Secretariat on Time magazine cover.

Secretariat on Time magazine cover.

Twenty-four years ago, the mighty Secretariat made his final dash from earth leaving a legacy of peerless racing performances behind, and one that would continue on in his progeny of the future.

On March 30,1970, at 12:10 a.m., at Penny Tweedy (Chenery’s) Meadow Stable in Caroline County, Virginia, a bright-red chestnut colt was foaled with three white socks and a blaze, and it was a year later he was given the name Secretariat. While the 16.1 hh colt would later prove to be an impressive boy on the outside with unbeatable racing times and records to his credit, it would take his death to finally discover the true secret inside of this massive racing machine.

In 1972, Secretariat began to turn heads when he surged ahead of eight horses in a 1/4 mile in the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga Race Course, and then pulling away to win by five lengths. He also won the Laurel Futurity by eight lengths and topped off his season by winning the Garden State Futurity. For these efforts along with five other wins in a row, he was awarded the Eclipse Award for American Champion Two-Year Old Male Horse, and in a rare tie, also won the 1972 American Horse of the Year against La Prevoyante, a filly owned by Canadian Jean-Louise Levesque.

The Derby is Calling!

“Big Red” as Secretariat was also called, wasn’t the favourite going into the Kentucky Derby in 1973. He had handily won the Bay Shore Stakes, and in his next race, the Gotham Stakes he led wire to wire to win. However in his next race, the Wood Memorial, he had a large abscess in his mouth and finished third to Santa Anita Derby winner Sham.

Sham went to the Derby as favourite in the Louisville Courier Journal and Times Derby ratings while bettors made Secretariat and his stable mate Angle Light their picks to win. Secretariat didn’t have a great start but then began to make his move along the backstretch, overtook rival Sham at the top of the stretch and finally pulled away to win by 2 1/2 lengths. In a record time of 1.59 2/5, he ran each quarter mile segment faster than the one before meaning that the further he raced, the faster he got. Our Native, another top horse was third trailing by eight lengths.

Fans, trainers and the media couldn’t really believe what they saw that day as this big horse who started back in the field just powered past the opposition. Nobody had ever seen anything like it before but the best was yet to come!

The Preakness and the Controversy

In the Preakness, race two of the Triple Crown, Secretariat once again broke after the field but made a huge last to first place dash on the first turn. He went to the head of the class with 5 1/5 furlongs to go with no challengers and won again by 2 1/2 lengths with Sham finishing second and Our Native third as in the Kentucky Derby.

However, the time of the race was controversial as the timing devices gave different results: the infield timer read 1.55, the track electronic timer was not working, and the Pimlico race course clocker Mr. E.T. McLean Jr. stated his hand held timer stopped at 1.54 2/5 (at that time, races were timed to the fifth of a second rather than to the hundredth of a second), and two Daily Racing Form clockers said 1.53 2/5 was correct.

Tapes showing Secretariat and track record holder Canonero II (1.54) were played side by side but this did not give any proof of reliable timing. The Maryland Jockey Club discarded all but the hand clocker time of 1.54.2/5 while the Daily Racing Form stuck by and printed their clocking of 1.53 2/5. Eventually in a meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission at owner Penny Chenery’s request, tapes were viewed and after two hours of testimony his time was finalized at 1.53 establishing a new stakes record.

Media Mogul

Everybody loves a Triple Crown winner but they are few and far between so with a possible win in the Belmont Stakes around the corner, “Big Red” made the front cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. America loved him, and on June 9th only four other horses took a chance at making history at unseating this American wonder boy at the Belmont start gate. What happened next still gives people goose bumps and thrills; the race that day was the ultimate show of equine horsepower. Sham, who had finished second to Secretariat in the Derby and Preakness was the only one considered to have any chance.

Big Red, a mountain of a horse.

Big Red, a mountain of a horse.

Over 67,000 people were at the track to watch history being made and Secretariat and Sham set the pace early and left the rest of the field behind by ten lengths. Sham began to tire and in the stretch, Secretariat opened up a 1/16 mile lead, and won by an incredible 31 lengths. Watching the video of this race is a thrill that never wanes. When the announcer said: “he’s moving like an amazing machine,” he was right on the money! “Big Red” was indeed a machine and the significance of the win had most $2.00 ticket winners keeping their tickets as souvenirs as the payout would have been a mere $2.20. Sham finished in fifth place,

Secretariat’s Belmont stakes speed was 37.5mph, a record that still stands and all his Triple Crown racing times are records that have yet to be beaten. He was the ninth Triple Crown winner and the first in 25 years. At age three, Secretariat was again named Horse of the Year, and won Eclipse Awards as the American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse and the American Champion Male Turf Horse.

What was at the heart of “Big Red’s” Success?

When top horses die, they often perform autopsies on the bodies. Secretariat’s secret to his amazing surges of power and his ability to synthesize oxygen so quickly lay, literally, in his heart. Most horses have hearts weighing around 9 pounds but “Big Red’s” heart was a whopping 22 pounds. Add to that were superb bloodlines, a great Canadian jockey, Ron Turcotte, and Lucien Laurin, a Canadian trainer who worked wonders with horses, and you have the makings of a champion.

Here are some interesting facts about horses with super powered hearts:
• Secretariat was not a freak; his heart was in proportion and was not a mutation. Eclipse, another great racehorse who died in 1789, had a heart weighing 14 lbs.

• Scientist and geneticist Marianna Haun has proved that there is a “big heart” gene passed through the X chromosome in the mare, and it is possible to track the large heart gene from sire to daughter to granddaughter and grandson and to great granddaughter and great grandson. These heart scores are 100% consistent on certain lines from Princequillo, War Admiral, Blue Larkspur, and Mahmoud. Secretariat was sired by Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal, by Princequillo

• Haun credits that it was the size of Secretariat’s heart that had scientists thinking about and later researching genetic mutations that create such large organs.

Bronze statue at Kentucky Horse Park.

Bronze statue at Kentucky Horse Park.

After the Belmont, Canadian jockey Ron Turcotte said, “I was just along for the ride.” and this makes one wonder what might have happened if Turcotte has asked his horse for “just a little more.” With a massive heart, and with the blood of winning sires and dams before him flowing through his veins, it is a real possibility that “Big Red” might have won races by even greater lengths and larger margins. Interestingly enough Sham who was Secretariat’s rival in the Derby and the Preakness before fading and finishing last in The Belmont also had a large heart. At 18 lbs. his heart was second only to Secretariat’s.

Secretariat stood at stud before being euthanized in October 4,1989 when his laminitis did not respond to treatment. He is buried at Claiborne Farm, Paris, Kentucky, and unlike most horse burials, he was set to rest complete in body. There is some poignant film footage taken days before his death, and despite his laminitis, he is proud and majestic, truly a champion, and considered by many to be the world’s greatest racehorse of all time.

Some of his notable offspring include:
• Canadian Bound who broke records at the 1976 Keeneland sale when bidding topped 1 million US dollars.(Over 6 million dollars today)

• General Assembly, who won the 1979 Travers Stakes at Saratoga while setting a still-standing race record of 2:00 flat

• Lady’s Secret: 1986 Horse of the Year

• Riding Star: 1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner.

Altogether, Secretariat won 16 of his 21 career races, with three seconds and one third, with total earnings of $1,316,808.