The Heart of a Horse

Karen Krizanovich sent me a piece by Ann Hornaday from the Washington Post about the use of sound effects in film soundtracks, with particular reference to the new Disney film about the great American racehorse Secretariat:

“… as the chestnut colt — called Big Red through most of the movie — makes his way from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness to the Belmont Stakes, discerning audiences can make out something beyond the roar of the crowd and thundering hooves: the sound of Secretariat’s heart beating.

Wallace hit on the idea of making the heartbeat part of the sound design of ‘Secretariat’ when he discovered that the horse’s real-life jockey, Ron Turcotte, had ridden a horse whose heart had burst during a race, killing the animal and seriously injuring Turcotte. ‘It occurred to me that we could hear that reality in a subtle way,’ Wallace says. ‘That horses’ hearts do burst and that Secretariat was going so hard, so fast, that there was a real concern.’

The sound team recorded actual horses’ hearts and also put microphones under their noses to pick up the sound of their breathing. Some of the hoof- and heartbeats were augmented with the sound of a Japanese taiko drum, which meshed with Nick Glennie-Smith’s musical score to create a seamless, stirring whole.”

Perhaps the film makers didn’t know that the real Secretariat was famous for literally having an enormous heart: at 22lbs, more than twice the size of a standard thoroughbred heart (which would weigh in at 9lbs). The great eighteenth century racehorse, Eclipse, had a 14lb heart. One of his descendents was a mare called Pocahontas who happens to appear in Secretariat’s pedigree.

In 1997 a journalist called Marianna Haun published a book called The X Factor laying out her theory that the gene for a giant heart was transmitted via the female line, and Secretariat was indebted to Pocahontas for his cardiac powerhouse, and she, in turn, traced her great heart gene all the way back to an ancestor in the very earliest days of the thoroughbred called simply Royal Mare. More fascinating details here for pedigree nerds. Haun has worked with the University of Kentucky on a breeding programme exploring the Royal Mare’s influence.

Here’s the real Big Red doing his stuff in the Belmont in 1973:

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

Join the Conversation


  1. Here they say in the video clip of the Belmont, Secretariat won by 25 lengths, while in the movie, they said he won by 31. Sham too was an outstanding horse, a large horse at 16.2hh. He also had a very large heart, about twice the size of the average horse’s, according to Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a University of Kentucky veterinary scientist Sham’s heart weighed in at 18 pounds, while Secretariats weighed in at 22. Seems both these horses were blessed with ideal attributes like larger than normal hearts. Both horses are immortal now in history.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: