Tuesday, November 9, 2010


On my way home from the World Equestrian Games, I bought the book "Secretariat", by William Nack, at the Lexington airport bookstore. This was the first I knew that Paradies has stores at most every major airport and that you can buy a book, read it, return it within six months to any of their shops with your original receipt, and receive a 50% refund. Cool. Except I haven't returned it. There are some books that I just can't turn loose of. This one is the true story that inspired the motion picture Secretariat.... a good movie... but the book is, of course, much more detailed, much more about the horse... and true.

My parents were horse-racing enthusiasts and we watched all the Triple Crown races on television, after television came into being. Johnny and I never felt the need for a tv, but I retreated to my parents' house to watch the Triple Crown most years, including 1973, the year Secretariat won all three of those races. The last and longest of the races, the one that at least some people thought was too long for the big red come-from-behind horse, Secretariat won by 31 lengths in a record time that has never been beat. It still gives me goose bumps to watch. Here is a video of that race: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xoFquax2F-k

Born and raised in Virginia and retired in Kentucky, Secretariat, (along with bourbon whiskey), is the pride of the blue grass state. A life-size bronze statue of Secretariat, with jockey Ron Turcotte aboard and groom Eddie Sweat hanging on to the reins from the ground, graces Secretariat Plaza at the Kentucky Horse Park. This photo is from the internet as I did not get a good one while at KHP in September... too many people were always gathered around the famous Big Red.

The movie played loosely with the facts of the coin toss that gave Penny Chenery Tweedy the foal that became Secretariat. That bothered me when I watched the movie, having already read the book. Although it made a good story that Penny had researched and decided the foal from the younger mare would make the better horse because the dam had distance horses in her background, it isn't true.

In fact, the heavily researched book explains that there were two sets of breeding results to be decided with that coin toss of 1969. The winner of the flip automatically got the first choice of the first pair of foals, those born in 1969, either the Somethingroyal filly or the Hasty Matelda colt. The loser, while getting whichever foal the flip winner did not select, would also automatically get the first choice of the second pair of foals to be born in 1970. The winner of the toss would get the second choice of the second pair.

But, as they already knew at the time of the coin toss, there would be no second foal in the second pair because Somethingroyal was pregant again; the other mare who was part of the 2nd year's deal, Cicada, was barren. Whoever won the toss would get their choice of the first pair, but only that horse. The loser would get a 1969 and a 1970 foal. Naturally, neither Phipps nor Penny wanted to win.

Penny lost the toss. Phipps took the Somethingroyal filly, and named her The Bride. Penny got the Hasty Matelda colt, naming him Rising River. Neither foal born that year amounted to anything. But the following year, in 1970, Somethingroyal gave birth to the second foal for Penny's Meadow Stable... because she lost the coin toss... and that foal was Secretariat.

Big Red, as he was known, was almost certainly the greatest race horse ever. About that, the movie did not lie. However, I wish the movie had explained how Secretariat did what everyone at the time knew was impossible: running faster each quarter mile in the Kentucky Derby than the previous one... no horse had ever done that in a mile-and-a-quarter race... and cutting over two seconds off the mile and a half Belmont record... simply not possible. But the big red colt did it. There was a reason that the movie never mentioned.

When Secretariat was euthanized in 1989 because of laminitis, a necropsy was performed by Dr. Thomas Swerczek. All of the horse's vital organs were normal in size except for the heart. Here is what Dr. Swerczek said: "I've seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I'd ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I'd ever seen. And it wasn't pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did."

When the movie said Secretariat had the heart to win, it was literally true. There has never been another like him. It's an exciting movie to watch. But I'm glad I read the book.

1 comment:

  1. Just found this great site with comments from Ron Turcotte about the movie: http://blog.timesunion.com/horseracing/secretariats-jockey-says-the-movie-is-alright/6236/

    Lots of information in the comments following...