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Flying Hooves, Fierce Heart: Secretariat

A man stood in the shallow stream bed of Canyon de Chelley, listening.  Around him were craggy sunblasted canyon walls, cottonwoods standing with leaves like golden coins and softly gurgling water.  There was a sound of distant rumbling that grew and grew.  He glanced up at the royal blue sky and then upstream where the riverbank curved and disappeared.

A screaming challenge tore the quiet morning in two, and then violent splashing resounded from the distant bend.  As if from the thin air, a herd of wild horses thundered up the river, led by a dark chestnut stallion who nipped at his mares and tossed his head as he ran.  The horses flew by, compelled by internal bolts of lightning, their unshod hooves smashing and crackling on the water and stones of the river.  The solitary man stood with his heart pounding in his throat, certain he would be trampled, having nowhere to go so suddenly had the horses appeared.  The ground shook.  Duns, pintos, bays and blacks with flying manes and tails held high like flags, breath steaming in the air and water splashing like diamonds, filled his whole world.

Just as quickly, they were gone, a herd of wild horses racing so free and full of themselves that they seemed to have charged straight down from Mount Olympus.

This happened to a man I know, and he says now it is a scene that is unrivaled in his experience.  The raw beauty of 40 wild horses pounding through the beautiful river bed brought tears to his eyes and humbled him, rendered him speechless for a long time afterward, he says now.

I saw the movie called Secretariat yesterday and recalled the way I felt when that bold racehorse captured the imagination of a nation, perhaps of many nations, when he ran.  An almost indescribable perfection of grace, power, speed and indominatable spirit met in a very special horse and created something that was unmistakably larger than life.  Every person who ever saw him says so; you could see it on a fuzzy television screen while sitting thousands of miles away from the horse himself.  

He moved with powerful grace, tossing his head and kicking his heels, galloping fast for the fun of it.  He was a ham, a clown and a charming child in a horse's body.  People who handled Secretariat speak about the combination of his physical qualities in reverential tones.  Long strides, a twice-normal-size heart, love of running, and durable muscular build. There certainly are other great horses that have run like the wind, horses like Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Cigar, Man 'O War and Seattle Slew, but most agree that Secretariat had something Olympian in him, a charisma and panache that swelled our hearts and filled our imaginations.

When my friend described the stampeding herd in the canyon, I thought of how I felt when I watched Secretariat back in 1973 when he raced, especially the astonishing Belmont Stakes when he won by 31 lengths, going away, over a mile and a half.  Thousands watching there and on television witnessed the transformation of Secretariat from storied racehorse to mythical god.  

He lifted everyone up when he ran and left witnesses babbling superlatives, his rivals stumbling in his wake.  He set course records, race records, world records that have still not been broken.  He ran races with his chestnut coat glistening in the sunlight, seeming to have sparks flying off his hooves.  But, as quickly as he came to the tracks, he was done and retired to a paddock in Virginia, leaving our imaginations aflame with the glory of his accomplishments and beautiful long stride.  

It's a little peculiar to name a horse as one of your greatest heroes.  A hero, however, represents the qualities we hope to carry within ourselves:  Grace, courage, joy for life, intelligence, passion.  He was to his fans the embodiment of heroic qualities we can only hope to witness once in a lifetime.  

Comments
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Seeing it today!

I'm taking my 10-year-old to see it after school today. Can't wait. Love your description here of the running horses. Whets my appetite for the movie.

I remember that triple crown so well. It's one of my greatest sporing memories. Thanks for rekindling it, Christine.

Best,

Chris

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Great moments

I hope you and your daughter enjoy(ed) the movie. I think I'd have made the focus a lot different than it was, but when they finally showed Big Red running his races, it was thrilling. Disney managed to do its usual, glossing over important things and making characters caricatures. Let me know your take on it. Check out Secretariat.com for more info. That and a site by another guy who photographed and wrote about racehorses back then is full of good stuff.

Cheers,
Christine

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It was Disney good

I kept comparing it to Seabiscuit and found it wanting. Yeah, it was good, but the horse was the best actor of the bunch. Everything else felt slightly off. But I can see why they went with such a focus on the Tweedy woman. It was a compelling story.

I'll check out those sites you suggest. I'll be surprised if one of the isn't by William Nack, the writer in the movie. I vividly remember reading his story about covering Secretariat from, gee, about 20 years ago. I'll be reading that one again with relish.

You're right, too. They did the Triple Crown races well, particularly the Belmont.

Chris

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Big Horse, Okay Movie

The site I found was after using a search string "Secretariat photographs" and it wasn't William Nack, but his work was recommended by many people who commented on the site. The Secretariat.com site is extensive and has lots of submenus to explore. There is a written account of each of his 21 races, written in a very vivid and exciting style that I've enjoyed browsing through. I've heard there is a documentary that's worth finding, so I'll look for it, too. Wish I could remember the site I found, but at the moment I'm caught wanting.

thanks for your comments. These kinds of athletic stories are what sports writing is all about.

Cheers,
Christine