As we await the 2011 Belmont Stakes, THE VAULT shares a personal story of a thoroughbred who will never be forgotten and a Belmont Stakes that held a magic that would last a lifetime…..
There will only ever be one Belmont Stakes for me, a performance by which all other Belmont Stakes’ winners will be measured. For although there have been and will continue to be great thoroughbred champions, Secretariat surpassed all of that on June 9, 1973. In some ways his Belmont run was surreal. Even if one were watching it live — as I was — the big red colt carried us into another dimension. A place where horses are the messengers of the gods and, like Pegasus, fly between the lands of the mortal and immortal.
On that Saturday in June, sitting in front of our television console, my mother and I came to our feet as Secretariat turned for home, our eyes brimming with tears. It may sound odd to say it, but I don’t remember thinking at all about the Triple Crown as Big Red II came down the stretch with a stride that made it seem as though he was skimming the ground. What I thought, instead, was that this was a moment so powerful and so extraordinarily beautiful that it would stay with me forever.
Thirty-eight years later, I can say that it did.
Now in 1973, for the young’uns out there, we all knew that what appeared on a screen was fleeting. There were no computers, no video or DVD or Blu-ray, no chance that we would ever see a televised event like Secretariat’s Belmont again. And this meant, in turn, that we watched the screen differently than we do today. In the years prior to the coming of new media, the human mind recorded these kinds of events and — as I was to discover — stored them in our memories with a remarkable degree of accuracy.
To keep the memory of Secretariat alive, I bought Raymond Woolfe’s magnificent book, “Secretariat,” in 1975. I was in a downtown Montreal bookstore called “Classics,” a place where I spent many hours browsing through the bookshelves. I can still remember spotting“Secretariat” on the display stand, leafing through it quickly and then rushing to the cashier to buy it and take it home. Filled with Woolfe’s extraordinary images of Secretariat from babyhood to retirement, I sat for many long, pleasurable hours with my treasure, reading the narrative and lingering over the photos. Of course, remarkable as Woolfe’s photos truly are of Secretariat and his connections, no single photograph, except the famous one by Bob Coglianese of Secretariat nearing the wire, really could capture the feelings that coursed through me on that day. And even the Coglianese fell short.
By the 1990’s the new media had transformed communication and the way we store screen events in our memory and in our lives. My son, for example, would watch his favourite movies over and over again, a habit I have still not really embraced, possibly because the lesson of the fleeting image which characterized fully half of my adult life remains too strong. In other words, I belong to a generation for whom the vast majority find re-watching something that you remember perfectly well a curious activity.
But there are a few films in my own collection that I do, in fact, re-watch. The first among them is “The Life & Times of Secretariat: An American Racing Legend.” I still remember the day my son introduced me to eBay. He said, “This place is AMAZING!” I was sceptical. He persevered. “Just tell me one thing — anything — that you really love and I’ll show you.” And what came out of my mouth? Secretariat! He typed in the name and up on the screen came PAGES of Secretariat ephemera. I was stunned. He scrolled down the lists and we came to a VHS about the champion, entitled, “The Life & Times of Secretariat: An American Racing Legend.” I joined eBay within 10 minutes, bid on it and won it, and sent off my payment to the seller.
The day my cassette arrived, I opened its cellophane wrap with trembling fingers and slid it into the VCR. In a matter of seconds, there he was: my SpiritHorse….the big red colt who had accompanied me for the last 20 + years and who had become a part of me, a place in my life that felt like home. Watching Secretariat’s Belmont was a lesson in the lore of the human heart — I had forgotten nothing. It was just as I had re-memoried it for two decades or more.
I watch this documentary repeatedly because Secretariat speaks to me so profoundly. Whenever my team and I found our backs to the wall, I would tell them about Secretariat and what it means in life to run your very own race. So it was natural for them to weave Secretariat into my retirement from education a year ago, by playing the short film I made myself that commemorates Secretariat in my life and that I am sharing with you today for the very first time.
I composed the film using footage from the many compositions on YouTube and it took me a number of weeks to do. The hardest was the written script because for the first time, I needed to articulate why Secretariat means so much to me. The audience for the film was my retirement guests, most of whom knew nothing about horses or horse racing or thoroughbred champions. And the early footage of Secretariat on the track, wearing number 1A, was mostly taken from his Kentucky Derby post parade.
Of course, there are other thoroughbreds I loved before and after Secretariat and, in a very real sense, I love them all. But Secretariat’s Belmont punctuates my life by connecting me back to the little girl and the young woman who loved thoroughbreds with an unrivalled passion, making him a sacred artefact in my personal landscape.
I offer it to THE VAULT readers in the spirit of all those who have let at least one great horse flow into their lives. Because, as you know, our lives are so much richer when we walk our individual paths with an equine spirit to guide and protect us.