Secretariat as National Totem

On June 9, 1973 at the Belmont Stakes, a stunned track announcer uttered these inimitable words:

They’re on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!

If you’ve never seen or heard or felt this most famous of races, it’s amazing:

I was 9 years old at the time and watched in the company of my father, his friends, some relatives, and hundreds of others who had gathered at a local racetrack. Most of them cried, with joy or relief or disbelief or release.

Even then I knew it was something special. I have hazy memories of 1973 being a troubled time, with all sorts of awfulness hanging oppressively in the air: assassinations, war, demonstrations, Watergate, oil embargo, recession. Difficulty and division all around, rudely disrupting the bliss of childhood.

For a brief moment, with Secretariat and the Triple Crown, all this was forgotten: despite their differences and troubles, adults everywhere were united by this horse. I watched with fascination as they lost themselves in something larger, a metaphorical ocean created by an anthropic equine. They screamed and wept for reasons not entirely clear, either to them or me.

Looking back on it now, I better understand. Secretariat was a symbol: a magnificent horse totem. Like all totems, Secretariat was preternatural and sublime. In this classic ESPN documentary, person after person talks about Secretariat in supernatural terms, invoking God and perfection and transcendence so often that it can’t be coincidence:

All this does indeed approach perfection, at least in terms of narrative structure and social function. Of course timing and being a horse (rather than a complicated and flawed human) also helped. If Durkheim had recounted a story like this to prove his social point, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I do.

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