Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Dawning of the Age of Secretariat

I don't know if Orb, the winner of yesterday's Kentucky Derby, will be the first winner of the Triple Crown in 35 years. I guess we'll know in five weeks.

But he's off to a start similar to Secretariat's in 1973. Like Secretariat, he had to come from behind to win the Kentucky Derby — and he won by two lengths.

Forty years ago today, most Americans probably had not heard much about Secretariat.

The name was familiar to those who followed horse racing, and a record crowd was on hand, many strictly to watch him run in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, but the average American who tuned in to watch the Kentucky Derby that Saturday afternoon in 1973 probably did not know who Secretariat was.

In fact, if casual horse racing fans had heard anything about Secretariat in the weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby, it wasn't good. In the Wood Memorial, his final Kentucky Derby prep race, Secretariat finished third behind his stablemate, Angle Light, and his top foe in the Triple Crown races, Sham.

It was discovered that Secretariat was suffering from an abscess in his mouth.

Secretariat recovered from the abscess by post time at Churchill Downs; nevertheless, many observers were influenced by the results of the Wood Memorial, leaving no clear consensus by the time the race began. Secretariat and his stablemate went off as 3–2 favorites. Sham was just behind at 5–2.

In his trademark fashion, Secretariat meandered out of the gate and ran at the back of the pack for awhile before making his move and giving the racing fans at Churchill Downs a dramatic finish in which he overtook Sham to win by two lengths.

I've known a few horse people in my day, and some would tell you that a horse knows a lot more than people give him credit for. Others would tell you that horses may have a certain level of intelligence, but they can't understand a language or speak one (sorry, Mister Ed), and they can't process/analyze information.

I don't know if either is true, but I do know Secretariat was different. Secretariat almost seemed to be lounging in the back, as if lolling in a hammock, conserving his energy until just the right moment — when he would burst from behind in the blink of an eye.

Secretariat seemed to shift into an entirely different gear, one unknown to mere horses. They called it hyperspace in "Star Wars," I think. But Secretariat came along several years before the first "Star Wars" movie. The concept of hyperspace was largely unknown.

Except, perhaps, to Secretariat.

Then again, maybe he was just making it look good.

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