Lights at the End of the Tunnel

I didn’t spend the money for tickets when the film Secretariat was in the theaters. There was little motivation to open my wallet, since most of the reviews panned the movie; some, of course, more critical than others but all of them thudding somewhere on the bottom rungs of the popularity ladder. The general drift coming from the critics included descriptions such as “inaccurate” and overly Disney-fied. There was none of the glowing, adjective-driven praise that surrounded the release of Seabiscuit.

The negative descriptions were so firmly lodged in my brain that I even hesitated when, while flipping through the television channels, I saw the film scheduled for 8:00 p.m.

“Should I watch it?” I thought. “Why not?” I answered. My outrageously expensive cable bill would arrive whether I tuned in or not. I clicked the appropriate button.

The first 30-minutes corroborated the critics’ reviews. The story line was sprinkled liberally with inaccuracies that were embedded in a romanticized, rosy hue. I could almost see a dusky pink, maybe mauve, background.

Fortunately for me, I ignored the remote cradled in my hand and stuck with it. I plowed through owner Penny Tweedy’s (Chenery) perfect June Cleaver image of a stay-at-home wife and mother, who fretted over dinner and clothes needing to be pulled from the dryer before they wrinkled. Seldom did she wear pants, sporting a wardrobe of dresses and aprons.

Penny was painfully conflicted over her family duties and her growing involvement with the young colt, who was destined to become a racetrack legend. Her husband, of course, felt she was neglecting her home responsibilities to follow some ridiculous dream until…..

Penny was away at the races and, even though this was long, long before TVG (Television Games Network), Secretariat’s race was broadcast on national television. Her family tuned in, watching the first strides with  ho-hum expressions on their faces. Then, the beautiful red colt shifted into cruising gear and powered to the front. Husband and children popped out of their chairs like exuberant Jacks-In-The-Box. They were screaming, urging Secretariat to run even faster. Arms were in the air, fists pumping.

I leaned back and smiled, thinking, “This is what people need to see. Stand them next to the rail and let them feel the ground shake as the field passes them.” It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Thoroughbreds, such as Secretariat, or Quarter Horses. The power generated by the horses when they blast out of the starting gate must be experienced before it can be described.

The movie continued to the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Secretariat’s new track record victory. Then to the Preakness and another NTR. Then to the Belmont, where Secretariat treated tens of thousands of people to an unforgettable, magic carpet ride.

I have no idea how many horse races I’ve seen but, like many others engaged for decades in the racing sport/industry, I wondered if I’d gone a bit sour….jaded….ho-hum. Maybe even numb. My answer came while watching that critic-panned, inaccurate, romanticized film.

It was the Belmont, the longest and most grueling competition on the Thoroughbred Triple Crown menu. The gorgeous, red horse wasn’t satisfied with simply winning this third and final leg. He went to the front, focused not on the finish line but, instead, on some distant horizon that only he could see.

The announcer’s voice quivered as he yelled into his microphone, “It’s Secretariat by four-lengths, by nine-lengths, by 14-lengths.” He continued, shouting out his last call, when he told people watching at the track, as well as those stuck like a piece of Velcro to televisions and radios, that Secretariat won by an incredible 31-lengths in a New World Record time.

I couldn’t sit calmly. It was just too much. I perched on the edge of my seat, grinning, staring at the screen. I felt the hair on my arms stand at attention and a wave of shivers roll down my spine. At that moment, I was convinced I could relate to the overwhelming emotions of the resurrected Lazarus. I had just watched a thing of indescribable beauty in a mistake-ridden, Disney-produced film. I was alive! The fact that the Belmont placed the Triple Crown squarely on Secretariat’s regal head was almost incidental.

It’s true that horseracing has about as many facets as an intricately cut diamond. The outside of the sport/industry is gilded with a certain pomp and circumstance that reflects off the sheer wonder of the equine athletes. Underneath, however, are the hidden fractures that shave the worth from imperfect diamonds.

Racing has traveled a long road from the shabby rooms housing seedy-looking bookies, with cigarettes and cigars dangling between thin lips that fold back on yellow teeth. Yes, we have problems lurking beneath the surface but nothing, no one, no sin we may commit, has the power to strip away the brilliant beauty of these horses. Yes, we have a desperate need for enormous changes; those changes are happening, albeit, slowly.

What do we do in the meantime? We wait. We wait for the sustaining glory of another Secretariat in the Thoroughbred world and another Special Effort in the Quarter Horse kingdom because they are the lights at the end of our tunnel.

Diane: Career Notes

My favorite place in the slow-moving, Tennessee farming town where I grew up was the old train depot. The tiny, clapboard building was erased from the railroad’s stop schedule years before I was born; its peeling exterior later painted yellow with green trim. The bright, beckoning colors created a perfect backdrop for a sign that shouted out in huge letters….LIBRARY.

I read my way through all the series revolving around horses. Black Beauty. Thunderhead. The Black Stallion. Flicka. They were beautiful, breath-taking steeds that made my heart race as they pounded across mountains and meadows. Next came every other animal book I could find on the sagging, tightly packed shelves; constantly begging the elderly librarian for more, more.

Reading all those words picked me up and moved me around the world and, by the third grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer.

After graduating with honors from the University of Memphis in journalism, English literature and psychology, I moved to southern California where I became Editor of a high-profile architecture, design and fine arts magazine for seven years. The next seven years led me throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico on assignment for a number of magazines.

I was recruited to establish a special interest, weekly publication, which meant relocating to Texas. Next, I was recruited by the national/international Speedhorse magazine (racing Quarter Horses) to serve as editor and then as editor-in-chief. I received the industry’s first-ever Sprint award for journalistic excellence in a controversial column titled “Take Five,” followed by four additional awards for the same column. My work was also cited in “Best American Sports Writing,” referenced as “the premier sports anthology” and published by Houghton Mifflin.

I was later commissioned to write a special interest book called Legends, followed by many contributions to animal anthologies published by the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, as well as a 20-volume anthology titled Listening to the Animals, published by Guideposts. One of my current projects is an inspirational book titled Butterflies for Zechariah, about my Cocker Spaniel who educates me daily in the ways of God’s universe. I learned a very long time ago that to wonder in amazement at an animal provides a sweetly unique perspective on the world.

I am truly blessed.