Horse sense: Learning from the heart of a champion

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The Wayne Gretzky, Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan of his sport, he raced into history.


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On March 30, 1970, New York thoroughbred Somethingroyal had a colt with a reddish-brown colour, three white socks and a star with a narrow stripe. From the start, the colt was a leader with a curious and mischievous personality.

He was almost named God Willing but got the moniker Secretariat because a woman at his stable once worked in the secretariat of the United Nations.

Secretariat grew into a massive, muscular horse. His chest was so big he needed a special girth to go around him and keep the saddle in place. Built for devastating speed and epic endurance, he had a stride of 24 feet (7.3 metres).

“Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world,” said breeder Seth Hancock. “Now make him six-foot-three, the perfect height. Make him real intelligent and kind.

“And, on top of that, make him the best-lookin’ guy ever to come down the pike. He was all those things as a horse.”

But Secretariat had a shaky start. Though a calm, easy-going horse, a trainer said, “He can’t outrun a fat man.”

The thoroughbred’s biggest problem was distraction. But things changed remarkably when he was fitted with a blinker hood to stop him looking sideways and behind.

In his first race, a horse named Quebec cut in front of the pack, causing a chain reaction. Secretariat was bumped hard. The two-year-old recovered and finished fourth, but never forgot the collision.

For his entire career, Secretariat hung back at the start and scored most of his victories with a come-from-behind rush.


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Ridden by Canadian Ron Turcotte, Secretariat won seven of 10 races and was named 1972’s Horse of the Year, a rarity for one so young. But that was just a warm-up.

The next year, Secretariat became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown: the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. His record-breaking dash in that last race is thought the greatest horse race in history.

At the starting gun, Secretariat broke well and ran side-by-side with a horse named Sham as the two left the rest 10 lengths behind. Then Sham faded and ultimately finished last.

But Secretariat streaked forward.

“He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” cried announcer Chic Anderson.

Among fans on their feet, there was disbelief and palpable fear.

They and the experts were worried Secretariat would rupture his heart. But, with no urging from Turcotte, the champion flashed to the finish line, winning by an astonishing 31 lengths with a time of two minutes, 24 seconds, still an American record.

Thousands of those who bet on Secretariat didn’t cash in, instead keeping their tickets as souvenirs.

The champ won his second Horse of the Year title and a slew of other awards. In 1989, he came down with a painful and debilitating hoof disease called laminitis and was euthanized at age 19.

The vet who did the autopsy said Secretariat’s heart weighed about 22 pounds (10 kilograms), or 2.5 times that of the average horse. In a rare tribute, Secretariat was buried whole, whereas, traditionally, only the head, heart and hooves are interred.


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We can learn a lot from Secretariat when it comes to running the race of faith. The first lesson goes back to his early struggle with distraction. Even when we know who we are and what’s most important, we’re constantly tempted off course.

I’ve told this story before but, years ago, going for my nightly run during what was known then as Big Garbage Day — a time when people could put kerbside whatever they wanted to get rid of.

It took me way longer that night to finish because I kept stopping to look at stuff — stuff that was there in the first place because it was trash. What a metaphor for life.

“Don’t love the world or what it offers,” cautions John. “For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, al we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions…

“And this world is fading away, along with everything people crave. But anyone who pleases God will live forever.” (1 John 2:15-17)

We need spiritual blinkers: “Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus…” (Hebrews 12:1,2)

That will keep us from looking to the sides, or looking back and letting our past undermine our confidence through guilt, regret, and despair.

Second, we’re all shaped by our formative experiences, just as Secretariat was by his first race. Hurts and fears linger. That should make us more patient and understanding, with others and ourselves.

But like the champ, we can turn setbacks into success, by learning from them and finding new ways to avoid a recurrence. For lots of us, finishing the race of faith will be a come-from-behind victory.


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But the most important lesson from Secretariat is that the heart matters. Strength and endurance come from a big and tender one that’s open to God and the needs of others; one that pursues the purity Jesus calls for; and one that’s not distant, divided, or distracted.

“Give me your heart,” God says. “May your eyes take delight in following my ways.” (Psalm 23:26)

His ways, not ours. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and don’t depend on your own understanding… Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life.” (Proverbs 3:5, 4:23).

When our values, attitudes, and behaviours flow from a heart that won’t give up or give out, we’re in for the win.

Share your thoughts with Rick Gamble at He pastors a nondenominational church in Brantford, called Followers of Christ ( and teaches journalism at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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