Secretariat

Secretariat was a legendary thoroughbred racehorse whose name reigns supreme in the history of racing. The stallion with a chestnut coat, three white “socks” and cocky demeanor 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. Secretariat’s performance in the third Triple Crown race at Belmont Stakes, where he bested his closest competitor by a mind-blowing 31 lengths, is widely considered one of the most stunning horse races of all time.

Big Red

Called the “Clark Gable of horses” by Vogue, Secretariat consistently blew away the competition: His times in all three Triple Crown races remain the fastest in history.

“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-Made’ Foal

Secretariat was born to a Virginia stable that had been nearly sold when the owner, Chris Chenery, became ill. Chenery’s daughter Penny, however, resisted her siblings’ urging to sell the financially struggling Meadow Farm and instead took charge and guided 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 who became Secretariat 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.”

A Rough Start

But by age two, the young Secretariat had found his legs and, under trainer Lucien Laurin, began to show the world what a powerhouse he was. He stood tall at approximately 16.2 hands (66 inches) tall, and weighed 1,175 pounds with a 75-inch girth.

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.

In his second race, 11 days later, Secretariat again poured on the speed during the final stretch and won by six lengths. By his third race on July 31, he was already a crowd favorite and easily won, this time with Ron Turcotte who 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.

Secretariat at Age Three

The following year, 1973, would prove to be pivotal for both the legacy of Secretariat and Meadow Farm. Penny Chenery’s father, Chris, 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, who had grown even stronger over the winter, proved he was worth every cent.

He 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 dented the armor of a horse that had once been considered 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.

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.

By his Preakness win, Secretariat had become an international media star. Big Red appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

In a time when the grim news of 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.”

Secretariat Takes the Triple Crown

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 long-time rival, Sham, gave him some competition at the start, but by the half-mile mark, Secretariat pulled away. And he just kept accelerating.

“Down the backstretch, with a half-mile to go, Secretariat was clearly giving me a rocket ride,” Turcotte recalled in 1993. “I never experienced anything like it. Faster, faster, faster. Enemy hoofbeats soon disappeared; too far behind us on the track for me to hear. What a race. What a memory.”

By the time Secretariat and 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 – first by 10 lengths, then 20, and eventually a gob-stopping 31 lengths – 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.’”

‘Only One 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.”

Secretariat’s Heart

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.” The main motor of Secretariat, that “tremendous machine,” was approximately twice the normal size.

Sources

Secretariat by William Nack, published by Hyperion Books, 1975.
The Horse GodBuilt by Lawrence Scanlon, published by Thomas Dune Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
“Penny Chenery, Owner of the Triple Crown Winner Secretariat, Dies at 95,” by Richard Goldstein, September 17, 2017, New York Times.
“Secretariat’s Jockey on Winning the Triple Crown at Belmont, 40 Years Ago,” by Andrew Cohen, June 7, 2013, The Atlantic.
“Pure Heart,” by William Nack, June 4, 1990, Sports Illustrated.
“After 15 Years of Foaling Around, Superhorse Secretariat Fathers a Big Winner, Risen Star,” by Susan Toepfer and Bill Shaw, June 13, 1988, People.
“Secretariat Demolished Belmont Field,” by Larry Schwartz, June 9, 1973, ESPN.
“This Year’s Belmont Pale Comparison to Secretariat’s,” by Hubert Mizell, June 6, 1993, St. Petersburg Times.
Secretariat, Claiborne Farms Hall of Fame.

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