His only point of reference is himself.— Charles Hatton
I don't remember where I was the day of the Belmont Stakes in 1976. It was June 9th, and I was finishing up my Army officer's training in Georgia. The Bicentennial was afoot.
What was also afoot, and completely beyond my ken that year despite my great love of horses, was the great Secretariat's stunning record-setting run for the Triple Crown.
It wasn't until years later, when I returned with great enthusiasm to horse riding, that I started collecting horse movies. War Horse, of course, Seabiscuit.
Disney, my old employer, tells that story. Enough of it is real to be legit, albeit as with all Disney movies certain details are fudged for the sake of drama. However, you can't even begin to overstate the drama of this animal's achievements.
For years, Rudy was my go-to movie, a true football tale about a small dyslexic kid who defied all odds and played football at Notre Dame. He is the last guy to be carried off the field by his roommates. The sound track for that film is still my favorite training music. That music got me up tens of thousands of steps to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro at sixty.
Secretariat is different, for different reasons. Stay with me here.
Here's the part of the movie that does it for me:
The last few minutes of the movie center around the great crowning glory of the horse's career, and his owner, Penny Chenery's great gamble on his promise. Chenery's father, throughout the film, played by Scott Glenn, reminds her to "let him run his own race."
Secretariat hadn't been rested before the Belmont, a strategy chosen by the Sham team, the folks who own the only horse who could challenge Big Red. Lucien Lauren, Secretariat's trainer, had a hunch that his animal wanted challenge. Instead of resting him they pushed him even harder. This is one of the most essential elements of this story for me.
Until the back stretch and the final turn of the race, nobody in the world of racing knew whether Big Red's heart would burst, or he would break all records.
As the two surging horses rounded towards the final turn, Ronnie Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey, loosed his stallion, and Secretariat blazed away, leaving Sham and his jockey buried in clods of dirt.
Secretariat ran so fast that not only could nothing catch him, he finished the race in a heart-stopping 31 lengths ahead of his closest rival. He didn't need a close rival, for his only race was with himself.
For the sheer untrammeled joy of it.
To watch this performance, and to realize that Secretariat truly was only racing himself into immortality, is the whole point. I cannot watch those few moments without crying, not just for joy, but for what it says to my heart.
And it reminds me that I have given myself, not just once, but several times, the gift of a lifetime dream.
Since I was a child on a farm, learning to ride, I dreamed of riding a swift black Arabian stallion at speed. Walter Farley's books hooked my heart forever. In 2016, I was on a horse like that on the Egyptian dunes near the Red Sea. A Black stallion named Valentino, swifter and more terrifying than any animal I ever rode.
My guide let me loose him at sunset, when the distant mountains faded into the purple and violet of the cloudless sky. I grasped Valentino's mane, set my feet, and released him into the wind.
Unless you have ridden such a horse, felt the power of the animal surge beneath you, feel the precariousness of your insignificant humanity astride such a creature moving so fast into the waning light
...you might not understand.
The author and Valentino, above, just before the run home. I was 63.
Those moments come back to me every time I watch Secretariat. I will ride more horses like that in the future. To do that, I have to train harder. Push harder. Earn that right to be allowed to ride such an animal. That's the parallel.
Watching Secretariat puts me back on Valentino, and the other swift animals I have ridden at breakneck speed in Argentina, Iceland, Egypt, Canada, Croatia. Covid kept me sidelined, but not my dreams.
I've already lived plenty of them, all after the age of sixty, and there are plenty more to be realized. Last year might have been rough but my dreams stayed ignited.
All I need is a swift horse, a setting sun and a good grip.
Then hang on for dear life, in the only race that is mine to run.