What We Can Learn From Secretariat After 50 Years

What We Can Learn From Secretariat After 50 Years

July 27, 2022 0 By Jennifer Walker

In June 1973, I had just graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, and at the age of 22, I was on my way to New York City to start my internship. Medical school was theory; internship was real-life. As Albert Einstein famously said: “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”

Richard Nixon was president, and the Supreme Court had issued its decision in Roe v. Wade a few months earlier. The U.S. had just ended its military involvement in Vietnam. Watergate was making daily headlines. Federal Express (now FedEx) began operations, and the first cell phone call was made.

All things considered, a rather routine year for the 1970s.

Yet, in the midst of this tumult, the attention of the U.S. public was temporarily transfixed not on major historical events — but on a horse. His name was Secretariat.

Secretariat had been born 3 years earlier, distinguished by nearly perfect biomechanics for racing. When growing up, he emerged as a leader among his peer group, with a sense of humor, always acting the role of clown and creating mischief. And he had a reputation for exceptional kindness and intelligence, being highly likeable and amazingly unruffled in crowds, never engaging in the bumping that was common amongst young talented thoroughbred horses.

The young horse was built for speed, but in his early years, he needed to wear a blinker hood to help him focus. Some believed the horse was too thoughtful, a trait believed to be a disadvantage since winning horses needed to concentrate on running, rather than strategy. In fact, his groom expected little from the young colt, and he fared poorly at his first races. His owner, Penny Chenery, was financially strapped, and almost sold him to pay the bills.

Then came 1973.

On May 5, the Kentucky Derby attracted the largest crowd to-date in racing history. A wonderful horse, Sham, was among the favorites to win. The start was marred by a tussle among the horses. Secretariat broke last and trailed for most of the race. And then — suddenly, for no apparent reason, and contrary to all reasonable expectations — the horse turned on the speed, coming on the outside out of nowhere to win by more than two lengths.

Secretariat did not simply win the race. He shattered the record for the Kentucky Derby, coming in with a time less than 2 minutes. Amazingly, Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. The successive quarter-mile times were :25 1/5, :24, :23 4/5, :23 2/5, and :23, meaning that he was still accelerating as the race ended. Given the duration of the race, many believed that to be a physical impossibility.

On May 19, Secretariat won the Preakness Stakes, also coming from behind and from the outside, accelerating into the end of the race once again. And once again, posting a record time.

Suddenly, Secretariat became a national celebrity, being featured on the front cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. As noted by William Nack, “Secretariat suddenly transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Secretariat responded to all the publicity — by learning how to pose for pictures.

The final leg of the Triple Crown was the Belmont Stakes. Held on June 9, the race was watched on television by 15 million people. Secretariat and his arch-competitor Sham were neck and neck for the first half-mile, but then Secretariat opened a lead. Two lengths. Eight lengths. Twelve lengths. Faster and faster. Everyone feared he was going too fast and would collapse. (Apparently, Secretariat’s father had made such an early acceleration mistake many years before and collapsed during a race.) But Secretariat was accelerating without any push from his jockey. At the finish, he won by 31 lengths, the widest margin in racing history. The time — 2 minutes and 24 seconds — broke the record for the Belmont.

The 1973 Belmont race is widely considered the greatest performance of the twentieth century by a North American racehorse. Understandably, bettors holding more than 5,000 winning parimutuel tickets on Secretariat decided not to redeem them, presumably keeping them as souvenirs, since the tickets would have paid only $2.20 on a $2 bet. (A winning ticket recently sold online for $2,400.)

In 1973, Secretariat won the three most important races of the year, known collectively as the Triple Crown. In all three races, Secretariat set records for the fastest time, and all three racing records stand to this day.

So, why would a horse do that?

Dogs are smart, but they have been bred to please us. Cats are smart, and over the millennia, they have learned to charm us. Voluntarily or not, dogs and cats have tied their fortunes to those of human beings. But horses are different. Horses create their own agenda, their own rules and their own standards. (Sadly, being an inner-city kid, I never interacted with horses during my youth; it is one my life’s true regrets.)

Racing horses do not race to please their masters. It is true that some horses race hard when there is another horse close by; the competition drives the adrenaline. But at the 1973 Belmont, for most of the race, no horse was even close to Secretariat. And his jockey was not pushing him in the slightest.

Secretariat ran the way he did simply because he knew he could and because he had made the decision to do it. Perhaps, Secretariat had somehow learned about Pegasus, the immortal famed winged horse of Greek mythology. Pegasus was never really tamed. She purportedly allowed Bellerophon to ride her so that he could defeat the fire-breathing monster Chimera. But, according to one version of the story, when Bellerophon then decided to ride Pegasus to invade Mount Olympus, Pegasus threw the hero back to earth in disgrace. A perfect example of academic independence!

So maybe Secretariat decided that he simply wanted to fly. Most likely, he just wanted to be his best — the best any horse could possibly be. As the famed horse-racing sportswriter, Charles Hatton, wrote: “His only point of reference is himself.”

Secretariat died of laminitis at age 19, a young age for a horse. At autopsy, he was found to have an incredibly large heart, estimated to weigh 22 pounds, about 2.5 times the weight of an average horse. Although the heart was structurally perfect, some have proposed that Secretariat had the “x-factor,” i.e., he was homozygous for a recessive genetic mutation common in thoroughbreds and first reported in a horse who died in 1789. Perhaps an unusual and highly adaptive form of cardiomegaly contributed to his amazing abilities.

When Secretariat died, the horse was buried in his entirety in an unprecedented move. (Typically, only parts of racehorses are buried, if they receive a burial at all.) Even to this day, his grave site is visited by hundreds every year. And his image is depicted on many statues and even on a 1999 U.S. postage stamp, issued more than 25 years after his racing victories.

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Secretariat on a 1999 U.S. postage stamp

In the midst of the turmoil of 1973, a big-hearted horse set an example of human hope and achievement. And when I started my internship a few weeks after the Belmont race, I — and millions like me — took that message to our own hearts.

Horses that dream of flying have a special place in our history. In fact, it is said that, to ensure her immortality, Zeus turned Pegasus into a constellation, so that all of humankind would marvel. I always imagined that the story was true.

  • author['full_name']

    Milton Packer is distinguished scholar in cardiovascular science at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and visiting professor at Imperial College in London.

Disclosures

During the past 3 years, Packer has consulted for AbbVie, Altimmune, Amarin, Ardelyx, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Boehringer Ingelheim, Caladrius, Casana, CSL Behring, Cytokinetics, Imara, Lilly, Moderna, Novartis, Reata, Relypsa, and Salamandra. These activities are related to the design and execution of clinical trials for the development of new drugs. He has no current or planned financial relationships related to the development or use of SGLT2 inhibitors or neprilysin inhibition. He does not give presentations to physicians that are sponsored by industry.