In the late '60s and early '70s, America was embroiled in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. Quoting Ayn Rand's paean to Apollo 11: "For thirty years or longer, the newspapers had featured nothing but disaster, catastrophes, betrayals, the shrinking stature of men, the sordid mess of a collapsing civilzation; their voice had become a long, sustained whine, the megaphone of failure . . . Now, for once, the newspapers were announcing a human achievement, were reporting on a human triumph, were reminding us that man still exists and functions as man," (from Apollo 11, in The Voice of Reason, page 167).
I was a seven year old child at the time of Apollo 11. It is still one of the earliest and fondest memories of my youth. A less pleasant memory was the televised hearings about the Watergate scandal, some years later.
Then, in 1973, along came Secretariat. I knew nothing of horse racing. I was unaware there hadn't been a Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century. But there was a buzz about this horse that was impossible to ignore. In 1972 he had won "Horse of the Year" as a two year old, a highly unusual feat. As a three year old in 1973, he would be competing for the Triple Crown, awarded to a horse that wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.
And what a beautiful horse. Chestnut hued, dubbed Big Red, he was admired as often for his beauty as for his strength, speed, spirit, and endurance.
Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by two or three lengths each. He would generally start slow out of the gate, and then blow past the other horses with a burst of speed that made it look like the other horses were standing still.
But the Belmont Stakes is the test of champions. It is longer than the other two legs of the Triple Crown, and calls for speed and endurance, as well as an intelligent strategy. Secretariat, as usual, was slow out of the gate. But he quickly recovered, and was galloping neck and neck with the leader, Sham, the horse that had come in second place in both the Kentucky Derby, and the Preakness. After jockeying back and forth for a while, Secretariat finally left Sham behind, and continued stretching his lead until, by the end of the race, he was fully 31 lengths ahead of the next horse- a feat immortalized in the photograph at the head of this post.
America had its first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century. Before the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat appeared on the cover of Time magazine, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, all in the same week. Everyone loved Secretariat. Once again, the media were filled with stories of a glorious achievement, pushing the doom and gloom stories off the front page, if only for a while.
Secretariat was the product of careful breeding, and was trained, groomed, managed, and ridden to be the best that he could be. He was a magnificent animal, and his greatness was guided and enhanced by human intelligence. We admired him for his achievements, his desire to excel, to be the "first among equals," to be the best.
No one ever suggested he should slow down so as not to embarass his brothers. We were free to admire his superiority over his peers. For those of us who love a hero, Secretariat was living proof that they could exist, and glory in their own existence.