Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Secretariat's Death by Laminitis, Revisited: The Night America Learned About Laminitis

Do you remember where you were on October 4, 1989? Maybe you hadn't even been born. Or maybe you still remember that feeling of loss, of stunned disbelief, that the horse to end all horses was no longer in a paddock somewhere in Kentucky. 

Only a disease as powerful and mysterious as laminitis to stop him.

Secretariat's death announcement on local Virginia television news on October 4, 1989.

We know so much more about laminitis now than we did then, but could Secretariat have been saved? We'll never know and it's futile to speculate.

story by Fran Jurga
Today we often hear about horses being euthanized during or after laminitis. The deaths are routinely reported in the narrow columns of The Blood-Horse, or other breed or sport organization publications.

No one issues a press release for a backyard pony. No one tallies up the toll of insulin-resistant Morgan horses at the end of the year. Death by laminitis makes us uneasy, we move on quickly, with lumps in throats as we wonder if our own horses could fall victim to the same fate.

If Secretariat couldn't beat it, what horse could?

The pain is no less great for a furry little pony or a portly pet horse than it was for Secretariat. In that sense, Secretariat was just like every other horse: he couldn't beat a disease with more zigs and zags than he had.

While researching today's article, I found some new footage I hadn't seen before, a home video of Secretariat taken three days before he died.

First, this crackly video brings back the 1980s. See how the racing industry mourned the death of the greatest horse we'd ever known, without ever mentioning how or why he died:

It's grainy, but you'll be moved by this short video about Secretariat, which was screened at the 1990 Eclipse Awards ceremony, just a few months after his death.

I suppose Secretariat is a bit like Elvis or Michael Jackson. He is larger than life, even after death -- just as he was when he lived. His death cast a long shadow on every horse who has had severe laminitis since. How many veterinarians have consoled owners with the assurance, "This is the disease that killed Secretariat, so don't feel badly if we have to euthanize your horse."

“Secretariat was euthanized at 11:45 a.m. today to prevent further suffering from an incurable condition....”

How many times have horse owners used some variation on those words to notify the public of potentially heartbreaking news?

But here's one the newscasters didn't see that night. Here's Secretariat on one of his last days. And a home video, no less. Three days before he became a statistic, just like the others. On this day, he was still the greatest racehorse in recent American history, still our horse, and still invincible. People still came to see him, and stood in awe, even if he was about to lose the biggest challenge of his life.

So Secretariat: the horse of the people was last captured on film not by a network news crew, but on home video, by just plain fans

We all like to remember Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, but let's not forget the painful days he must have had before the owners decided to end his suffering. If you possibly can, please donate to laminitis research today in memory of Secretariat.

Do it for the horse we loved to love, and for every horse before or since that has known the pain of this terrible disease. Do it for the horses of the future who might be able to bypass laminitis altogether, with your help, and the memory of America's great racehorse ever.

• • • • • 

If you're curious how Secretariat died, master journalist Bill Nack crafted a beautifully-written, long-form article for Sports Illustrated about that day, about the necropsy that followed, and what the pathologist was shocked to find when Secretariat's body was examined. Read it here:  https://www.si.com/longform/belmont/index.html

It's worth your time. Sports Illustrated included it in their collection of the 100 best stories ever published in the magazine. For journalists who write about racing, Nack was the Secretariat of our craft.

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