Clinging to Youth Through Secretariat

No one likes getting old, especially when you still think of yourself as a kid--in my case growing up in Brooklyn and having my world revolve around sports. That spark of youth still burns brightly no matter how old you get. And you even miss the naivety that comes with being young. We looked at everything, especially sports, with a good deal of innocence because we simply didn't know any better. That's why it was fun.

Oscar Wilde said it best: "The tragedy of old age is not that one is old, but that one is young."

What is inside you does not reflect what you see in the mirror every morning, so you try not to look. But with age comes reflection of how things were and the historic events you witnessed, much to the envy of the younger generation, which does temper the realization that you are aging more rapidly than you would like.

Yes, everything was better back then, at least through those innocent eyes that saw only what we wanted them to see.

In the movie Atlantic City, Burt Lancaster's elderly character carried that to the extreme when walking on the boardwalk with a young man. He looked out at the ocean and said with a great deal of absurdity (to others but not to him), "The Atlantic Ocean was something then. You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days."

Yes, everything was indeed better back then, at least through aging eyes. The point of all this is to explain, in the world of Thoroughbred racing,  the trade off of old age with having seen Secretariat race. When young people say they envy me having actually witnessed the greatness of Big Red in person, it does make me briefly forget that you have to be up there in years in order to have had that distinct honor and privilege. And it comes as a jolt to the senses to realize that a 45-year-old person today was not even born when Secretariat raced.

Having recently returned from the annual Secretariat Festival in Lexington, where I led several tours and signed my photos of Secretariat, I again realized the profound impact Big Red had and still has on people's lives. And I look forward to witnessing that impact in its full force next March for Secretariat's 50th birthday celebration in Doswell, Va., where he was born and where Penny Chenery's daughter Kate now lives, having moved there to be close to her roots.

And in Kentucky, I also witnessed the huge crowd that showed up at Keeneland to see the unveiling of the new massive Secretariat bronze statue by sculptor Jocelyn Russell that has since been moved to a roundabout (or traffic circle) on Old Frankfort Pike and Alexandria Drive. I also was honored to learn last year that my photo of Secretariat working out at Belmont Park was one of several inspirations for the statue, depicting his stride and his muscle tone.

On Nov. 9 I posted a photo of Secretariat on Facebook showing him breaking off into a show horse canter at his farewell at Aqueduct, as if showing off to the crowd one last time. I posted the photo to commemorate the 46th anniversary to the day of that special event. To my surprise, that photo brought 99 comments, 432 shares, and 900 likes.

Yes, Secretariat's star still shines brightly in the hearts of racing fans of all ages. It has been nearly half a century since he transcended racing and moved the equine genus up a notch or two. But his image and overall persona are still very much alive. It is as if the luster of his red coat illuminated by the sun is just as dazzling today as it was back then.

That is in evidence at the two Secretariat celebrations held each year in Kentucky and Virginia, where people come from around the country to see his gravestone at Claiborne Farm or gather in his stall for group photos or see the barns where he grew up at The Meadow. They flock to the merchandising tables to purchase any new piece of memorabilia that they don't already have, from numerous forms of apparel to written material to photographs to art work to stuffed replicas.

With the passing of the decades, truth begins to take on mythical qualities. Fact becomes fable. Lore becomes folklore. Heroes become super heroes. Yes, Secretariat's story has become a tale; a yarn told in front of the fireplace on a snowy winter night. Children read about him as they once read about the Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague. But in this case it is all true. There was a Big Red and he did have the power to touch people's lives nearly half a century later.

Why am I writing about Secretariat weeks after the festival in Kentucky? Could it be the Vox Populi Award founded by Penny Chenery that just began its voting? To be honest, it is strictly for selfish reasons. It should make me feel old, but in reality it makes me feel young to be able to relive those glorious days back in 1972 and '73 as if they just happened, and even the years after while he was still alive and all the memorable visits to Claiborne Farm.

It is the glow that still radiates from Secretariat after all these years that allows one who was able to bask in it to have an occasional much-needed cathartic experience. This has been mine.

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