“Among our first conscious signs of ourselves, in the prehistoric caves of Spain and France, they are already there, prancing, stampeding, and evidence suggests that we had already begun to see them as something more than themselves. Writers on Ice Age art mention the paradoxical fact that horses make up a sizable percentage of the painted images in caves where they are hardly to be found among the discarded bones. There is even what looks like an altar to the horse, in a cave in the south of France, dating back 15,000 years, a “kneeling sandstone figure” of what looks to be a mare amid skulls and horsehead jewelry. Our awe in their presence–who has not felt it, just standing across the fence from one?–is as old as anything we can call ours.
They began 50 million years ago, on what is now the Great Plains. They were Eohippus, “dawn horse,” the size of a small dog, with multiple clawed toes on their feet. At some point during the Miocene, when the Alps were forming and the primates were starting to diversify, they found their way down into South America and across the land bridge over the Bering Strait–opposite to the way we came–and colonized Europe and Asia: herds of wild horses, alpha stallions with their harems of mares, “bachelor bands” of subdominant males, moving across the steppe and the plains. They had become ungulates, mono-toed. They had developed those enormous eyes that seem always to see you no matter where you stand, like the eyes in old family portraits, which allowed them to watch the grass they were eating and the predators lurking in it at the same time. And they had become fast, faster than anything on the solid earth apart from the cats, and the cats could maintain their speed for only a few hundred yards or so, whereas this creature could run from morning to night. The entire genius of evolution had gone into crafting asva, as it was called in Sanskrit, this verb made flesh, this thing whose every atom wanted to run, from the giant nostrils, drawing huge drafts of air into the cavernous heart and lungs, to its long, powerful hindquarters. The horse essentially leaps when it gallops, like a tremendous hare.
There is a theory that our language itself–our real language, Indo-European–is before all else the language of horsemen. Historical linguists have long wondered why we speak a derivative of an obscure tongue that is thought to have developed 6,000 years ago on the Central Asian steppes rather than one of the many languages once dominant in Eurasia, of which today Basque is the only survival. An archaeologist named David Anthony, at the Institute for Ancient Equestrian Studies in New York, put this enigma together with the fact that the steppes are where he and other excavators have unearthed 5,000-year-old horse skulls showing the world’s earliest known signs of bit-wear, a discovery that pushes the advent of riding back a full millennium.
These riders, it may be, speaking their harsh proto-Indo-European, having climbed atop and learned to guide the beasts that everyone else was still using for meat were able not only to spread their culture at formerly unimaginable speeds but also to put the fear of God (literally, perhaps) into whomever they met. Before long everyone spoke their tongue, worshiped their horse-headed gods, and rode horses.
Secretariat is best described not as the greatest horse, not as the greatest runner, nor even as the greatest athlete of the twentieth century, but as the greatest creature. The sight of him in motion is one of the things that we can present to the aliens when they come in judgment asking why they should spare our world.
Sham led the field going into the first turn. He was flying. Everyone watching the race knew that he was going too fast. The strategy for Secretariat, for any horse, would have been to hang back and let Sham destroy himself, but Ronnie Turcotte decided to contest the pace. It was, to all appearances, an insane strategy. William Nack writes that up in the press box, turfwriters were hollering, “they’re going too fast!”
Secretariat caught him just after the first turn, and for the first half of the race it was a duel between the two rivals. Then, around the sixth furlong, Sham began to fall apart. Laffit Pincay pulled him off in distress, and Secretariat was alone. Turcotte had done nothing but cluck to the horse.
This is when it happened, the thing, the unbelievable thing. Secretariat started going faster. At the first mile, he had shattered the record for the Belmont Stakes, and at a mile and an eighth he had tied the world record (remember that he was only three years old; horses get faster as they age, up to a point). Everyone–in the crowd, in the press box, in the box where the colt’s owner and trainer were sitting–was waiting for something to go wrong, because this was madness. Yet he kept opening lengths on the nearest horses, Twice a Prince and My Gallant.
Turcotte, turning around, could hardly see the rest of the field. At a mile and three eighths, Secretariat had beaten Man o’War’s world record. He was, at that moment, almost certainly the fastest three-year-old that ever existed. And still he kept opening lengths. Twenty-nine, thirty. If he was not lapping them, as my father remembered, it would not have taken him long, at that clip, to do so.
He finished thirty-one lengths ahead of Twice a Prince. His time: 2:24. He had clobbered the world-record time–for a horse of any age–at twelve furlongs, beating it by two and tow-fifths seconds. Unprecedented. Unreal. People were crying uncontrollably. Reporters wanted to know what Turcotte had done, why had he so pressured Secretariat, when the race was clearly over? But Turcotte had never showed his whip. He had hardly even touched the horse.
There is a passage on the tape from the’73 Belmont that I noticed only after watching it dozens of times. It occurs near the end of the race. The cameraman has zoomed up pretty close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the wire (it is hard to tell), the cameral inexplicably stops tracking the leader and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame, leaving the screen blank, or rather filled with empty track. I timed this emptiness–the space between Secretariat exiting and Twice a Prince entering the image–with my watch. It lasts seven seconds. And somehow each of these seconds says more about what made Secretariat great than any shot of him in motion could. In the history of profound absence–the gaps between Sappho’s fragments, Christ’s tomb, Rothko’s black canvases–this is among the most beautiful.”