With a charming family film about Secretariat in theaters, it's worth looking at the horse's story in book form. The movie—like 2003's film Seabiscuit and Laura Hillenbrand's 2001 book of the same name—wisely centers the drama and heart of the story on the horse itself, but it also relegates the surroundings to a somewhat sanitized and Disneyfied shine. That's a shame. Thankfully, William Nack's excellent Secretariat: The Making of a Champion helps to anchor the horse in something more substantial than a glossy film-reality.
It's tough to write a book about a horse. They're notoriously bad interviews, and, when they do respond, most of the time it's just counting. Mr. Ed never agreed to be ghostwritten, and Black Beauty, while the subject of a good book, suffers the niggling technicality of being completely made up.
As regards Seabiscuit and Secretariat, it would be hard to find two personalities seemingly less alike. Seabiscuit was an undersized and knobby-kneed horse, undervalued by his first owner and famous for breaking late out of the gate. Not only was he considered an underdog for most of his career, but (aside from his classic against War Admiral) he broke and raced like an underdog, chugging and struggling from the pack to gain the lead down the final stretch. During the Great Depression, Seabiscuit was the little guy in an era where little guys resonated more with the public than at any time in history.
Conversely, Secretariat raced like little less than a god. He still holds the track record for the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, and the latter seems unbreakable. Moreover, his quarter-mile times for the Kentucky Derby steadily decline from the beginning of the race to the end, meaning that as he was winning, he was getting faster. His Beyer Speed Figure for the Belmont—an adjusted figure that compensates for the condition of the track and is intended to give analysts an idea of the "pure" rate of speed comparable across different races and tracks—is a mindblowing 139, 40 points higher than a good rating and almost 20 points higher than what is considered a very high figure for a thoroughbred.
During his historic run for the Triple Crown, Secretariat made the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated (and later was the only horse included in ESPN's 50 Greatest Athletes of the Century). Like Seabiscuit and the Depression, it's interesting to speculate why a horse so dominant would capture the imagination of 1973 America. In the current film, token attempts are made to remind viewers about Vietnam, but the effect is a sloppy and insubstantial one.
Nack's Secretariat largely dispenses with social commentary to instead ground readers in an understanding of horse racing, ownership, management and training. It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but the book works as a story-oriented primer on subjects the audience might not otherwise grasp. This is the arcane stuff that makes the sport what it is, and because you care about finding out about this legendary horse, you're willing to ground yourself in the components to not only enrich your knowledge of the sport in general but also of the legend you're reading about. That's important, because this stuff takes up most of the time, after all. Remember, even if you add Secretariat's Derby, Preakness and Belmont times together, you're still only talking about less than seven minutes of history.
Nack introduces readers to Secretariat's aristocratic ancestry, which is as essential to understanding how he came to be where he was as charting the course of Austria by noting which Habsburgs were having sex with whom. It's also important because, as much as bloodlines and destiny might have determined his fate, part of his breeding comes down to a coinflip. Unlike her current movie incarnation, owner Penny Chenery isn't just a sweet lady who likes her family but also a shrewd businesswoman and promoter who syndicates her horse's stud career and hires a talent agency to take his brand nationwide. Meanwhile, the trainers, instead of being mere tools that help Ms. Chenery feel an earthy connection to the horse, take center stage as the people who know the horse best and interpret his tics.
Secretariat has enough of these to display a personality that is almost human, something which accounts for the profound bond even average Americans who tune into horse racing only three times per year felt with him. He likes to turn his head to cameras and even walk over to them. He steals journalists' notepads and seems to have a pranking sense of humor. He loves being driven, not only relishing long and taxing workouts before big races but seeming to know their importance and rise to the occasion. Almost everyone around him sincerely believes that he has a heart and passion for competition, and this understanding of his personality is transmitted to the public.
Here is perhaps the one shortcoming of Nack's book: that it doesn't cover his post-racing career except cursorily. Hardcore racing fans will be interested in it from a standpoint of which horses he sired and how his blood legacy will be interpreted. But a casual reader would have benefited from understanding just how much Americans strongly and strangely cleaved to this horse. Long after he retired, people drove out to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky just to watch him over a fence. When he died, people drove to the farm to stand outside and weep.
Readers are offered some idea of Secretariat's impact, on this last account, with the addition of Nack's Sports Illustrated obituary, "Pure Heart," which might be the best sportswriting obituary of anything, man or animal. After spending a book explaining what he meant to others, Nack details his relationship with the horse, explaining how, when he heard the news, he broke down, weeping inconsolably in a hotel room thousands of miles away.
Secretariat is not a perfect book, but given it's topic it never could be. Some readers might be daunted at first by learning so much about horse racing, while others might lament an insufficiency of pictures or post-career biography. But Nack is an outstanding storyteller—easily one of our finest sportswriters—who rises to an extraordinary challenge of personalizing a legend that cannot speak for itself. In the process, he invests Secretariat with a color and spirit as indelible to the lay reader as to the people who spent their lives with him.
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