My dad, Matt Graves, has been a sportswriter for 39 years. I interviewed him last year about the death of the daily news deadline (“But when I first started, we were using hot metal!” from “Deadline Dick, Peerless McGrath, and Broadway Abe”). Now, on the occasion of Disney’s movie Secretariat, we talk about a horse. The horse.
So, you gonna watch the movie?
You’ll have to tell me what you think of it.
Well, for starters, I find it hard to believe that John Malkovich could be playing Lucien Laurin—because I spoke to Lucien Laurin many times, and he was very difficult to understand. He had a very thick French-Canadian accent, and I’m sure the movie doesn’t deal with that.
Oh! No, Malkovich speaks French sometimes and it’s just random—you have no idea why.
Oh, is that how they get around it? Yeah, he was a French Canadian. A tough interview. And a feisty little guy. I found him prone to, how do I say this, when the losses came, the blame was passed around quite liberally, if you know what I mean. So I think there were some times where there was some friction in the camp. But usually then Secretariat would come back and win the next race by 10 lengths, and all would be well again.
What do you want from the movie?
You know, accuracy.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve seen in a horse movie?
The photography is usually very hokey. Seabiscuit was an exception. They came the closest to actually getting it right.
Like not enough mud?
No, I mean I think writers these days know they have to research what the conditions were, and where the turns were, and exactly when the horses made their moves. It’s much better now than in the early days.
I feel like the one constant in horse movies is the insanely cheesy close-up on the horse eye.
That’s the problem with horse racing as opposed to every other type of sports movie. The star doesn’t speak! You have to find ways to connect to the unspeakable star. It’s the same what a sportswriter has to do, so I feel for them.
People say Secretariat was the greatest ever, and also that he had soul. I would like to know once and for all: Daddy, do horses have souls?
[Pauses, to see whether I am serious. Decides I am.]
I don’t think they have a soul as humans understand the concept of having a soul. I think they have a heart and they have certain human characteristics that we can relate to, such as determination and spirit and fire and all those good things, but as far as a soul goes, no, I don’t think a horse would have any trepidation about stealing hay from a horse next door. So I guess they don’t have a soul.
Thank you for putting that question to rest.
That’s just my opinion, of course. As I said, I have never spoken to a horse. At least not in times of sobriety.
So when did you meet Secretariat?
I was blessed to have broken into the newspaper sportswriting business the same year that Secretariat broke into racing: 1972. I had no experience whatsoever, and I was told by my editor that we’d like to have you come to the track and spend some time up there during the summer meet, at Saratoga. My executive sports editor was aging and he was not able to get to the backstretch anymore—he was over 80 at the time—so I was delegated to make the trips to the backstretch to talk to trainers and see the horses.
When Secretariat came, he was already highly recommended, even though he had only been racing since, I think his first race was July 4, 1972. There was a tremendous amount of hype about him in the New York papers before he came up to Saratoga: He was supposed to be a very special horse.
He had all the appearances of a 2-year-old, except he seemed to be somewhat ahead of the other ones. He hadn’t grown out; he was tall and very rangy and was a very big animal. He had a beautiful chestnut color, it just glimmered in the sunlight in the backstretch, and he was very professional and well-behaved for a 2-year-old. It was very exciting to think about what could happen if he could stay healthy.
What goes on in their heads? What did Secretariat know? Did he know he was running races?
He knew hay and oats. And he knew that when he stepped foot on the racetrack that he was supposed to do what he was born and bred to do, and that was to run, and he seemed to always know that. This guy—you could tell right away he belonged on the racetrack and he was happiest when he stepped foot on the track. The exercise rider could hardly hold him.
Did anybody get thrown?
I’d never seen anyone thrown from him, and I don’t know of any incidents where they did. I’m sure there were minor mishaps that went unrecorded at the dark of night or five and six in the morning.
So you met him in 1972.
1972, August. I think they sent me up the day he arrived in the van from Belmont Park. Actually, it was the end of July. I went to his barn and saw him, and reporters were already swarming around him. He had lost his first race at Belmont Park, but an apprentice jockey was aboard him and it really didn’t give him the best chance to win. But everybody knew. His workouts were phenomenal.
Did you touch him?
I’m sure I did at one time or another.
Where do you put your hand on a horse you don’t know?
On his neck or you pat his forehead.
You wrote about him all that summer? Did you go to the Triple Crown?
We were a small paper and had never covered the Triple Crown before, but we always went to the Belmont. But back to that first year—he won a couple of stakes races, he won the Hopeful, the biggest race for 2-year-olds at Saratoga, and he’d also won the Sanford. Then he went back to the Belmont and he was disqualified from a race sometime that fall. He’d won the race, but when he’d gone to move into contention, he crossed in front of a couple of horses and he fouled them.
How can you tell a horse what a foul is so he doesn’t do it?
Well, he crossed into their paths and he brushed them, made them lose their momentum. Sometimes the jockey makes the mistake, or sometimes the horse just makes a strange move. Usually it’s a jockey mistake—I mean, sometimes the horses are rank, but most of the time if you whip a horse on one side too much, he’s liable to veer out or in.
Anyway, so Secretariat already had two losses now.
Wait—dumb question. If they’re bred to run, why do they have to be whipped?
Sometimes they get lazy, or they get alongside other horses and they decide to just stay there.
Well, they’ve been known to even bite each other. It’s called savaging. You know, they are animals. As much as you train them and teach them and everything, some of them retain the darker aspects of their animal instincts.
What is the hardest thing to teach them?
Probably the starting gate. Just the circumstances of a race.
I interrupted you about Secretariat. When did you see him next after that summer at Saratoga?
I never saw him again until the Belmont. I watched the Derby and the Preakness on TV, like everybody else, and then they said, well, you’d better get down to the Belmont. That was my first Belmont.
That’s the legendary race. Where were you sitting?
The press box. High above Belmont Park, which is a huge massive facility; the horses look very small from up there because it’s so huge. It’s the only mile-and-a-half track in America.
So you’re up in the press box.
It’s packed. A lot of the old-timers are there: Red Smith, Joe Hirsch, Charlie Hatton from the [Daily] Racing Form—all these people I idolized, it was amazing just to be around them. Everybody was waiting for the big race all day.
Did you guys have drinks in the press box?
Well, there’s beer in the press box, but we didn’t drink when we were working. There was smoking and everybody smoked in the press box.
And then they’re off! How did it feel? Because Secretariat went so fast that even in the movie it’s almost creepy—he won by, what, 31 lengths?
Yeah. Well there hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner in so long, since 1948, and people didn’t know if Secretariat could go that long distance. You went down to the paddock before the race, and it was mobbed. People were just calling out his name, and as he walked out to the track, people were just going crazy. And when the race finally started it looked like it was going to be another one of his typical races, where he just sits and does what he has to do and waits his turn and takes off, but in this case, no—he made an early move, and before you knew it, he was 10 lengths ahead in the backstretch, going around the far turn, and Sham was near him for a while, and he pretty much led from the start, which was unusual. Sham was next to him, so he really wasn’t setting himself up, and then [jockey Ron] Turcotte just said, “I guess he just wants to go,” and then Sham began to peel off and Secretariat began to take off, and then when he went around the turn, he was just like the announcer said, like a tremendous machine, “moving like a tremendous machine.” Chic Anderson was the announcer at the time, and that was his famous phrase.
And after a mile, his lead was growing, and he was almost 20 lengths, I think. And by a mile and a quarter, which was the eighth pole at Belmont, he was ahead by, they estimate, like 28 lengths. His stride was just incredibly perfect, it was just so long and easy, you could just tell you were witnessing something phenomenal. He was like a pole ahead of everyone else and nobody had ever seen that before in a Triple Crown race. The poles are like eighths of a mile and sixteenths of a mile, and this was pretty much unheard of in any important race. You thought the jockey was going to pull him up a little bit, and Ron Turcotte must have realized he was setting up a record—and sure enough, he broke the record, he ran a mile and a half in 2:24, and that’s still a record at the Belmont Stakes.
In fact, Secretariat should have had a record in all three of the Triple Crown races. But they messed up the timer in the Preakness. If they hadn’t, then whoever didn’t think he was one of the greatest horses of all time or the greatest, well, those records would be convincing that at least he was the greatest 3-year-old of all time. And unfortunately, we never got to see him run past his 3-year-old year.
Why not? What happened?
Well, after the Triple Crown, they sent him to Chicago to run a race a couple weeks later, and he won that by, I think, like nine lengths. The owners had wanted to give Midwesterners the chance to see him live. That was three weeks after the Belmont.
Then they gave him a little rest, and they sent him back to Saratoga. And they were hoping to run him in the Travers, but they weren’t exactly sure whether they were going to run him in the Travers or the Whitney or the Jim Dandy. So they decided to try to run him against older horses in the Whitney on August 4, and there were only four horses in the race against him, and one of them was a horse that had run four days before that and won a race, whose name was Onion.
There was something just wrong about Secretariat that week. He just seemed listless, just off. But they ran him anyway, wanting to get a win against older horses, and maybe that would be a prep for the Travers, so they ran him, and the unbeatable, invincible chestnut got beat. Onion went to the lead and Secretariat chased him all the way around the track and he never could quite get to him. I was right down the apron across from the finish line and I was watching that race, and it was incredibly sad. People were, like, crying and things. It was unbelievable.
As it turned out, it came out later on that he might have had a slight fever, but they’d decided they were going to run him anyway. Some people say they decided to run him to make the Whitney a success for the Racing Association: There were hardly any horses in the Whitney, and they had advertised him, and they didn’t want to scratch him. That was one theory. They’re only theories. And so he got beat. And then they gave him some time off, and there was no Travers for Secretariat. Most people still to this day think he got beat in the Travers, but it was in the Whitney.
Then they gave him some time off, and Secretariat set another track record at Belmont, for a mile and an eighth. Then, I think he raced one more time, and got beat in his next race after that at Belmont. So then they decided to try him on the grass, and they were only going to race him a couple more times because he was already syndicated for $6 million and the agreement was that they were only going to run him through his third year. He raced two more times in the grass and he won both of those, one in Canada. And then that was it. He went to stud and was a disappointment. He had very little success there. Eventually, he died from laminitis, which is a hoof disease.
How old was he?
I don’t know exactly. I’d have to Google it.
Okay, I’ve Googled. He was 19. Is that young?
Some horses live to 25 to 30. What was weird is he didn’t have much success as a stallion. Sometimes they just don’t pass it on.
Did you ever meet Penny Chenery, the owner?
Oh yeah, she was at his barn all the time. She was a great woman. She was classy. She was always good with the media even after his career was over. I mean, I think I still have her phone number. She was always cooperative and always participated in anything that had to do with him. I think playing her will probably be easy for Diane Lane, because she was just a normal person.
A lot of what’s in the movie was about how hard it was for a female owner. Did you see any of that?
I think that was probably dramatized. There were a lot of female owners. There weren’t a lot of female trainers or jockeys—those are the ones that have had it rough.
The trainer of Sham, at a press conference, calls her a housewife and that kind of stuff. He seems like a guy who was kind of over-the-top. Do you remember him?
Oh yeah, he’s still training. You can still find him in the backstretch at Belmont. He’s mellowed quite a bit, to say the least. You know, Sham had been a superstar on the West Coast, and he set a stakes record out there in the Santa Anita Derby, and they were trying to pump up the East versus West competition thing—I think that was part of the hype there. He just thought that they had a better horse at the beginning. He got quieter as the Triple Crown went on. By the end of the Belmont, you didn’t hear anything out of him.
Is Secretariat your favorite horse?
Yes. He is, because he was my first experience, and I felt blessed to start in the business with one of the greatest horses of all time. I mean, how lucky can you be to start writing about this horse? He did lose—he lost four races in his career, actually five with the disqualification. If you look at Man o’ War, he won 20 out of 21; Secretariat won, I think, 16 out of 21, so that’s why a lot of people don’t want to call him the best horse of all time. But when Secretariat was the best, he was as good as it gets.
When he died, they did all kinds of studies. They did an autopsy and found out that his heart was almost twice the size of a normal horse’s heart. They think that contributed to his incredible stamina. They’ve done time-lapse photography of his stride, and at least as of a few years ago, it’s the longest recorded stride of any thoroughbred.
Did you cry when he died?
I was sad. I cried the day he lost in the Whitney.
Yes. Because I had grown so attached to him. I mean, I wasn’t a blithering idiot, but there were tears running down my face as I walked back to the press box that day. It was just phenomenal talking to other people, too; it was just as though someone in their family had died. We knew what kind of effect he had on people when more than 10,000 people showed up one morning at Saratoga just to see him work out. That’s when I knew he was the people’s horse—I mean, the people loved him. Imagine people getting up at seven in the morning just to watch a horse go around the track by himself? Well, they did. I think that was the Thursday before the Whitney.
Were you out there?
I was there. If he had gas or if he sneezed, if he did anything, I had to report it. I was with him every day. I knew every angle of him by the end of that meet, and I guess that’s why I got kind of sad when he lost the Whitney. I had been spending so much time with him.
Did you ever talk to him?
To the horse?
I probably said “Whoa, boy” or something like that. Nothing that would elicit a response. He was a character, though. He was always aware of the attention on him. Joe Hirsch, he was one of the greatest racing writers of all time, he told me one time they were doing an interview, and someone asked Joe to interview the trainer Lucien Laurin, and they were talking, and lo and behold, Secretariat comes up behind them and puts his head right between the two of them like he’s trying to get up to the microphone. That’s a true story. And that’s when Joe said he started to wonder about his equihumanity. Joe always told the truth, so that was a true story. Yeah.
Since retiring from full-time writing a couple of years ago, do you miss the horses now that you’re not seeing them all summer?
I’m still around them quite a bit. I mean, I didn’t go to the track every day this summer, but I am still on top of horse racing. I mean, I handicapped for 38 years at Saratoga.
And last year you came in first, and this year you came in second.
That’s of all the public handicappers at Saratoga.
I’m proud of you.
This article has been updated since its original publication.