When I got to the racetrack this morning, I think I was happier to be there than on the day I first began. Nothing appeared very different. The same buckskin pony horse was tied to the same pepper tree at the same barn. The same orange tabby cat that scurried in front of me by the equine hospital that scurries in front of me every morning as I make my way to the barn. Perhaps it was that the routine had not changed that was so comforting. It was like coming home after a very long trip and finding that the coffee pot is still unwashed, and your pajamas are still on the floor where you last threw them, and life as you had left it had not been disrupted. But on this morning, life had. Not just my life, but the lives of everyone at this racetrack and every racetrack around the world. The lives of every person old enough to remember that in 1973 a chestnut colt by the name of Secretariat had become a legend before our eyes. A legend whose reign had ended not 24 hours before at only 19.
I cried myself to sleep last night when I heard on the evening news that he had been put down. I cried again when I awoke and fully realized the loss, and tears filled my eyes as I walked to the barn this morning, knowing that the sun would rise again today, just the same as yesterday, but that chestnut colt would never run as Secretariat again.
When I reached the barn, I made no mention of his death. Instead, I grabbed a shank and took out my first cold horse of the day. His name was Simjour. He is a chestnut colt with three white stockings and a blaze down his forehead, but he is not very majestic looking. At least not now. He was purchased in England and got very ill while in quarantine. The result of this is a skeleton of a thoroughbred I affectionately call Stringbean.
We all thought that Stringbean was not going to make it for a while, but one day I think he remembered what it was to fly, like those wonderful times when a horse is at full stride, and he seems to be floating above the ground. I think he remembered that feeling and found what was left of his fight, and started to get better.
Anyway, Stringbean and I were walking in the road between the barns, and I was thinking about Secretariat. Thinking that one day while standing on aching, swollen feet, he must have remembered that feeling too and known that for all of the fight he had in him, he would never fly like that again. I say this because of the severity with which his illness progressed. It was almost as if he did not want to linger, that he would face death as a warrior, still possessing his dignity.
As this thought came to my mind, Stringbean’s ears pricked up. He looked up the road and let out a squeal. Through the dim early morning light, I strained my eyes to see what it was, and in the distance, I saw the image of a loose horse. He was only a shadow at first, running full speed with his tail straight up. Soon I heard the thundering of his hooves, and as he got closer, I felt their pounding beneath my feet.
I thought he would run right through us if we did not move. I tried to get out of his way, but for some reason, Stringbean refused to comply and stood steadfast, facing the runaway. In the next moment, I saw the whites of the runaway’s eyes and felt the air beside me breaking away as he ran past.
I watched as he continued up the road, like a crazed zealot on a conversion mission. There were sounds of the stable-workers yelling about a loose horse, but still, the horse did not stop. It was as if he were a messenger, sent to tell all of the others of his breed that the spirit of greatness was free to fly again.
He ran past our barn two more times, and on the third turn, he cut through the toe-ring. The horses reared up like dominoes, breaking free from their hot-walkers for only an instant to pay homage, and in their fleeting disobedience were liberated once more. Then, they were calm again, as if they knew, like I knew that it is in that thunderous stride, that we are all transformed into earth gods.
You see, I do believe that horses as great as Secretariat are gifts from the heavens. They share their greatness with us all, and all our souls, human or equine, are diminished with their passing.
I will miss him very much.
I’ve found that in twentieth-century American literature, horses are a mythic element by which man identifies greatness and mortality. This work is the fictional account of a worker on the backside of a race track on the morning after the greatest racehorse to ever live, Secretariat, had died. Secretariat won the American Triple Crown, and in so doing, set three world records that still remain today. The accidental son of an unraced mare, no one had much faith in this colt’s greatness or the journey of his owner, Penny Chenery, and his trainer, Lucien Laurin. Secretariat defied the odds of his birthright and naysayers and became Sports Illustrated’s Man of the Year in 1973. During the season of the Triple Crown, from May to June, there is scarcely a fan of the sport that does not hope for another Secretariat.