Where have you gone, Secretariat? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Apologies to songwriter Paul Simon, who wrote this line in the song Mrs. Robinson more than 40 years ago, with baseball great Joe DiMaggio as the lost savior. But Secretariat was another hero whose like we may not see again.
He may have been the greatest equine athlete ever, the only non-human with a place on ESPN's list of top 100 athletes of the 20th century, the only non-human to appear on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week. Horse racing and breeding being what they are these days, chances are Secretariat will stand alone.
So we'll have to settle for the movie version: Thirty-seven years after he raced into hearts and history, Secretariat thunders back into the national spotlight Friday in Disney's Secretariat, a movie about hope and glory, human and equine courage.
Secretariat is the first big-screen recap of the triumph of the big red horse in the white-and-blue checkers. For a few weeks in the summer of 1973, as the Vietnam War was winding down and the Watergate scandal was winding up, he turned a divided nation into one, awestruck by his astonishing feat in conquering horse racing's pinnacle, the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. (Only 11 horses have won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.) And he did it without steroids.
"Secretariat was incorruptible — what he represented was purity of heart, purity of passion and a lack of compromise," says director Randall Wallace (Braveheart, Pearl Harbor). "He ran his heart out, and the world is hungry for that sort of integrity and courage."
The movie is also the story of Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), the housewife-turned-horsewoman who took over her dying father's struggling Meadow Farm in Virginia to pursue his dream of winning the Triple Crown.
Chenery was no women's-libber, as they used to say disparagingly, but she took on the male-dominated horse-racing world and left them choking in the dust as Secretariat ran off with records still unmatched and with millions in a syndication deal that was one of the first of its kind.
"I just had the better horse," Chenery, 88, used to say back then, and still says in interviews from her Colorado home. "I worked hard to keep his moment alive, and it was such a wonderful moment for me, I didn't want it to be over."
Lane, a New York native who was raised on quarter horses, remembers celebrating the Thoroughbred's historic win. "I remember being 8 and loving horses, so it made perfect sense to me that one should suddenly be on the cover of Time or Newsweek," she says. "He was a confluence of miracles. There are probably 25 ingredients you need to be a successful racehorse. Secretariat had all of that."
Besides Chenery, Team Secretariat included Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), his colorful trainer; his jockey Ron Turcotte (Otto Thorwarth, a real jockey with 1,300 wins); groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), his closest human companion; and Miss Elizabeth Ham (Margo Martindale), Chenery's assistant and confidante, who picked the name Secretariat for the chestnut-red horse with three white socks and a white star with a narrow blaze.
Oh, and five horses play Secretariat — four Thoroughbreds and a quarter horse, including Trolley Boy, who won the 2008 Secretariat Look-Alike contest held at the annual Secretariat Festival in Paris, Ky. Ever the PR pros, Disney arranged for Trolley Boy to "walk" the red carpet at the movie premiere in Hollywood last week, alongside the stars and Chenery and her family, who were extras in the race scenes.
Disney has high hopes for the movie and so does Chenery, who's mostly retired, although she still owns two racehorses. "The movie brings back good memories, but will it have legs?" Chenery says. "This is what I'm really hoping for, that it will get people out of themselves" in this time of widespread woe.
Born to run
Racehorses can do that. They are so powerful and yet so fragile, as demonstrated by the tragic story of Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner and Triple Crown contender whose leg shattered in the Preakness. For months, millions anxiously followed futile attempts to save him; it was front-page news when he was finally put down.
"Horses are awe-inspiring when they're at the top of their game, and when one comes along who's better than all the others, it's kind of a religious experience" for many people, says Laura Hillenbrand, an expert on the uplifting power of winning horses as the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Racehorses "are not out there for the money, they're out there for the purest of intentions — they love to run, they love to win, and people just respond to that."
The bond between horses and people is enduring, says Steve Haskin, longtime racing reporter and senior correspondent for Blood-Horse magazine who covered the 1973 Triple Crown campaign. "Nearly every child grows up touched by horses — Black Stallion and Black Beauty, Silver and Trigger, Misty of Chincoteague and Mr. Ed," says Haskin. "Those childhood feelings for the equine heroes of our youth, they don't die, they remain quiescent until a Secretariat comes along. And then, whether you're 7 or 70, we're all children again."
Seabiscuit, who raced in the 1930s and was the subject of a 2003 movie, became a symbol of hope during the depths of the Depression; few are left who saw him. But plenty still remember Secretariat on the afternoon of June 9, 1973. Across the country, people stopped what they were doing to watch or listen as Secretariat — already the record-setting winner of the Derby and the Preakness — clinched the final race of the Triple Crown (the first to do it in a quarter century) with an incredible 31-length win at New York's Belmont Park. It remains one of the most famous sportscasts in TV history — a 2.24-minute thrill that lives on in grainy footage on the Internet.
"That horse learned how to fly," says Bill Nack, 69, another longtime horse-racing reporter and Secretariat's biographer, whose book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, formed the basis of the film. (Kevin Connolly plays him in the film.) Nack tears up talking about Secretariat. "It was the most magical time in my life. The arc of the movie is true, and to see it come alive on the screen is tremendous."
A symbol of hope
Secretariat was a tonic for the times, says Kate Chenery Tweedy, Penny Chenery's oldest daughter and co-author of a new photo-heavy memoir, Secretariat's Meadow: The Land, the Family, the Legend. Back then, she was a teen flirting with the anti-war movement while Mom commuted from Denver to Virginia and to racing venues back East.
"People said Secretariat restored their faith in humanity, which was odd since he wasn't human, but what they meant was that they really needed something pure and good and triumphant," Tweedy says. "We were taking a licking in Vietnam, and the same thing was happening in our government with Watergate. It was a scary and depressing time."
Besides, horse racing has an emotional quality, says veteran Hollywood horse wrangler Rusty Hendrickson, who gathered the movie's equine actors and helped plan the shooting of the races. "I think when people see a horse do what Secretariat did, even the most stoic of people get a lump in the throat."
Secretariat's Triple Crown win was followed in 1977 by Seattle Slew's and in 1978 by Affirmed's. And since then, nothing, though several horses have come close.
But Secretariat was a genetic anomaly: After he died unexpectedly at age 19 in 1989 (in stud retirement for 15 years on Kentucky's Claiborne Farm, he was suffering from laminitis, a painful hoof disease, and had to be put down), they opened him up and found his heart was nearly three times the size of an average horse heart.
Still, racing experts say that another Secretariat is unlikely, in part because the current breeding of racehorses emphasizes speed at the expense of endurance, and partly because horse racing emphasizes breeding at the expense of racing, so horses don't race as much or as long and don't have as much time to fully develop. Just as a comparison of then to now: In the late 1960s, the highest price for a yearling was $250,000; now it's $13 million, Haskin says.
"The horses aren't as sturdy and tough as horses of old were," Haskin says. "They've bred in unsoundness," Chenery adds. What happened to Barbaro is the result.
Horse racing, like everything else in the struggling economy, is going through tough times, especially with competition from all the new entertainment options available now compared with 1973. Andy Serling, the TV handicapper for the New York Racing Association, quibbles about some of the shortcuts the movie takes to tell a story in less than two hours, but he thinks Secretariat shows what's compelling about horse racing.
"Secretariat was an amazing horse, and certainly his was the greatest single performance of all time, so anything that can expose people to what's exciting about horse racing, I'm all for it," Serling says. "I don't understand why more people don't love horse racing."