Today I awoke from a dream of Secretariat’s Belmont Day, 42 years ago. Dreams from childhood are self-centered affairs, and as usual I spent most of this one looking for my pants. But as I arose from sleep to doze, from dream to memory, I recall the crowds, the warmth of the day. I remember the deference and adoration the fans had for my mother, and in a weird undeserved way for me. I remember the giddy celebrations in the Trustee’s Room, and afterwards at the barn. But I have no concrete recollection of the race itself. Today I wondered if my personal memory was simply overwritten by the video footage, by the announcer’s famous call. But then I realized: I never did have a narrative memory of the race, such as we have of ordinary events in our lives. What I had instead, from the beginning, was a sensation, an experience. Sports fans have used the word “perfection” to describe it. For me, the word is “transcendence.”
Every species of domesticated animal has its signature traits. Cats are graceful and conceited. Dogs are loyal and ebullient. Horses are courageous and noble. They gave humans their first experience of exhilarating speed. To ride horseback is to fuse uniquely with another being, to take on its height, power, and nobility. In many cultures, a man who sought to govern others did so by riding a horse. I think horseracing became known as the “sport of kings,” not because kings owned horses, but because horses created kings.
In 1973, my parents were grinding towards divorce, while America was grinding through Watergate towards defeat in Vietnam. But when we watched Secretariat run the Belmont Stakes, we briefly forgot our fallen, grieving, disputatious selves. My mother’s self- transcendence was the most powerful of all. She became forever after known as “Secretariat’s Owner.” However, there was never any true “ownership” of Secretariat. If anything, he owned Mom, owned the thoroughbred world, and in a subterranean way has owned me, ever since. In the 42 years since, that domination has engendered private and public burdens, jealousies and arguments. But on Belmont Day, Secretariat ruled by divine right. All I truly remember is a feeling of oneness, among a huge crowd of ecstatic vassals.
Today Penny, at 93, is at Belmont Park, on hand to watch American Pharoah try to win the Triple Crown, and to celebrate if he does. Thoroughbred racing has lost its eminence in our culture, and horses themselves are increasingly neglected and abused, both in the sport and outside of it. But it remains true that well-trained and well-cared-for horses run out of their innate drive to be the fastest — as Penny says in the attached video — “for the joy of it.” My best hope for today’s race, Triple Crown or not, is for the horses to run safely, and to run with joy.