Ms.pegasus's Reviews > Secretariat

Secretariat by William Nack
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's review
May 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, horses
Recommended to Ms.pegasus by: interested after seeing the movie
Recommended for: anyone interested in the business of horse racing as well as horses

Most prospective readers have been drawn to SECRETARIAT as a result of the movie – not necessarily a bad thing. The movie was an emotionally focused fable; the book chronicles a legend. The legend begins with the cyclic fortunes of the great stud farms, and the mares that bred there. William Nack begins with a detailed account of blood lines: Nasrullah, Nearco, Bold Ruler and scores of others. Tracing a single lineage does not do justice to the intricacy of interbreeding in the thoroughbred world. The names themselves conjure images of greatness, owner faith, decades of patience and the intervention of luck. Those unfamiliar with these horses may find the first 100 pages of the book a difficult start.

Nack does an excellent job of chronicling the business end of thoroughbred racing. The finances bear some semblance to a pyramid scheme except that the participants understand the enormity of their risk. A horse's performance on the track is only a stepping stone. Financially, his significance is in what that performance reflects about his breeding, and his own prospects for stud. A sire of winners boosts his earnings in stud fees; a brood mare of winners boosts the price of her future foals at the yearling auctions before the performance of these yearlings is even evident. This was the cornerstone of the reasoning for the successful syndication of Secretariat before he began his career as a 3-year old. The syndication fee was an unprecedented $190,000 per share. The size of the syndicate was limited to 32 shares. A share purchased the lifetime right to breed 1 mare a year to Secretariat. The size of this gamble magnified exponentially the pressure trainer Lucien Laurin, jockey Ron Turcotte, and owner Penny Chenery felt during the course of that third year – the Triple Crown year of 1973, 25 years after the last Triple Crown winner. It was a year of pressure that saw explosive arguments, recriminations, accusations of disloyalty, insensitive tirades, and the firing of Jimmy Gaffney, Secretariat's long time exercise rider and the first to recognize his potential which reached fruition with that 31 length win at the Belmont.

There is a photo in the book. Secretariat is pounding down the stretch at the Belmont. In the grainy black and white shot, the rest of the field can be seen in the distance, almost part of the trees dotting the horizon line. They form a cluster in the composition along the track. Nack performs the difficult job of transforming that picture into words. His instrument is “the 12 clip.” A string of furlongs run at :12 forms a kind of informal standard for speed. Each difference of 1/5th of a second represents one length. Each additional furlong after the half mile represents a startling achievement. The degree of difficulty increases vastly beyond a mile. “...9 furlongs in 1:48...would have won every running of the $100,000 Wood Memorial since it was run.” Against this yardstick, Nack is able to dramatize the significance of Secretariat's progression of workouts.

Much of Secretariat reads as a workmanlike chronicle – a testament to research and professional depth. Be sure to read Nack's article “Pure Heart” from Sports Illustrated, nestled at the end of the book. Much of the article is detailed in the book. However, there is a subtle shift – we see these events as they are happening through Nack's own eyes. His conversation with Seth Hancock in October 1989 is particularly moving. The memory of greatness flashes briefly before our eyes – the bowed head, the pause and stare at the crowd before a race, the isolated uniqueness of his being.


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