Secretariat named 35th-greatest athlete of the century

Secretariat remains No. 1 name in racing
By Ron Flatter
Special to

Seldom does performance match excessive expectation.

Super Bowls are rarely super. Pay-per-view fights are hyped without money-back guarantees. And there's that old expression that applies so perfectly to horse racing: There's no such thing as a sure thing.

Secretariat was sold to a breeding syndicate for a then-record $6.08 million.

Then there was Secretariat at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

He carried a lot more than jockey Ron Turcotte when he went to the gate a 1-to-10 favorite. He had the weight of Secretariat Mania on his back. The international buzz surrounding him was deafening. He was being counted on to win the race and become the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years -- the first of the television generation that had already put him on an unrealistic pedestal.

Secretariat's response went beyond unreal. He won by a jaw-dropping 31 lengths. His time of 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles set a world record many argue may never be broken.

Secretariat became so popular, Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated featured the horse on the cover the same week. The William Morris Agency booked his appearances the way it would for a hot movie star. At the time, no movie star was as hot as "Big Red."

"This red horse with blue and white blinkers and silks seemed to epitomize an American hero," said Penny Chenery, who owned the playful, barrel-chested colt during his racing days.

In a career that spanned only 16 months, Secretariat started 21 times, won 16 and finished in the money in all but his first race. He was an odds-on favorite 17 times, winning 13. By the time he went to stud, he had won back-to-back Horse of the Year awards.

The true measure of Secretariat's greatness was his performances in big races. As former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said, "He looked like a Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens."

Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970, at the Meadow Stud in Doswell, Va. He was the third offspring of 1957 Preakness winner Bold Ruler, the greatest sire of his generation, and Somethingroyal, who raced just once but whose breeding was of top quality. Secretariat was the brightest of chestnuts, deep-chested with the muscular quarters of the speed horse and the length and scope of the stayer.

In Secretariat's debut on July 4, 1972 at Aqueduct, he went off as the favorite but was impeded at the start and finished fourth in the 5 1/2-furlong race. Eleven days later, he broke his maiden in a 6-furlong race at Aqueduct.

Secretariat's only other defeat as a two-year-old would be on a disqualification, in which he was placed second for bumping Stop the Music in the Champagne at Belmont. His seven victories in nine races enabled him to become the first two-year-old to be voted Horse of the Year.

Before his 1973 season, Secretariat became the solution to a financial crisis. Christopher Chenery, Penny's father, died in January. As the builder of Meadow Stud, he left behind hefty estate taxes. His family decided to pay the bill by selling Secretariat to a breeding syndicate that would assume ownership at the end of the horse's racing days. The price tag was a then-record $6.08 million.

Secretariat won his first two races that year, but in his final tuneup before the Kentucky Derby, he finished third behind Angle Light and Sham in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. At 1 1/8 miles, Secretariat seemed to hit his limit. The Derby -- all 1 1/4 miles of it -- was only two weeks away.

It turned out that just hours before the Wood, an abscess was found under Secretariat's lip. When the abscess broke before the Derby, the pain he was suffering was gone. But was the abscess the reason Secretariat lost? Or was it an excuse?

The answer came soon enough.

The 13-horse Derby shaped up as a duel between Secretariat and Sham. The two held back early -- Secretariat at the rear; Sham just off the lead. Then Laffit Pincay moved Sham to the front just before the final turn. Turcotte moved Secretariat to the outside to close on Sham, who was picking up steam.

"I didn't think anybody would be able to catch him," Pincay said of Sham. "I knew we were going to win."

Secretariat had other ideas. He caught Sham halfway down the stretch and won by 2 1/2 lengths in a world-record time of 1:59 2/5, the only Derby winner to crack two minutes.

Two weeks later in the Preakness, Secretariat went from last to first on the clubhouse turn, never relinquished the lead and beat Sham again by 2 1/2 lengths. Clockers timed him in a Pimlico-record 1:53 2/5 for the 1 3/16 miles, but because of an apparently malfunctioning clock, the official time was recorded as 1:54 2/5, two-fifths of a second off the track record set by Canonero II in the 1971 Preakness.

Only four horses challenged Secretariat in the Belmont, even though the previous seven horses to have won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness withered in the 1 1/2-mile race, unable to match Citation's 1948 Triple Crown.


"Big Red" changed all that on June 9, 1973.

Secretariat and Sham broke together and stayed that way into the first turn. They were by themselves on the backstretch when Secretariat made the biggest move ever seen in a Triple Crown race.

"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!"

"I kept hearing Chick Anderson," Turcotte said. "I finally had to turn to see where the other horses were. I know this sounds crazy, but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride."

Secretariat paid $2.20 to win and his 2:24 remains a world record for 1 1/2 miles on a dirt track, and it's still two full seconds better than subsequent challengers to his Belmont Stakes record. The 2 3/5 seconds by which he broke Gallant Man's 16-year-old track record was the equivalent of 13 lengths.

But most impressive was the 31-length gap. It was so big, even the widest angle of the CBS camera covering the stretch run could barely show Secretariat in the same shot as the next-nearest horse, Twice A Prince. As Charles Hatton wrote in The Daily Racing Form, "His only point of reference is himself."

The ensuing months were anticlimactic for Secretariat. Suffering from a fever, he lost the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga to Onion in August and the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park to Prove Out. But he went out in triumph. On Oct. 28, 1973, he won the 1 5/8-mile Canadian International Championship Stakes by 6 1/2 lengths in the cold of suburban Toronto, raising his career earnings to $1,316,808.

In stud, Secretariat sired such future champions as 1988 Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star and 1986 Horse of the Year Lady's Secret. But none of his offspring came close to matching the standard he set.

He remained a popular figure even after Secretariat Mania subsided. But his life ended tragically. Suffering from laminitis -- a painful hoof disease -- the 19-year-old superstar was given a lethal injection on Oct. 4, 1989, at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.

"It was a terrible day for all of us," Claiborne president Seth Hancock said. "We just couldn't stand to see him suffer."

To this day, Secretariat remains one of the first names everyone thinks of whenever the topic of horse racing comes up. "It's hard to believe after all these years," Chenery said, "but hardly a day goes by that I don't get mail about Secretariat."