Natural Perspectives: The story of the horse who was all heart

Southern California is horseracing country as much as the bluegrass belt of Kentucky. We have the Santa Anita, Los Alamitos, Del Mar and Hollywood Park racetracks, places that some of the Hollywood film stars of yesteryear liked to frequent. We can claim a lot of racing history.

When I was growing up in Indiana, my brother never missed watching the Indy 500, and I never missed watching a Kentucky Derby. May was all about horseracing for me, not race cars. Each year brought the hope of a Triple Crown winner, a horse that could gallop to victory in all three of the big races for 3-year-olds: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

But Triple Crown winners were few and far between. Sir Barton was the first winner in 1919, followed by Gallant Fox in 1930, Omaha in 1935 and War Admiral in 1937. The 1940s were a good time for horseracing, with Triple Crown winners Whirlaway in 1941, Count Fleet in 1943, Assault in 1946 and Citation in 1948. But those were all before my interest in racing.

The first race I remember paying attention to was in 1955. We had a television by then. I didn't miss a Kentucky Derby after that. But the 1950s and 1960s saw no Triple Crown winners. In 1973, I watched Big Red, as Secretariat was known, run to victory at the Kentucky Derby, beating out Sham. I watched the race on a black-and-white TV. He set a track record that still stands. Two weeks later, he swept to victory in the Preakness with blazing speed down the home stretch, again besting Sham.

But it is the Belmont Stakes that does in so many of those young equine Triple Crown hopefuls. The Belmont is the longest race that they've had to face, a mile and a half. Speed horses just aren't up to the task. They lack the stamina for the long haul. The winners of the Belmont generally come from behind, letting the speed horses burn up the track — and their energy — in the backstretch. A winner of that race has to save something for the finish line. At least, that's how it usually goes.

I hoped to see my first Triple Crown winner in June 1973. Secretariat and Sham blistered the track in the opening furlongs, swapping off on the lead. They left their competition in the dust, quite literally. I shook my head at the time, thinking that there was no way that they could keep up that reckless speed.

In the far turn, Secretariat began to pull away from Sham. He widened his lead to a length, then two, then three lengths. He was headed down homestretch. I was sure he was going to fade. No horse could keep up that scorching pace. But Secretariat did. That horse was all heart. He won by an amazing 31 lengths, setting a track record of two minutes and 24 seconds for the mile and a half. His record still stands.

Vic and I saw the Disney film "Secretariat" at Bella Terra this weekend, and we highly recommend it. The photography is brilliant, the cast superb and the story heartwarming. It's about the people as much as the horse. But it was the scenes of Big Red that stole my heart. The filmmakers cast a lookalike, Trolley Boy, in the role of Secretariat. With his uncanny similarity to Secretariat and superb filming, it was like watching Secretariat himself race.

If you've never seen Secretariat's win of the Belmont Stakes, or if you'd like to see it again, check out It is truly the most awesome performance in the history of horseracing. There has never been anything like it before or since. Then go see the movie.

Secretariat retired to stud at the end of that season, leaving racing as a 3-year-old. He didn't distinguish himself as a sire of winning racehorses. But he did become a sire of great broodmares, whose offspring became major stakes winners.

There was a secret to Secretariat's phenomenal performances that wasn't revealed until after his death in 1989. His heart turned out to weigh 22 pounds, two and a half times as large as most thoroughbreds' hearts. That may be the reason for his incredible speed and stamina.

Sunday was the day that we saw the movie "Secretariat." On Saturday, Vic and I stopped by the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center to see how its garage sale was going. The Huntington Beach Community Garden group had donated a lot of things to the sale, and I wanted to see if our donations had found homes. Almost everything had. I was happy that some of our things helped the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center raise money to continue its good work of caring for local injured and orphaned wildlife. The good news is that the garage sale made more than $2,700. That will help feed some of the many animals that they care for.

There is one more sale coming up that one more carload of our stuff — all bird-related things — will go to support. Sea & Sage Audubon is having its annual $10 pancake breakfast Saturday morning from 7:30 to 10:30 am. Vic will be a celebrity chef. Or, at least, he'll be flipping pancakes. You'll need a reservation, and today is the last day to make them. Call (949) 261-7963 to reserve your spot.

The sale of books, artwork and other bird-related items will help support our local Audubon chapter's work of maintaining the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. Go to the Duck Club in Irvine on Riparian Way at the Irvine Ranch Water District for the pancake breakfast, and then go see "Secretariat."

Or you could go to the races. Los Alamitos, Orange County's only racetrack for thoroughbreds and quarter horses, has races on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. And if you want to ride a horse, visit the equestrian center in Huntington Central Park.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at

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