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  • Patricia McQueen

Secretariat: The Human Connection

Earlier this year I discovered the Equine History Collective. The organization’s members – including academics, professionals, independent scholars and researchers, and equine enthusiasts – study the significance of equines throughout history and their impact on society and culture. I’m probably biased, but what single horse has had more of an impact on society and culture than Secretariat?

For their fall conference this year, EHC accepted my paper proposal entitled “Secretariat: The Human Connection.” It seemed like a natural with all the work I’ve done on Secretariat’s impact on Thoroughbred racing and breeding – why not look at Secretariat’s impact on people?

After all, so many of us (myself included) still consider Secretariat the greatest racehorse of all time, and even those who don’t know much about, or even care about, horse racing still recognize his name. I gave the presentation on October 1, and I thought I’d summarize a few highlights and share some of the prepared slides.

The Origins

The early 1970s were turbulent times. Vietnam, Watergate and the resignation of a U.S. president, the OPEC oil crisis, and airplane hijackings left people searching for refuge. They found it in a big red horse named Secretariat. His impact carried far beyond his magical 1973 racing year, as he held the public’s fascination long after his retirement. Secretariat was more than a racehorse. He was a spectacular athlete and performer whose arena happened to be a racetrack. In fact, when ESPN ranked the top 100 athletes in the 20th century, Secretariat was #35, the only non-human in the top 83 (Man o’ War, the original “Big Red” in 1919-1920, was #84).

The 1973 covers of Time magazine reflected turbulent times. One cover stands out!

“His only point of reference is himself,” wrote turf writer Charles Hatton back then; he had seen Man o’ War race. “Secretariat is the most capable horse we ever saw, and geriatrics defeat any thought of seeing his like again.”

Hatton couldn’t know it at the time, but his words speculating how Secretariat did what he did were prophetic. “He has the heart, lungs and adrenals to crack up oxygen and convert this into energy at an astonishing rate,” he wrote. He probably smiled down from above when Secretariat’s necropsy found a 22-pound heart, significantly larger than even the most generous estimates while he was racing. The average Thoroughbred’s heart is about 8.5 pounds.

Secretariat has been a big part of my own life, as I was intent on understanding what it was I saw as a 10-year-old girl watching his races on television. I would grow to understand how remarkable his Triple Crown victories were – each in different, spectacular fashion. We knew back then he was fast, but 50 years later, his records still stand. That, we couldn’t have anticipated. Well, maybe not for the first two races, but his Belmont Stakes time was assumed to be untouchable. As it has been for five decades.

Words and Art

We all find inspiration in Secretariat. “Everybody remembers where they were when they saw Secretariat capture the Belmont Stakes and race into immortality,” marvels veteran turf writer JoAnn Guidry. “It is that memory that can still stir the soul 50 years later that connects people because we all know how special and rare those kind of moments are in life. And today, people who weren’t even alive in 1973 can and do watch YouTube videos of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races, especially his conquering of the Belmont Stakes. And then they too become infected with that mind-bending moment in time. People who have never been to a race and aren’t even into horses at all, know Secretariat. His magic has transcended time and generations, continuing to do so to this day.”

Book after book has been written about some aspect of Secretariat’s life. The first was Ray Woolfe’s coffee table book, Secretariat, published in 1974. Then came Bill Nack’s detailed Secretariat biography, published in 1975 as Big Red of Meadow Stable, which was reprinted with updates twice more, in 2002 and 2010. This book formed the basis of the Walt Disney feature film Secretariat, released in 2010.

There were other books about his life, a book about his relationship with groom Eddie Sweat, and a book about his syndication and the first mares that were bred to him. There is even a children’s book. There’s a book about his breeder, Meadow Stud, and his Virginia heritage. And my own book, Secretariat’s Legacy, takes a different angle, looking at his impact as a stallion.

Artists have also fallen under Secretariat’s spell. It’s likely that no single horse, of any breed, has been immortalized in bronze as often as Secretariat. Including the newest creation, to be unveiled in Paris, Kentucky, in November, there are currently eight separate bronzes, including duplicates. There are two of the very first one, John Skeaping’s 3/4 life size “leaping” Secretariat; one is at Belmont Park and one at the National Museum of Racing in Saratoga Springs (the museum owns both of them).

There are two life-size bronzes at the Kentucky Horse Park, one in a conformation pose and one with jockey Ron Turcotte and groom Eddie Sweat. Another life-size bronze of Secretariat and Ron resides in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Turcotte’s home town.

Jocelyn Russell created the first “larger than life” Secretariat, a 1.5x life size masterpiece of the champion in full stride with Ron aboard. It was installed in Lexington, Kentucky, in 2019. A near duplicate (the only difference being the saddle cloth number) will be installed in Ashland, Virginia, next spring.

This second monument was taken on an unprecedented road tour from March to September, traveling from its creation in Oklahoma to numerous racetracks and other locations from Virginia to Kentucky to Maryland and New York and back to Virginia, and points in between. That tour added to the legend, with countless numbers of drivers smiling at the sight of a giant horse on a trailer racing down the interstate.

A spectacular sight on roads during the 2023 Secretariat Monument Road Tour.

Jocelyn also created the newest monument, portraying him as a running stallion, which will be the centerpiece of the new Secretariat Park in Paris.

Secretariat has also been immortalized in steel, as Nigel Fennell created a magnificent life-size mosaic sculpture made up of little steel Secretariats.

And of course, numerous artists have painted Secretariat over the decades, in various mediums and styles. Most recently, the talented Jaime Corum turned her sights onto handsome chestnut champion, and has painted or sketched him dozens of times. “I’ve always been attracted to the mythical horse, like the Black Stallion – the epic horse that is almost unreal,” she explains. “Secretariat represents the fantasy horse come to life. His legend is real, because his records have never been broken.”

Corum acknowledged how important fans are in the cycle. “There’s the ‘Secretariat energy’ from fans that provides a continuous feedback loop. That energy keeps feeding the fire for the artists – we are attracted to things that inspire us.”

American impressionist Lisa Palombo recently completed dozens of portraits of Secretariat, presenting a different look for the champion. “There was just this whole mystique around him,” she marvels. “A movie-star quality that is hard to describe. How do you capture greatness in a painting? That was super challenging. I like to take chances and I like to play with color, and I think that gives you the feeling of his greatness.”

Reflections on a Champion

That greatness is just part of the reason Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery became a symbol for women everywhere, leading Meadow Stable forward after the death of her father in early 1973. Today, her daughter Kate Tweedy carries the baton. She had no idea that she’d still be a public figure 50 years after Secretariat completed his racing career. “What he accomplished was pretty remarkable, but peoples’ reactions to it are sort of more than that,” she says. “It’s been hard to put it into words.”

She notes that sports records rarely last 50 years, so sports fans are starting to pay attention. Fans who follow sports records and numbers, but don’t know much about horse racing. “They see Secretariat’s records, watch the YouTube videos, and say ‘wow.’” Kate also credits the Disney feature film for spreading the Secretariat story to the broader public, and also the general appreciation of horses, what they can do and what they can mean.

And to this day, perfect strangers will tell their own stories, to share their love of the horse. “They tell stories of how he brings them joy. It’s really neat.”

Closing Thoughts

I closed my formal presentation by showing the video of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. Some of those in attendance had never seen it before, or had long forgotten it. They were in awe.

There was an added bonus at the end of my presentation, one that really brings home just how much Secretariat has transcended horse racing. At a conference session the day before, a woman came up to me and said she had written a poem about Secretariat. She had seen him on television as a young girl, and was mesmerized. Decades later – decades – she was driven to write this poem. As a conference participant, she is of course an equine historian. Yet she doesn’t follow horse racing, and in fact doesn’t really care for the sport. And still, she was driven to write this poem, entitled “That Huge Engine,” referring to the tremendous heart that drove the tremendous machine. (Her poem was ultimately published in 2021 in What They Wrote: An Anthology of Women’s Voices.)

Truly, Secretariat continues to inspire us all. Even today, 50 years later, he is a symbol of excellence and perfection. We are in turbulent times once again, but the love of a great horse can still bring us all together.

Unprecedented coverage before Secretariat even won the Triple Crown!


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