October 6, 2010


'Secretariat' introduces extraordinary horse to a new generation (Andrew Beyer, 10/06/10, Washington Post )

Disney didn't have to embellish Secretariat's achievements. In fact, the film almost understates them. Many of us who watched him in 1972 and 1973 thought that we were probably seeing the best racehorse who ever lived, and the ensuing years have reinforced that conviction.

Secretariat came of age in the decade that the American thoroughbred was at its peak, a period that also produced Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian, Forego and Spectacular Bid. Experts can endlessly debate the relative merits of such horses, but Secretariat did things that even other great ones didn't do. If you watch videos of races without knowing who the horses are, there may be little to distinguish a high-class race from a cheap one. A film of Affirmed going to the lead and fighting off Alydar's challenge doesn't look much different from a $5,000 claimer doing the same thing.

But Secretariat's athleticism was unmistakable. I saw him for the first time in the summer of 1972 at Saratoga, and still remember vividly his first stakes race, the Sanford, when he faced the pro-tem leader of the nation's 2-year-olds, Linda's Chief. As the five-horse field turned into the stretch, Secretariat was blocked by a wall of three horses in front of him; Linda's Chief, on the outside, had clear sailing. When a slight bit of daylight appeared in front of him, Secretariat bulled through the opening in a manner that journalist Charles Hatton likened to "a fox scattering a barnyard of chickens." He immediately unleashed an explosive run and flew past the favored Linda's Chief to win by three lengths. I wrote in the Washington Star that we might have seen the 1973 Kentucky Derby winner. Never have I watched a lightly raced 2-year-old stamp himself so definitively as a potential great.

Ten days after the Sanford, Secretariat made a dazzling move in the Hopeful Stakes, circling the field and going from last place to first place around the turn. The next year, in the Preakness, he made an even more amazing last-to-first run. He did it on the first turn at Pimlico - what would ordinarily be a suicidal move - and blew past his archrival Sham to take command of the race. After watching that grainy film recently on YouTube, I am still astonished by it. I have never seen a horse make a winning move like that one in the subsequent 37 years.

In the early 1970s I had begun to embrace the philosophy that horses are best defined by how fast they run, and I had begun to calculate the speed figures that, two decades later, would be incorporated into every thoroughbred's record in the Daily Racing Form.

At each stage of his career, Secretariat's winning times and speed figures provided objective evidence that he was an extraordinary runner. His greatest performance, of course, was the Belmont Stakes, where he dueled with Sham at a seemingly suicidal pace for three-quarters of a mile and proceeded to draw away to a 31-length victory. The prevailing track record, Gallant Man's 2:26 3/5, was considered almost unassailable; only one other winner in the Belmont's history had run faster than 2:28. When Secretariat crossed the finish line in 2:24 flat, he had raced into a new dimension.

Here’s One for the Winner’s Circle: Secretariat Is Fun, Heartwarming and a Joy to Watch (Rex Reed, October 5, 2010, NY Observer)

Secretariat, directed with style and elegance by Randall Wallace, is, of course, the awesome chronicle of one of the greatest American thoroughbred racehorses in history, who, in 1973, became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years, winning the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes, the Preakness in a last-minute dash by only two lengths and the Belmont Stakes in 2 minutes, 24 seconds. The Derby and Belmont records have never been beaten or even duplicated to this day. And no proud owner ever toiled so bravely and vigorously to save her beloved horse, farm or family than the financially beleaguered Penny Chenery Tweety, a Denver housewife who sacrificed a lot, hocked her life and compromised her marriage and family life to follow her dream to racing history. Played with honesty and naturalism by the beautiful, heartfelt and deeply committed Diane Lane, Mrs. Tweety comes alive as much as Secretariat does. You will end up loving them both unconditionally.

Not that it wasn't the greatest athletic performance ever as is, what made it transcendent was the sense Secretariat gave that if God , Hisownself, started running alongside him in the stretch he'd just go faster. The only athlete who's ever come close to matching it was Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympics--and in the steroid age it's hard to have faith in that performance.

Pure Heart: a writer relives the greatest ride of his life: Secretariat's thrilling career as a racehorse (William Nack, 1990, Sports Illustrated)
Bolt chases the Holy Grail: Michael Johnson's record in the 200 meters (Tim Layden, 8/19./08, Sports Illustrated)

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 6, 2010 7:31 PM
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