Secretariat was a legendary thoroughbred racehorse whose name reigns supreme in the history of racing. The chestnut colored stallion and three white “socks” not only became the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown in 1973, he did it in a way that left spectators breathless. In my opinion, he was the greatest race horse of all time.
His nickname was “Big Red” and boy was he big. He stood 16.2 hands (66 inches, 168 cm) and weighed 1,175 pounds with a 75-inch girth. This ample girth and powerful hindquarters gave Secretariat an explosive style of racing.
|Measurement||October aged 2||October aged 3|
|Height (at withers)||16 3⁄4 hands (64.75 inches, 164 cm)||16.1 1⁄2 hands (65.5 inches, 166 cm)|
|Point of shoulder to point of shoulder (chest width)||16 inches (41 cm)||16.5 inches (42 cm)|
|Girth (around center of gravity)||74 inches (188 cm)||76 inches (193 cm)|
|Withers to point of shoulder||28 inches (71 cm)||28.5 inches (72 cm)|
|Elbow to ground (length of leg)||37.5 inches (95 cm)||38.5 inches (98 cm)|
|Point of shoulder to point of hip||46 inches (117 cm)||49 inches (124 cm)|
|Point of hip to point of hip||25 inches (64 cm)||26 inches (66 cm)|
|Point of hip to hock||40 inches (100 cm)||40 inches (100 cm)|
|Point of hip to buttock||24 inches (61 cm)||24 inches (61 cm)|
|Poll to withers (neck length)||40 inches (100 cm)||40 inches (100 cm)|
|Buttock (croup) to ground (height in rear)||53.5 inches (136 cm)||55.5 inches (141 cm)|
|Point of shoulder to point of buttock (body length)||68 inches (173 cm)||69.5 inches (177 cm)|
|Circumference of cannon under knee||8.25 inches (21.0 cm)||8.5 inches (22 cm)|
“Big Red,” as he was known, was a horse that seemed aware of his greatness and reveled in it. Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, told author Lawrence Scanlon that Secretariat, “next to having my children, was the most remarkable event in my life.”
A Strong Foal
Secretariat was born to a Virginia stable that had been nearly sold when the owner, Chris Chenery, became ill. Chenery’s daughter Penny, took charge of Meadow Stable and started guiding it back to profitability. In 1969, Penny Chenery decided to breed the stable’s mare, Somethingroyal, to stud Bold Ruler, and the pair’s second breeding resulted in Secretariat.
Born at 12:10 am, March 30, 1970, the foal first appeared chunky to stud manager Howard Gentry. As Gentry reported, the young horse was a “Big, strong-made foal with plenty of bone.”
When Eddie Sweat, who became Secretariat’s long-time, dedicated groom, first met the horse, he was also reportedly unimpressed. Sweat told Canadian Horseman in 1973, “I didn’t think much of him when we first got him. I thought he was just a big clown. He was real clumsy and a bit on the wild side, you know. And I remember saying to myself I didn’t think he was going to be an outstanding horse.”
Stumbled Out Of The Gate
At his first race on July 4, 1972, at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City, Big Red got bumped hard at the start, throwing off his race. He finished fourth, but made an impressive surge in the final stretch moving up from 10th place to fourth. He started to display his ability to gain ground quickly.
In his second race, Secretariat again poured on the speed during the final stretch and won by six lengths. By his third race , he was already a crowd favorite and easily won, this time with Ron Turcotte at the helm. Turcotte from then on became Secretariat’s main jockey.
By the end of his 1972 season, Big Red had won seven of nine races and was named the Horse of the Year, becoming the second two-year-old to ever capture that honor. Still though Secretariat had some doubters.
Secretariat at Age Three
The following year, 1973, would prove to be pivotal for both the legacy of Secretariat and Meadow Stable Farm. Penny Chenery’s father, died in January and Penny was hit with a daunting tax bill. To keep the stable operating, Penny Chenery managed to syndicate Secretariat, selling 32 shares of the horse for a record $6.08 million.
In his 1973 debut at Aqueduct Racetrack, Secretariat, slogged through wet conditions and a packed field to win by four and a half lengths. In his next race at Gotham Stakes, Secretariat again surged ahead of the pack to win.
If Secretariat ever did disappoint, it was in his next race at Wood Memorial Stakes. Before the race, an abscess had been discovered on the top of his mouth, likely caused by a burr in his hay. Groomer, Eddie Sweat, would tell The Thoroughbred Record six years later that the abscess bothered the horse “a lot.”
Big Red ended up third in that race, a shocking four lengths behind the winner, Angle Light. In the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, the loss fed the naysayers and dimmed the light of a horse some we’re calling a sure thing.
Kentucky Derby Victory
Following the Wood Memorial race, Secretariat’s team lanced the abscess and it healed. By race day at the 1973 Kentucky Derby two weeks later, Secretariat was once again ready to dominate – and dominate he did. Although he broke last out of the gate, Secretariat accelerated his pace at every quarter-mile of the race and finished with a course record that still stands of 1:59 2/5th. Secretariat showed that he could accelerate and maintain that acceleration with his amazing stamina, no doubt from his large heart and lungs.
In the decades since, only one other horse, Monarchos, has finished in under 2 minutes at the Derby.
Two weeks later at the Preakness, Secretariat again came from behind to win the race. His final time was disputed, due to two separate timings, until a 2012 forensic review revealed it was 1:53 flat, which remains an unbroken course record. Secretariat once again broke dead last off the start but decided on his to explode early in the race. He blew past the field for another amazing victory.
In a time when the Watergate scandal and Vietnam War protests had dominated headlines, word of a stunning horse captivated the public’s attention. Writer George Plimpton described Secretariat as “the only honest thing in the country at the time…Where the public so often looks for the metaphor of simple, uncomplicated excellence, the big red horse has come along and provided it.”
This race gives me chills to watch. “And Secretariat has him put away…”
What a ‘Sham’
During the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness there was another great horse giving Secretariat a run for his money. Sham was Secretariat’s long-time rival and a great horse in himself. In any other year Sham may have won a Triple Crown himself. He pushed Secretariat in the first two legs of the Triple Crown that year but as you are about to read and watch…he just wasn’t in the same league.
On June 9, 1973, the final race day of the Triple Crown at Belmont Park, the American public was humming with excitement for the race that could determine the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Secretariat, for his part, was ready to deliver.
Unlike in his previous races, this time Secretariat did not start from behind. Instead, he bolted from the gate and secured good placement along the inside lane. His rival, Sham, pushed Secretariat to a blistering start. Under orders, jockey Laffit Pincay was to keep Sham with Secretariat from the start. This strategy worked through the first turn and into the backstretch as Secretariat and Sham led the field and then pulled away by a half-dozen lengths with Sham taking a brief lead at several points early in the race. The pair were possibly a dozen lengths ahead of the pack when Secretariat increased his pace and Sham fell behind sustaining a hairline fracture of his right-front cannon bone. Sham ultimately finished last as Secretariat pulled away to a win recorded at 31 lengths. The time of 2:24 flat remains a world record for 11⁄2 miles on a dirt track.
No one watching could believe what they were watching. Most people thought he was going too fast and that he would fade. They were wrong.
By the time Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte rounded the final corner they were all alone. The announcer, Chic Anderson, narrated to spectators, “He’s moving like a tre-mend-ous machine…”
Secretariat crushed the competition by and unbelievable 31 lengths in a time of 2:24 flat – to become horse racing’s first Triple Crown winner since 1948. A famous Sports Illustrated photo shows Turcotte looking back during the final leg of the race to see the long empty stretch that Secretariat had opened between him and his nearest rivals.
Penny Chenery would say about Secretariat in the Belmont race, “Why did he keep on running when he’d passed everybody by almost an eighth of a mile? My gut feeling is that it was his home track and he was ready for that race. I just think he got out there and put away Sham early and just felt ‘Okay, I feel good, I’m just going to show them how I can run.’”
The Great Secretariat
In the decades since Secretariat completed the Triple Crown, his record times remain unsurpassed in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes.
In 1974, Secretariat was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. In 1999, he was the only non-human included among ESPN’s 50 greatest athletes of the century and he became the first thoroughbred to be honored with his own U.S. Postal stamp. Outside the paddock at Belmont Park now stands a statue of Secretariat with both his front feet in the air.
Before the Triple Crown races, Secretariat’s breeding rights had been sold by Chenery for $6 million. Part of the agreement was that the thoroughbred would retire from racing after his third year.
After his Triple Crown victory, and a “Farewell to Secretariat” Day at Belmont to a crowd of 32,900, the chestnut horse was flown to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. Here, he would sire 582 offspring, including 41 stakes winners. But none of his offspring ever compared to the original.
“A lot of misinformed people thought he could reproduce himself,” Claiborne manager John Sosby told People magazine in 1988. “But it just doesn’t work that way. There’s only one Secretariat.”
Indeed, when the great horse was put down in October 1989, after being diagnosed with a painful, incurable hoof condition known as laminitis, medical examiners discovered something incredible.
Dr. Thomas Swerczek, the veterinarian who performed the necropsy, reported that he found that Secretariat’s heart, weighing between 21 and 22 pounds, was the largest he had ever seen in a horse.
“We were all shocked,” Swerczek told Sports Illustrated in 1990. “I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it.” It was approximately twice the normal size.
Secretariat passed away on October 4th, 1989 at the young age of 19, by euthanasia because of chronic Laminitis. He is one of the few racehorses to be buried whole – usually only the head, the heart, and the hooves of winning race horses are buried.
Secretariat was a great horse and great athlete and truly one of the Fastest Horse Breeds In The World.
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