Secretariat (March 30, 1970 – October 4, 1989), nicknamed Big Red, was an American Thoroughbred racehorse who, in 1973, became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His record-breaking victory in the Belmont Stakes, which he won by 31 lengths, is widely regarded as one of the greatest races of all time. During his racing career, he won five Eclipse Awards, including Horse of the Year honors at ages two and three. He was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974. In the List of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century, Secretariat is second only to Man o' War (racing career 1919–1920), who also was a large chestnut colt given the nickname "Big Red".
At age two, Secretariat finished fourth in his 1972 debut in a maiden race, but then won seven of his remaining eight starts, including five stakes victories. His only loss during this period was in the Champagne Stakes, where he finished first but was disqualified to second for interference. He received the Eclipse Award for champion two-year-old colt, and also was the 1972 Horse of the Year, a rare honor for a horse so young. At age three, Secretariat not only won the Triple Crown, he set speed records in all three races. His time in the Kentucky Derby still stands as the Churchill Downs track record for 1 1⁄4 miles, and his time in the Belmont Stakes stands as the American record for 1 1⁄2 miles on the dirt. His controversial time in the Preakness Stakes was eventually recognized as a stakes record in 2012. Secretariat's win in the Gotham Stakes tied the track record for 1 mile, he set a world record in the Marlboro Cup at 1 1⁄8 miles, and further proved his versatility by winning two major stakes races on turf. He lost three times that year: in the Wood Memorial, Whitney, and Woodward Stakes, but the brilliance of his nine wins made him an American icon. He won his second Horse of the Year title, plus Eclipse Awards for champion three-year-old colt and champion turf horse.
At the beginning of his three-year-old year, Secretariat was syndicated for a record-breaking $6.08 million on condition that he be retired from racing by the end of the year. Although he sired several successful racehorses, he ultimately was most influential through his daughters' offspring, becoming the leading broodmare sire in North America in 1992. His daughters produced several notable sires, including Storm Cat, A.P. Indy, Gone West, Dehere and Chief's Crown, and through them Secretariat appears in the pedigree of many modern champions. Secretariat died in 1989 due to laminitis. He is recognized as one of the greatest horses in American racing history.
The 1973 Kentucky Derby on May 5 attracted a crowd of 134,476 to Churchill Downs, then the largest crowd in North American racing history. The bettors made the entry of Secretariat and Angle Light the 3–2 favorite, with Sham the second choice at 5–2. The start was marred when Twice a Prince reared in his stall, hitting Our Native, positioned next to him, and causing Sham to bang his head against the gate, loosening two teeth. Sham then broke poorly and cut himself, also bumping into Navajo. Secretariat avoided problems by breaking last from post position 10, then cut over to the rail. Early leader Shecky Greene set a reasonable pace, then gave way to Sham around the far turn. Secretariat came charging as they entered the stretch and battled with Sham down the stretch, finally pulling away to win by 2 1⁄2 lengths. Our Native finished eight lengths further back in third.
On his way to a still-standing track record of 1:592⁄5, Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. The successive quarter-mile times were :251⁄5, :24, :234⁄5, :232⁄5, and :23. This means he was still accelerating as of the final quarter-mile of the race. No other horse had won the Derby in less than 2 minutes before, and it would not be accomplished again until Monarchos ran the race in 1:59.97 in 2001.
Sportswriter Mike Sullivan later said:
I was at Secretariat's Derby, in '73 ... That was ... just beauty, you know? He started in last place, which he tended to do. I was covering the second-place horse, which wound up being Sham. It looked like Sham's race going into the last turn, I think. The thing you have to understand is that Sham was fast, a beautiful horse. He would have had the Triple Crown in another year. And it just didn't seem like there could be anything faster than that. Everybody was watching him. It was over, more or less. And all of a sudden there was this, like, just a disruption in the corner of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came. And then Secretariat had passed him. No one had ever seen anything run like that – a lot of the old guys said the same thing. It was like he was some other animal out there.
In the 1973 Preakness Stakes on May 19, Secretariat broke last, but then made a huge, last-to-first move on the first turn. Raymond Woolfe, a photographer for the Daily Racing Form, captured Secretariat launching the move with a leaping stride in the air. This was later used as the basis for the statue by John Skeaping that stands in the Belmont Park paddock. Turcotte later said that he was proudest of this win because of the split-second decision he made going into the turn: "I let my horse drop back, when I went to drop in, they started backing up into me. I said, 'I don't want to get trapped here.' So I just breezed by them." Secretariat completed the second quarter mile of the race in under 22 seconds. After reaching the lead with 5 1⁄2 furlongs to go, Secretariat was never challenged, and won by 2 1⁄2 lengths, with Sham again finishing second and Our Native in third, a further eight lengths back. It was the first time in history that the top three finishers in the Derby and Preakness were the same; the distance between each of the horses was also the same.
The time of the race was disputed. The infield teletimer displayed a time of 1:55 but it had malfunctioned because of damage caused by people crossing the track to reach the infield. The Pimlico Race Course clocker E.T. McLean Jr. announced a hand time of 1:542⁄5, but two Daily Racing Form clockers claimed the time was 1:532⁄5, which would have broken the track record of 1:54 set by Cañonero II. Tapes of Secretariat and Cañonero II were played side by side by CBS, and Secretariat got to the finish line first on tape, though this was not a reliable method of timing a horse race at the time. The Maryland Jockey Club, which managed the Pimlico racetrack and is responsible for maintaining Preakness records, discarded both the electronic and Daily Racing Form times and recognized the clocker's 1:542⁄5 as the official time; however, the Daily Racing Form, for the first time in history, printed its own clocking of 1:532⁄5 underneath the official time in the chart of the race.
On June 19, 2012, a special meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission was convened at Laurel Park at the request of Penny Chenery, who hired companies to conduct a forensic review of the videotapes of the race. After over two hours of testimony, the commission unanimously voted to change the time of Secretariat's win from 1:542⁄5 to 1:53, establishing a new stakes record. The Daily Racing Form announced that it would honor the commission's ruling with regard to the running time. With the revised time, Sham also would have broken the old stakes record.
As Secretariat prepared for the Belmont Stakes, he appeared on the covers of three national magazines: Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. He had become a national celebrity. William Nack wrote: "Secretariat suddenly transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War." Chenery needed a secretary to handle all the fan mail and hired the William Morris Agency to manage public engagements. Secretariat responded to his fame by learning to pose for the camera
Only four horses ran against Secretariat for the June 9 Belmont Stakes, including Sham and three other horses thought to have little chance by the bettors: Twice A Prince, My Gallant, and Private Smiles. With so few horses in the race, and Secretariat expected to win, no "show" bets were taken. Secretariat was sent off as a 1–10 favorite before a crowd of 69,138, then the second largest attendance in Belmont history. The race was televised by CBS and was watched by over 15 million households, an audience share of 52%.
On race day, the track was fast, and the weather was warm and sunny. Secretariat broke well on the rail and Sham rushed up beside him. The two ran the first quarter in a quick :233⁄5 and the next quarter in a swift :223⁄5, completing the fastest opening half mile in the history of the race and opening ten lengths on the rest of the field. After the six-furlong mark, Sham began to tire, ultimately finishing last. Secretariat continued the fast pace and opened up a larger and larger margin on the field. His time for the mile was 1:341⁄5, over a second faster than the next fastest Belmont mile fraction in history, set by his sire Bold Ruler, who had eventually tired and finished third. Secretariat, however, did not falter. Turcotte said, "This horse really paced himself. He is smart: I think he knew he was going 1 1⁄2 miles, I never pushed him." In the stretch, Secretariat opened a lead of almost 1⁄16 of a mile on the rest of the field. At the finish, he won by 31 lengths, breaking the margin-of-victory record set by Triple Crown winner Count Fleet in 1943 of 25 lengths. CBS Television announcer Chic Anderson described the horse's pace in a famous commentary:
Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!
The time for the race was not only a record, it was the fastest 1 1⁄2 miles on dirt in history, 2:24 flat, breaking the stakes record by more than two seconds. Secretariat's record still stands as an American record on the dirt. If the Beyer Speed Figure calculation had been developed during that time, Andrew Beyer calculated that Secretariat would have earned a figure of 139, the highest he has ever assigned.
A large crowd had started gathering around the paddock hours before the Belmont, many missing the races run earlier in the day for a chance to see the horses up close. Secretariat and Chenery were greeted with an enthusiasm that Chenery responded to with a wave or smile; Secretariat was imperturbable. A large cheer went up at the break, but as the race went on, the two most commonly reported reactions were disbelief and fear that Secretariat had gone too fast. When it was clear that Secretariat would win, the sound reached a crescendo that reportedly made the grandstand shake. Blood-Horse magazine editor Kent Hollingsworth described the impact: "Two twenty-four flat! I don't believe it. Impossible. But I saw it. I can't breathe. He won by a sixteenth of a mile! I saw it. I have to believe it."
The race is widely considered the greatest performance of the twentieth century by a North American racehorse. Secretariat became the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, and the first since Citation in 1948, a gap of 25 years. Bettors holding 5,427 winning parimutuel tickets on Secretariat never redeemed them, presumably keeping them as souvenirs (and because the tickets would have paid only $2.20 on a $2 bet).
In the fall of 1989, Secretariat became afflicted with laminitis—a painful and debilitating hoof condition. When his condition failed to improve after a month of treatment, he was euthanized on October 4 at the age of 19. Secretariat was buried at Claiborne Farm, given the rare honor of being buried whole (traditionally only the head, heart, and hooves of a winning race horse are buried).
At the time of Secretariat's death, the veterinarian who performed the necropsy, Dr. Thomas Swerczek, head pathologist at the University of Kentucky, did not weigh Secretariat's heart, but stated, "We just stood there in stunned silence. We couldn't believe it. The heart was perfect. There were no problems with it. It was just this huge engine." Later, Swerczek also performed a necropsy on Sham, who died in 1993. Swerczek did weigh Sham's heart, and it was 18 pounds. Based on Sham's measurement, and having necropsied both horses, he estimated Secretariat's heart probably weighed 22 pounds, or about 2.5 times that of the average horse (8.5 pounds).
An extremely large heart is a trait that occasionally occurs in Thoroughbreds, hypothesized to be linked to a genetic condition, called the "x-factor", passed down in specific inheritance patterns. The x-factor can be traced to the historic racehorse Eclipse, who was necropsied after his death in 1789. Because Eclipse's heart appeared to be much larger than the hearts of other horses, it was weighed, and found to be 14 pounds, almost twice the normal weight. Eclipse is believed to have passed the trait on via his daughters, and pedigree research verified that Secretariat traces his dam line to a daughter of Eclipse. Secretariat's success as a broodmare sire has been linked by some to this large heart theory. However, it has not been proven whether the x-factor exists, let alone its contributions to athletic ability.
Secretariat was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974, the year following his Triple Crown victory. Also in 1974, Paul Mellon commissioned a bronze statue, sometimes known as Secretariat in Full Stride, from John Skeaping. The life-size statue remained in the center of the walking ring at Belmont Park until 1988 when it was replaced by a replica. The original is now located at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. The Kentucky Horse Park has two other life-sized statues of Secretariat. The first, created by Jim Reno in 1992, shows Secretariat as an older sire, while the second, completed by Edwin Bogucki in 2004, shows him being led into the winner's circle after the Kentucky Derby. In 2015, a new statue of Secretariat and Ron Turcotte crossing the finish line at the Belmont Stakes was unveiled in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, Turcotte's hometown.
In 1994, Sports Illustrated ranked Secretariat #17 in their list of the 40 greatest sports figures of the past 40 years. In 1999, ESPN listed him 35th of the 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century, the highest of three non-humans on the list (the other two were also racehorses: Man o' War at 84th and Citation at 97th). Secretariat ranked second behind Man o' War in The Blood-Horse's List of the Top 100 U.S. Racehorses of the 20th Century. He was also ranked second behind Man o' War by both a six-member panel of experts assembled by the Associated Press, and a Sports Illustrated panel of seven experts.
On October 16, 1999 in a ceremony conducted in the winner's circle at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, the U.S. Postal Service honored Secretariat with a 33-cent postage stamp bearing his image. In 2005, Secretariat was featured in ESPN Classic's show "Who's No. 1?" in the episode "Greatest Sports Performances". He was the only nonhuman on the list, with his run at Belmont ranking second behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. On May 2, 2007, Secretariat was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, marking the first time an animal received this honor. In 2013, Secretariat was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in honor of his victory in the Canadian International 40 years earlier. Secretariat was also the focus of a 2013 segment of 60 Minutes Sports. In March 2016, Secretariat's Triple Crown victory was rated #13 in the Sports Illustrated listing of the 100 Greatest Moments in Sports History.
Due to Secretariat's enduring popularity, Chenery remained a prominent figure in racing and a powerful advocate for Thoroughbred aftercare and veterinary research until her death in 2017. In 2004, the Maker's Mark Secretariat Center, dedicated to reschooling former racehorses and matching them to new homes, opened at the Kentucky Horse Park. In 2010, Chenery developed the Secretariat Vox Populi ("voice of the people") Award, which is voted for by racing fans. It is intended to acknowledge "the horse whose popularity and racing excellence best resounded with the American public and gained recognition for Thoroughbred racing." The consideration of the racing fan's engagement is what distinguishes the Vox Populi award from others. The first honoree in 2010 was Zenyatta, that year's Horse of the Year, while the second award went to Rapid Redux, a former claimer who went on to win 22 consecutive races at smaller racetracks. Paynter received the 2012 award for his battle with laminitis, the same condition that led to Secretariat's death. "Paynter's popularity stems from his ability to battle and exceed expectations, making him the perfect choice as the recipient of this year's Vox Populi Award", said Chenery. "After seeing firsthand the devastating effects of this disease, I am even more convinced that the industry must continue to diligently fight laminitis. The progress we have made to date clearly benefited Paynter — a beautiful colt with a tremendous spirit."
The Secretariat Stakes was created in 1974 to honor his appearance at Arlington Park in 1973. The Meadow, the farm at which he was born, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now known as The Meadow Historic District.
Secretariat, a Disney live-action film about the racing career of Secretariat, written by Mike Rich and directed by Randall Wallace, was released on October 8, 2010.