you might assume that the other jockey’s simply pulled up to save their defeated horses, and this would account for the victory margin. But a glance at the race timer doesn’t lie – 2 minutes 24 seconds – a world record for that race distance that has never been broken! So essentially my favorite athlete smashed a world record simply for the fun of it. As jockey Ron Turcotte put it “I was just along for the ride”. If you’ve never seen Secretariat’s Belmont, you owe yourself the thrill – here it is:   Secretariat's 1973 Belmont

Home stretch of the Belmont.  My wife gave me this picture signed by the photographer and jockey Ron Turcotte - I've got it hanging in my office

When lists of the greatest athletic feats of the Twentieth Century are concocted, Secretariat’s Belmont is a consistent top five finisher. I vote it number one.

Secretariat statue at Kentucky Horse Farm in Lexington

So why my hero? Spring 1973 was a dismal time - the Vietnam War had finally ground to a bitter end in March, but the Watergate scandal was casting its jaded pall over the country.  In 1973 I was a 13 year old kid who, like everyone else, was looking for something to root for, not just against.  And like everyone else I got caught up in Secretariat mania.  I had re-arranged my Saturday schedules to catch the Derby and Preakness.  Imagine how bummed I was when I found out that I had to go to the store with my mom on the day of the Belmont. But one of the clearest memories I have of that period of my childhood was finding my way to the electronics department of J. C. Penny and watching this amazing race unfold on about fifteen TV’s simultaneously. As I stood there with that race flashing all around me I didn't cheer.  Instead, I was caught up in some deep but undeniable sense of peace. I was watching an animal do what he was created to do, do it with amazing beauty, and do it with what seemed like effortless joy.  I was tasting a 2 minute plus burst of equine shalom - a horse being exactly what he was created to be. That’s when he became my favorite athlete and that’s what he’s been ever since.

Here's some nice footage of Big Red galloping around his retirement paddock in retirement.

Secretariat is buried at Claiborne Farm in a small graveyard that is sometimes called ‘the Arlington Cemetery of Horseracing’. Along with Big Red are buried some of the legendary horses of the 20th Century, including Gallant Fox, Swale, Bold Ruler and Riva Ridge.  I had the chance to visit when a couple of my fellow pastors and I were in Louisville for the first Together For the Gospel conference and we took a little road trip into horse country - to pay respects to my favorite athlete of all time. 


  1. Ok, I can get my head around the "a horse is an athlete" concept, but I still can't quite see a horse being a dead person.

  2. I have always had such admiration for racehorses. It truly seems that they really, really want to run. Even though the racing industry is based on the bottom line and there are many animals that are destroyed because they can't "make the cut", these are magnificent creatures that have heart and a desire to beat that other horse that is right behind him. To be able to ride one of these wonderful animals must be amazing and to get to know one of them would be a privilege.

  3. Secretariat, meu ídolo eterno! Eu amo cavalos, e meu maior sonho é ter um. Se Deus quiser, logo poderei comprar o meu, e é provável que o nome seja "Big Red", para homenagear esse cavalo que irá ficar para sempre na história!

    Pedacinho do Brasil aqui! (: