Me, and Secretariat

Secretariat head


I just saw in a news report dated June 19, 2012 that after 39 years, Secretariat has been awarded the record for the Preakness, giving the the trifecta for the fastest times every recorded in each of the races that make up Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown.  (CLICK HERE to read the story in the New York Times.)

ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION:  Those races are, in order of running, the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.

Reading the article took me back.

Secretariat ran into history in 1973.  In 1973, I hadn’t decided to become a veterinarian (being a veterinarian hadn’t really crossed my mind, actually), but I was aware of the great horse.  I think that everyone in the country was.  There were stories about him in newspapers and magazines.  Secretariat became so popular, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated featured the horse on the cover the same week.  People lined at TV sets in bars, restaurants, and hotels to see if he could win another one (he did – again and again).  His win at the Belmont Stakes was astounding – he beat the second place horse by something 31 lengths, as I recall.  The jockey kept looking back for the other horses, who were nowhere to be found.  Most astonishingly, he just kept running faster – each subsequent quarter-mile was faster than the first.  It was like he was running downhill or something, while everyone else was stuck in the mud.


Secretariat coming down the stretch, by Neil Leifer, Sports Ilustrated, 1973.

It was a couple of years later when I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I never could get the horse out of my mind.  In fact, I commissioned an  paper collage of Secretariat based on a famous photo of him coming down the stretch.  It hung in my house for a long time, until it became a victim of time, and water damage.

When I was a senior in veterinary school, in 1982, I got to meet Secretariat, and the encounter was unforgettable – and pretty funny.  I was hanging out a Claiborne Farms, where he stood at stud after he retired.  In the back of the main barn, the famous stallions – including great horses like Nijinsky II, and Mr. Prospector – had their own private one-acre paddocks, on rolling bluegrass fields.  Secretariat’s paddock was right behind the barn; he was the star of the show.

As I recall, the paddocks were made of brown wood fence – it was the sort of place that I think that anyone who has ever owned a horse would wish for their horse in heaven.  Secretariat was standing at the far back corner of the paddock, and I came in from the near front corner (we were on the diagonals of the pasture, as it were).  I was carrying an old Minolta 35 mm camera that my Dad had given me, and it had a 4x magnifying lens on it.  I was excited to get a picture of a real equine celebrity.


My old camera

As I lifted my camera up to my eye, Secretariat saw me.  He spun and galloped straight for me.  At the last minute, he came to a sliding stop, and hung his head over the fence, ears forward.  Obviously, he had struck this pose many, many times before.

“You ham!” I smiled.

And I got my picture.  It’s in the family room.  You can see his name plate on the halter, just as clear as can be.

I can relate any number of stories about individual horses, some famous, and some that are only legends in the minds and hearts of their owners.  And, honestly, those stories – and the possibility of having more of them – is a big part of what makes taking care of horses so special.

I’ve had the chance to meet and hang out with some pretty well-known celebrities, but, honestly, as much as I enjoyed those opportunities, I wouldn’t trade any of them for my encounter with “Big Red.”  I’m glad that they set the record straight.  Long may he reign.


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