The greatest athlete of a lifetime leaves a great legacy

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By Steve Doyle

I have an elderly aunt who not long ago confided something very important to me.

“I like what you write,” she said, “except I don’t care much about sports.”

Well, Carroll, I have to apologize, but sometimes my roots in the dirt of diamonds, the creaky basketball courts and the trees, sand and water of golf courses sometimes fight their way past the topsoil of today’s world and push fresh shoots that must be nourished with a few organic sentences from the compost pile within me.

(And if that paragraph isn’t its own form of compost, I mean, what is?)

I say this because today is one of those days when I have to tell a story about a sports hero, the greatest athlete of my lifetime, one who never swung a bat, shot a jump shot, knocked in a putt or kick a field goal, though he was, I’m sure, a good kicker.

And he did often show breathtaking speed in the open field. In fact, this athlete was among the fastest I ever saw in any sport.

He also had the heart of a champion, undaunted by his opposition, overpowering in his competitiveness and unmatched in his ability to captivate his audience.

He was, perhaps you have guessed, Secretariat.

Yes, I saw the new movie, produced by Disney. Yes, I know it has flaws (hello? Riva Ridge?). Yes, I doubted some of its characterizations.

And, yes, I was reduced in certain places to the sort of tears that only great nostalgia can generate within me. (OK, so I’m one of those saps.)

I’ve always had a thing for movies that take me back to a point in life and deposit me within a frame of reference that has great clarity and vividity.

Surely if you’re at least old enough to be president, you knew the story of Secretariat.

A powerfully built, empirically bred and beautiful and charming chestnut Thoroughbred, he captured not only the 1973 Triple Crown, the first horse in 25 years to do so, but he also captured imaginations and built a legacy.

There are statues of him, a foundation named for him and probably lots of other things I don’t know, including some of the 600 foals he sired in retirement.

Secretariat was not infallible – he did lose in the Wood Memorial before winning the Derby – and like most horses he had to find himself.

But, man, could that horse run. In fact, his 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes was probably the most dominant sports performance I’ve ever seen.

Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open by 15 shots, dozens of pitchers have thrown unblemished games and Nadia Comaneci and others have scored 10s in gymnastics, to name a few perfecto performances, but those all are just warm-ups when the discussion includes that day in New York.

Secretariat had won both the Derby and the Preakness in record times but not by overwhelming margins against another sterling but ill-fated (and ill-timed) 3-year-old, Sham (who as anything but that).

When the horses arrived at the Belmont for the longest race in either of their lives, many thought Secretariat would face the fate of so many in prior years by failing to have enough stamina to handle the 1.5 miles and the very long stretch run.

Only Secretariat didn’t have to worry about the stretch run. When he turned for home that fine June day, he was the only horse in the picture. He won by so many yards, the two horses could not fit in the same photograph of the finish line.

It was, in the most classic sports parlance, a rout, a perfect race, a pluperfect performance.

A benchmark, milestone and standard had been carved that I doubt will be attained in the closely controlled world of modern horse racing.

And, yes, that race is clearly the climax to this wonderful movie, but it’s not what got to me.

What got to me was a the story of a woman – Penny Chenery Tweedy, the owner of Meadow Farm in Ohio – who took over the family business at the death of her parents, committed herself to this horse and its future and in some ways changed the face of horse racing by creating a syndicate for the breeding rights to Secretariat that allowed her to page huge estate taxes.

The horse is the star, but Tweedy was the story. Without her, Secretariat may have won the Triple Crown, but I have my doubts. I think she made the horse and, at the same time, made herself, too.

She sacrificed time with her family and gambled a fortune on the capabilities of an athlete in the most unpredictable of sports. You think young basketball players are temperamental, at least you can speak to them and try to understand their mood swings.

This was a horse on whose back her entire future – not just jockey Ron Turcotte – was riding.

And that’s why the Kleenex moment in the story of this great athlete came not during the Derby or the Belmont but during the Preakness.

Director Randall Wallace told this segment of the story by having Tweedy’s family gather in their Brady Bunch-style Colorado home and watch on an old Philco while classic track announcer Chick Anderson called Secretariat’s stunning, come-from-behind victory.

Tweedy’s kids saw her on TV. They saw the horse. They heard the story. They felt the victory.

And they realized at that moment that what they had seen was not just a great horse running a race but a great mother showing them how life should be lived.

So many great athletes today – no matter how talented and how admirable in so many ways – fritter away their ability to teach life lessons.

Secretariat didn’t waste his. And he never was on the cover of the National Enquirer.