Pure Heart: The thrilling life and emotional death of Secretariat


Although this story is decades old, it is on a subject matter many horse lovers are still fascinated with – Secretariat. Whether or not you follow horse racing, Secretariat was an amazing horse. His life and the stories about him have been lauded in movies, books and even song. ~ HfH

From: Sports Illustrated
By: William Nack



In honor of Sports Illustrated’s 60th anniversary, SI.com is republishing, in full, 60 of the best stories ever to appear in the magazine. Today’s selection is “Pure Heart,” by William Nack, which ran in the June 4, 1990 issue.

In waging the most glorious Triple Crown campaign ever, Secretariat made racing history. In the doing, he took the author on an unforgettably exhilarating ride.

Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Kentucky, where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.

”We were all shocked,” Swerczek said. ”I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”

In the late afternoon of Monday, Oct. 2, 1989, as I headed my car from the driveway of Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm onto Winchester Road outside of Paris, Ky., I was seized by an impulse as beckoning as the wind that strums through the trees there, mingling the scents of new grass and old history.

For reasons as obscure to me then as now, I felt compelled to see Lawrence Robinson. For almost 30 years, until he suffered a stroke in March of 1983, Robinson was the head caretaker of stallions at Claiborne Farm. I had not seen him since his illness, but I knew he still lived on the farm, in a small white frame house set on a hill overlooking the lush stallion paddocks and the main stallion barn. In the first stall of that barn, in the same space that was once home to the great Bold Ruler, lived Secretariat, Bold Ruler’s greatest son.

It was through Secretariat that I had met Robinson. On the bright, cold afternoon of Nov. 12, 1973, he was one of several hundred people gathered at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington to greet the horse on his flight from New York into retirement in Kentucky. I flew with the horse that day, and as the plane banked over the field, a voice from the tower crackled over the airplane radio: ”There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat than there was to greet the governor.”

”Well, he’s won more races than the governor,” pilot Dan Neff replied.

An hour later, after a van ride out the Paris Pike behind a police escort with blue lights flashing, Robinson led Secretariat onto a ramp at Claiborne and toward his sire’s old stall — out of racing and into history. For me, that final walk beneath a grove of trees, with the colt slanting like a buck through the autumn gloaming, brought to a melancholy close the richest, grandest, damnedest, most exhilarating time of my life. For eight months, first as the racing writer for Long Island, N.Y.’s Newsday and then as the designated chronicler of the horse’s career, I had a daily front-row seat to watch Secretariat. I was at the barn in the morning and the racetrack in the afternoon for what turned out to be the year’s greatest show in sports, at the heart of which lay a Triple Crown performance unmatched in the history of American racing.

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  • Margaret

    SI also did an article shortly after Secretariat retired. He had gotten two of his three test mares into foal some 6/8 weeks coming off the track.

    The name of the article? THEY USE TO CALL HIM SEXY. Secretariat was bred to all kinds of mares (I believe it was as a favor friends). His name appears in Quarter Horse, Appy everything!

    January 3, 2015
  • ‘Secretariat’ as was ‘Phar Lap’, a gorgeous ‘Freak of Nature’ whom failed to pass on his considerable talents to his offspring. His Daughters were better than his Sons and to this day the ‘Secretariats’ are nothing like the famed horse himself.

    I have had a ‘Secretariat’ grandson who lived to the age of 23 when he had to be Euthanized due to a Tumor on his Palate which was inoperable.

    I currently have a great granddaughter of ‘Secretariat’ whose racing name was ‘Okay Renee’ and she is my first ‘Lifer’ as she has Gastric Ulcers from being tubed while in training and at the Track. She is now 14 years old and still thin. I have tried all Vet recommended treatments to put weight on this mare who weighs 1000 lbs on a good day. Now she is being treated with diet and it keeps her stable but she still has pointy hips and she will never be ridden by me or anybody else.

    She is bright eyed, friendly and is bonded to my personal horse my 23 year old Quarter Horse ‘Cuz I’m Impressive’ aka ‘Willie’. I will never separate the Gelding from his Mares, there is a new one as of last year, a little Paint Filly who is the daughter of a Paint Horse I rescued some years ago. This little Filly is turned out with Willie only but the rest of his Harem is across the fence. The big off track Mares would beat up the little Filly if given the chance.

    Secretariat was a fantastic horse and there have been many explanations as to his cause of death but we will never know which is true. He was breathtaking!

    January 3, 2015
  • Robyn Persichitte Gipp

    Absolutely love the story of Secretariat.
    I love the movie and information about him.

    January 3, 2015
  • Sue

    Just finished reading “Secretariat’s Meadow” by Penny Chenery’s daughter. Excellent book, lots of great photos and information. Beautiful farm where Big Red was born and raised.

    January 3, 2015
  • arlene

    Thank you JF for Story of Secretariat, there are many some true some not, but ONE Fact will remain AS THE TRUTH for all who saw him run !!!!! He is one of Horse Racing Greats……………….

    January 3, 2015
  • Amy

    I absolutely love the story of Secretariat and how he was treated. He was loved all his life and that makes the story even better. I wish there were more horses like him.

    January 4, 2015
  • Maggie Frazier

    My daughter live in VA & last summer she & my granddaughter went to “Secretariat’s Meadow”. She said it was an absolutely wonderful experience – wants to go back again soon. From her experience – I would think anyone of us who watched & loved this horse – this is a trip we all would enjoy taking.

    January 4, 2015
  • Bob

    Stunned, as if the conclusion of this remarkable journey happened today.
    Captivated by the narrative from the pen of Mr. Nack who was so close the this great horse, gone too soon.
    Thank you HfH for sharing.

    January 4, 2015
  • MS

    If only horse racing would come clean — in more ways than one — if only the horses’ needs and wants were to come first — then horse racing would indeed be one beautiful sport –it’s a beautiful sight — to see — and hear — horses running.

    January 5, 2015
    • arlene

      I totally agree MS……………..

      January 5, 2015