Death of a Hero: Observing Secretariat’s Passing

By Kat Boniface

With the Thoroughbred Makeover wrapping up at the Kentucky Horse Park, and the Breeder’s Cup coming up this weekend, now is a great time to consider the place of thoroughbreds in our history. Racehorses have not just been seen as animal athletes. Many have become public figures. This month marks the anniversary of one of the most publicized horse burials in American history.

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Secretariat at the Belmont (1973). Courtesy of Carles LeBlanc (Flickr).

On October 4th, 1989, Secretariat was euthanized due to laminitis­. This is the same condition to which Barbaro eventually succumbed. Like all the Triple Crown winners, Secretariat has a FindAGrave listing. However, unlike either Citation before him, or Seattle Slew after him, Secretariat’s burial was national news. When Seattle Slew died in 2002, USA Today ran a column on the death of “the last living Triple Crown winner,” but it only focused on his career and the sudden lack of living Triple Crown winner. Most national news sources did not notice his passing. Secretariat’s death, by contrast, made headlines in large and small papers across the nation. While some did the usual career overview, many reported on his actual funeral and ran interviews with his bereaved human connections. The LA Times even described his casket. The New York Times coverage closed with “a private funeral was held yesterday at Claiborne, and Secretariat was buried near his sire, Bold Ruler, and grandsire, Nasrullah,” much like any human celebrity’s passing.

Many other notable racehorses are buried at Claiborne, but Secretariat’s family was emphasized in the same way a human decedents would be. His dam’s sire, the eminent Princequillo, is also buried nearby, but the mother’s father isn’t often listed in obituaries. The LA Times article, in 1989, also assured readers that his nameplate would remain on his stall. It remains there today, along with those of Easy Goer, and Unbridled, and Secretariat’s own sire Bold Ruler, all of whom had occupied the same stall during their tenures at historic Claiborne Farm. The stall, like Secretariat’s grave, remains a site of pilgrimage. While other racehorse’s graves and farms receive visitors, like the homes and graves of human celebrities, Secretariat’s is one of the few who continues to receive as many visitors as currently living champion racehorses. He holds a special place in the American imagination, such that even many people who were not yet born when Big Red raced will still visit his grave to leave flowers and peppermints. These visitors pay tribute to his memory not only as a great racehorse, but also as an American icon.

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Courtesy of Kat Boniface.

Like American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory last year, Secretariat came after a drought in American thoroughbred racing’s top tier. When Secretariat left his competition well behind his own dust in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, it had been a quarter of a century since Citation had likewise swept the Triple Crown. The grueling test makes all of its winners (and, in fact, many of its losers) instant celebrities. In the case of Secretariat, he stood as the lone living emblem for an entire generation. Even after Seattle Slew’s and Affirmed’s back-to-back Triple Crown victories a few years later, Secretariat maintained a unique position in being the horse that showed it could still be done, and that “modern” racing had not made the test of champions an impossible feat. The same rhetoric had been used in the last almost two decades of near-misses, from Silver Charm in 1997 to California Chrome in 2014: with modern racing, modern breeding, and modern race schedules, the wish for a Triple Crown winner was a futile one. That futility made American Pharoah’s victory even more astounding, and is what allowed him to have devotees well beyond regular racing fans. It was so astonishing that Wired ran an article between the Preakness and the Belmont claiming that “science” proved he wouldn’t win, only to need to add: “Update: Whoa! American Pharoah Beats Science to Win the Triple Crown.” With commanding victories after such a long gap, the Triple Crown wins of Secretariat and American Pharoah arrived with waves of nostalgia and a great deal of relief.

Of course, the time between Triple Crown winners alone doesn’t quite explain the vast outpouring of support at Secretariat’s death, or the distinctly human way his funeral was covered on a national level. Owner Penny Chenery herself was aware of this, telling the New York Times: “The country was in a blue mood [when Secretariat was racing]. It was the time of Watergate and the Nixon scandals, and people wanted something to make them feel good. This red horse with the blue-and-white blinkers and silks seemed to epitomize an American hero.” His record breaking Derby came only weeks after the U.S. began withdrawing from Vietnam. This all gives a clearer picture of why the red, white, and blue underdog’s domination of his sport was so appealing. He was also widely televised, and with his gleaming coat and front running style was easy to follow. And finally, the thing that may have helped maintain his personal fame well into his retirement and past his death, was his personality. He was described by everyone who knew him personally, and many of his thousands of visitors, as personable, as mischievous, as intelligent, and even as human.

Let’s wish Secretariat’s Great-great-great-grandson­– who shares his striking coat color and his commanding stride– the best of luck in the Breeder’s Cup Classic on Nov. 5th.

Kat Boniface is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Riverside, studying horses and horsemanship in early modern Europe. Her background is in medieval history & literature, with a BA from Stony Brook University and an MA from CSU Fresno. Prior to returning to academics, she earned a trade degree in horse training from Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre, along with a teaching certification. Her current research areas include medieval and early modern equine nutrition and genetic history.

One thought on “Death of a Hero: Observing Secretariat’s Passing

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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