October 4 is the anniversary of the great racehorse Secretariat's death due to laminitis in 1989. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973, one of the last horses to do so. His stunning, massive win in the Belmont Stakes stands as one of the greatest moments in sport. A movie about him titled, appropriately enough, Secretariat was released nationwide in 2011. I saw it along with a packed house of other race fans (save at least two — my friends who are not as horse mad as I am thought it was just "okay").
I loved it.
Like Seabiscuit, immortalized in Laura Hillenbrand's beautifully written biography Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Secretariat came along at a time when we needed a hero. Things weren't going so great. The United States was literally fighting the Vietnam War, horribly dividing the country; President Nixon was fighting the fallout from Watergate that would ultimately lead to his resignation; women were fighting sexism (there were still men only clubs–yes!). But one of the great things about heroes is that they come in all shapes.
Sportswriter Bill Nack could not have known he would be helping to create a legend when he started following Secretariat, but he ultimately wrote the definitive book in Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, upon which the movie is based. I worked in the Thoroughbred racing industry, and I never met one person for whom it was just a job. I don't know if it's the horse-human connection, or the love of the game, or if the industry attracts poets at heart, but some of the best writing I've ever read has been from Turf writers.
Nack wrote one of the greatest essays ever — sports or otherwise — titled "Pure Heart" that ran in Sports Illustrated. It tells of Secretariat's glorious story, of his life and the people who loved him, right to the end. It's well worth reading even if you are not a racing fan, or a sports fan, or a horse fan, merely if you are a fan of good writing. Trust me.
At one of my advertising agency jobs, I worked with the daughter of the lead vet at Claiborne Farms, where Secretariat stood at stud. She told me that, in the end, Secretariat was in bad shape. That's an understatement; he couldn't walk from the pain, and euthanizing him was the only truly humane thing left. They say that when Secretariat's body was autopsied, everything was normal in size, except for his heart.