Secretariat: The People's Horse

By Jenny Kellner

SecretariatThere were Triple Crown winners before him, and Triple Crown winners after him, but nobody swept through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes with the same drama, style and flair as Secretariat.

He won 16 of 21 races, graced the covers of several national magazines, was twice Horse of the Year, but it is the Belmont for which Secretariat is best remembered.

On June 9, 1973, “Big Red” went postward as the 1-10 favorite to become the ninth Triple Crown winner, and the first in 25 years. Challenging him were Sham, who had finished second in both the Derby and the Preakness, and three other mismatched Thoroughbreds.

When the gates opened, Secretariat and Sham raced together around the first turn through a half-mile in a suicidal :46 1/5.  On the backstretch, with jockey Ron Turcotte sitting still as a stone, the colt gathered momentum with every stride.  He ran three-quarters in 1:09 4/5, the mile in 1:34 1/5, and when he hit the quarter-pole in 1:59, faster even than he had won the Derby, the crowd was on its feet, screaming in anticipation.

“Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine!" track announcer Chick Anderson yelled. "He's going to be the Triple Crown winner. Unbelievable! An amazing performance. He's 25 lengths in front!"

Prompted only by history and racing only against the clock, Secretariat was completely alone as he swept across the finish line an astounding 31 lengths in front of Twice a Prince in a world-record 2:24 for the mile and one-half miles.

As Charles Hatton wrote in The Daily Racing Form, "His only point of reference is himself."

Secretariat was born March 30, 1970, at Meadow Farm in Virginia, a strikingly handsome chestnut son of Bold Ruler with three white stockings, a white star, and stripe. Viewing him as a yearling, trainer Lucien Laurin commented he was probably “too good-looking” to amount to much as a racehorse. Upon his arrival at Hialeah Park as a 2-year-old, all his owner, Penny Chenery, could say was “Wow.”

He began his career at Aqueduct, finishing fourth, and then embarked on a campaign that would carry him to Horse of the Year honors, a rarity for two-year-olds. Early in his freshman season, Hatton wrote: "The cognoscenti give Mrs. Helen Tweedy's Secretariat a nod for potentiality. He has electrifying acceleration, duende, charisma, and starfire raised to the steenth power. He is also pretty good."

“Big Red’s” three-year-old campaign started off as more of the same: He swept through the Bay Shore and Gotham Stakes, but then the unthinkable happened: He lost, finishing third in the Wood Memorial to Angle Light. Immediately, questions were raised about his ability, as a son of Bold Ruler, to go a mile and a quarter, but when the first Saturday in May rolled around, he was the 3-2 choice to win the Run for the Roses – the last time in his career he would go off at more than even-money.

By the time he arrived back in New York for the Belmont, the entire country was anticipating the end of the quarter-century Triple Crown drought. In the New York Post, columnist Larry Merchant warned that the "the country may turn sullen and mutinous" should he lose the “Test of the Champion.”

Before the race, columnist Pete Axthelm wrote in Newsweek: 

"Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes. Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat's muscular build identifies him immediately; his glowing reddish coat is a banner of health and rippling power. Magnificent enough at rest ... when he accelerates ... he produces a breathtaking explosion that leaves novices and hardened horsemen alike convinced that, for one of those moments that seldom occur in any sport, they have witnessed genuine greatness."

When Secretariat won the Belmont, he did more than become the first horse since Citation to win three races at three different distances over three different racetracks in the span of six weeks. He turned in the single greatest performance in the history of horse racing, and raced into immortality.

After the Belmont, Secretariat raced nine more times, winning six, coming in second twice and third once. His major losses were to Onion in the Whitney and to Prove Out in the Woodward; both were trained by Allen Jerkens .Inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 1974, Secretariat was also ranked 35th on ESPN's 100 Greatest Athletes of the Twentieth Century, one of only three non-humans on the list.

Suffering from laminitis, he was euthanized in October, 1989, and is buried at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.

Wrote Hatton at the end of Secretariat’s 1973 campaign:

"Weave for the mighty chestnut
A tributary crown
Of autumn flowers, the brightest then
When autumn leaves are brown
Hang up his bridle on the wall,
His saddle on the tree,
Till time shall bring some racing king
Worthy to wear as he!"

Click here to view the 1973 Belmont Stakes results chart