The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is a month away, and partly for that reason, I’m thinking this morning of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner and one of the greatest thoroughbred racehorses to ever run. I’m thinking about him while I’m running on the treadmill, recalling the scene from Secretariat, the 2010 movie about him and his owner, Penny Chenery Tweedy, in which he and a horse named Sham set a blistering pace in the Belmont Stakes, the final jewel in the Triple Crown. At the three-quarter mile marker, Sham began to fade. By the time Secretariat entered the final turn, he had a healthy lead. At this moment in the movie, the sounds of the racetrack vanish, and in that absence of sound, the camera focuses first on that last turn from the perspective of the homestretch and then on the expectant faces in the crowd. It is a held breath—that silence—as everyone waits for Secretariat to come out of that turn. The voice of Diane Lane, who plays Ms. Tweedy, recites a cobbled together version of Job 39: 21-24: “He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; he does not shy away from the sword. . . . He cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.” And then Secretariat explodes out of that final turn, twenty-eight lengths ahead and still surging even though the race has long been settled. The camera then finds the groom, Eddie Sweat, in the crowd, and Eddie exclaims, “Oh, glory!” with all the awe and reverence the horse deserves. It’s a glorious moment, the sight of this champion racehorse pushing toward the finish line, winning the Belmont, and thus the Triple Crown, by thirty-one lengths. Many consider it the finest race ever run.
I’m an unapologetic sentimentalist when it comes to moments like this, perhaps because I always equate the struggle, the preparation, and the performance to the business of writing. No matter how often I’ve faced moments of disappointment and frustration—when I’ve been tempted to chuck it all and to stop writing—I’ve always been aware of how necessary it is to have the faith and heart we need to make the long haul. If you’re like me, prone to occasional depression and despair—and, really, what writer isn’t—please remember this. For every person who continues to face the blank page, there are others who have given up. If you’re still writing, you’re already a champion because you’re still in the game, while countless others have stepped aside.
We can trace all thoroughbred horses back to three stallions of Arabian, Barb, and Turkoman breeding imported into England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It surely must be in a thoroughbred’s DNA, then, to have the agility, speed, and spirit necessary for the race. With smart and able training, a horse knows to break from the starting gate when the bell rings. The horse knows to run even when the lead is vast.
Often, we writers are made from lesser stuff. We let doubts, insecurities, and disappointments stand in our way. Sometimes we quit. At one point in Secretariat, Diane Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy says, “This isn’t about going back, it’s about life being ahead of you and you run at it! Because you never know how far you can go unless you run.” Success isn’t always about who has the most talent; it’s often about who has the biggest heart. This is a game of courage and persistence. Find your strength where you can. Strive to finish, so you, too, can say, “Oh, glory!”