How Secretariat taught me to run

It's been more than 50 years since his Triple Crown victory, but America's greatest racehorse is still a source of wonder and inspiration.

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When Secretariat first arrived at Hialeah Park in Florida for race training in 1972, the 2-year-old Thoroughbred was generally viewed as promising but a bit pudgy.

On observing Secretariat for the first time, the jockey who would ride the colt to fame remarked to his trainer, “Kinda fat, ain’t he?”

Photographer Raymond Woolfe, Jr. who later took iconic images of the chestnut colt, said, “He didn’t walk, that horse. He waddled.”

And exercise rider Charlie Davis remembered his former charge as a “big fat sucker” who “wasn’t in a hurry to do nothin.”

1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat stood at stud at Claiborne Farm in Versailles, Kentucky, until his death in 1989. (Anne Eberhardt Keogh photo)

I think of Secretariat often these days, and not only because I was a horse-crazed girl during his glory days. The reason? Across the miles, across the decades, across whatever barrier divides the living and the dead, we are kindred spirits: two corn-fed creatures who love to run.

Secretariat was called “the horse that God built.” My lineage is less distinguished. My body wasn’t built so much by God as by McDonald’s, where I am 40 years a regular although its fare does nothing to improve my running and, in fact, has demonstrably made it worse. 

Long-distance running is good for all types of bodies—I can’t recommend it enough. But being heavy means running is harder on the joints and it definitely slows you down. You see lots of plus-size runners in 5Ks, 10Ks and even marathons, but we’re not winning any of the races. I came in 70th in my age group the last half-marathon I ran and was ridiculously proud of that. In my next one, I’m hoping to come in 80th, crazy dreamer that I am.

The average racehorse retires at 3. The average human runner retires at death, or when her knees give out. Running is as addictive as nicotine. That is why on the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic Triple Crown win, he was on my mind even more than ever. 

A glorious career

The year before Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by the still-astonishing margin of 31 lengths, he made his racing debut at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack. He was then 2 years old. He finished fourth in what would turn out to be the worst showing in his racing career. Still, the Daily Racing Form uncharateristically gushed over him, saying that the colt had finished the race “full of run.” 

That phrase has stuck with me. Can there be any greater aspiration—for human or horse—to finish any race, any day, any life, “full of run”?

To finish “full of run” means you have energy left to spare. It means you still have the will and the capacity to keep moving, and just as importantly, the desire. It means you won, even if you lost.

Gone too soon

Tragically, of course, Secretariat did not finish his life full of run. He was euthanized at age 19 after suffering for a month from laminitis.

People do not get laminitis, but we endure ailments that stem from the same factors that can bring on the condition in horses, mules and donkeys. We eat too much—and too many things that are bad for us. We run on hard surfaces. When trying to recover from an injury, we put too much stress on other parts of the body.

While the cause of Secretariat’s laminitis remains a source of speculation a half-century later, the veterinarian who performed the necropsy believes it was likely the result of an anomaly in the region’s fall pastures that was brought about by an unusually early frost. 

In human terms, by grazing in these deadly fields, it was as if Secretariat had binged on bacon cheeseburgers—or perhaps dozens of glazed doughnuts—only the consequences weren’t additional rolls of belly fat but catastrophic damage to his feet. He was diagnosed with laminitis on Labor Day of 1989 and euthanized just four weeks later. 

It was a shock to the nation that the massive copper-colored horse, an equine specimen so physically perfect that he had been called “the horse that God built,” could be felled by the same common ailment that kills many a backyard horse every year.

It’s still shocking and sad, even more than three decades later.

There’s video footage you can find on YouTube that was shot by a visitor to Claiborne Farm three days before Secretariat died. He’s on a lead rope and is being allowed to graze. Still beautiful, the stallion seems normal enough. But knowing what we know now, it does seem as if he’s walking a bit gingerly. 

Within a few days, he would be suffering so much that euthanasia was a kindness to him, though a devastation to the world.

“Full of run”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what Secretariat can teach me, as a runner of a certain age with a penchant for sweets and running for hours on unforgiving pavement. I wish I could say that Secretariat inspired me to completely overhaul my diet, drop the 40 extra pounds that I’ve been lugging around for decades, and nibble broccoli all day instead of cookies. And maybe he will yet—the horse was magical in so many ways.

But the most tangible thing that Secretariat has given me, beyond that year of pleasure watching him compete, is a goal: to finish every day, every week, every year—to finish my life—“full of run.” 

How? Our horses, all of them, show us the way. 

Life lessons from Big Red

Stay out of the grain bin. Stay light on your feet. Keep moving—mobility is our body’s great gift. Don’t trudge around in circles like sad ponies at a fair. Run wild and free on soft ground when you can. Use all your gears: gallop, canter, trot. Afterwards, take time for a hot walk. And always, always, no matter how exhilarating the start, focus on the finish line.

In this way Secretariat, the world’s greatest racehorse, is also the world’s greatest life coach.

My horse’s farrier tells me that the advances in laminitis treatment have come so far in the past 50 years that, had Secretariat lived today, veterinarians might have saved him. That both breaks my heart and gives me hope, just like Secretariat did all these decades ago. But this year, we will remember not his passing, but his glory. Secretariat at his prime, full of run.

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