Lights at the End of the Tunnel

I didn’t spend the money for tickets when the film Secretariat was in 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 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 pre-release of Seabiscuit.

The negative commentaries 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. The story line was sprinkled liberally with inaccuracies embedded in a romanticized, rosy hue. I could almost see a dusky pink, maybe mauve, background.

Fortunately, 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 or 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 a young colt who, although no one knew it at the time, 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. 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 about my own personal and professional association with racing, “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, like Penny Tweedy’s family. 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 pieces 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 back. 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 horse racing is as multi-faceted 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, there are serious 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.

*American Pharoah won in 2015 and Justify in 2018. It was 37 years between Affirmed’s Triple Crown victory in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015.