In the South, there are only two kind of acceptable races to watch: NASCAR (obvi) and horse racing. We’re talking about the latter today, specifically the tremendous racing machine Secretariat, ninth winner of the Triple Crown. Now, you’ve probably heard the story of Secretariat, but if you haven’t, don’t worry—I’m a wealth of knowledge on the subject! There’s so much information on Secretariat, including books written by William Nack, a renowned sports journalist and author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion. His book was also an integral part of the 2010 Disney movie adaptation of Secretariat, starring Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Margo Martindale, and even Penny Chenery (Secretariat’s owner) herself.
There’s going to be a few horse-y terms here, but it’s okay, I’ll explain as we go! Secretariat, more affectionally referred to as “Big Red,” was born in October of 1970, and began winning races during his colt years. Racehorses are started young, so Secretariat was entered in races when he was just two years old. But I’m getting ahead of myself, if you’re really going to understand the gravity of the legend that was Secretariat, we need to go all the way to the beginning.
Secretariat: The Making of a Champion
Secretariat was born in Virginia in the Cheney’s struggling Meadow farm. In 1969, Penny Chenery bred the stable’s mare, Somethingroyal, to stud Bold Ruler. Now, bloodlines are a big thing in horseracing—they can make or break a horse. And to everyone else, it seemed like Penny was making a last ditch effort with her breeding of Somethingroyal and Bold Ruler. But the woman had a plan, and once Secretariat was born, she began forming a team that would go the distance.
Once Secretariat came of racing age (2 years old), he started training under Lucien Laurin, much to the man’s dismay. In his first race in 1972, Secretariat finished fourth, only after a powerful surge of power from tenth in the final stretch. It became sort of a routine, Big Red would start in the back and dedicate all of his power into the final stretch. The strategy works in his benefit during his second race, where he won by six lengths.
Y’all remember how I said that Meadow Farm was struggling? Well in 1973, the situation wasn’t looking good. Penny’s father passed away, saddling her with a massive tax bill that she wasn’t able to deal with on her own. But by god, the woman was a smooth talker and was able to syndicate Secretariat, selling 32 shares of the horse for a record $6.08 million. Keep that word “record” in your mind, because Big Red definitely did.
Of course, Red proved he was worth his weight in gold during his first race of the 1973 season by winning the race by four and a half lengths. However, tragedy struck again when he came up short the next race and placed third because of an abscess in his mouth. Like many of us, Secretariat had his ups and downs, but he was soon back at full power for the next race.
Triple Crown Races
The very next race that Big Red was set to run was The Kentucky Derby. The significance of The Kentucky Derby is it’s the first of a three race competition, each growing in difficulty. In true Secretariat fashion, he was last out of the gate, but that didn’t last long. Big Red and his jockey, Ron Turcotte, continued to increase their pace every quarter-mile. Secretariat won the race with a blazing time of 1:59 2/5th, a record that still holds today.
Two weeks later was the second level of the Triple Crown Races, The Preakness. The pattern remained, Secretariat coming from behind to blow the other horses out of the water. It was by now that the entire world was watching this horse from Virginia continue to set records that would stand for years to come. He won the Preakness with another phenomenal time of 1:53 flat.
Secretariat popped out of the gate ready to run at The Belmont Stakes, the third and final race of the Triple Crown Races. The only way to be a Triple Crown Winner is to win all three races, and at this point, Secretariat was in good standing to do so. Early on, Big Red broke from the pack, racing alongside his one competitor, Sham. The pair of them created an ever-increasing gap between themselves and the other horses, settling in at around ten lengths ahead of the rest.
That all changed when Secretariat kept driving, pulling away from Sham and seeming to unlock a new level of power. The Belmont Stakes is a one and a half-mile race and is usually the longest race that any Thoroughbred will compete in. By this point, Secretariat was still driving ahead. This is something that was unheard of in racing history, Secretariat was said to be “blazing along” by announcer Chic Anderson. Big Red took the final turn all alone, stunning the crowd and people watching around the world.
Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a 16th of a mile away from the rest of the horses! Secretariat is an a position that seems impossible to catch.Chic Anderson, calling on The Belmont Stakes
It was later determined that Secretariat won The Belmont Stakes by a jaw-dropping thirty-one lengths. At the time, Big Red was the first horse to win the Triple Crown in twenty-five years. He set his final record at The Belmont Stakes, running the course in 2:24 flat.
Years later, Secretariat sired (fathered) over 660 horses, with a stud fee of just $70k (a little low, in my opinion). Out of the 663 foals, 341 of them were winners and 54 of those won stakes races, which are the races of the Triple Crown. However, none of them lived up to the legend that was Big Red. Remember how I said bloodlines can make or break a horse? Well, lineage isn’t everything when it comes to horse racing. The horse itself has to want to win, and I don’t think there’s really been a horse since Secretariat that’s wanted to run as badly. At least, none that would run hard enough to create a 31 length gap between themselves and the competition.
After Secretariat died, his body was examined to see what made the horse tick (because apparently we can’t let well enough alone). It was found that his heart was almost three times the size of a normal one. Secretariat’s heart weighed about 22 pounds when the average horse’s was about 8 1/2 pounds. After the discovery, racehorse lovers ran with the idea that Big Red’s large heart, near perfect conformation (body build, he was big, powerful, and straight), and stride length all contributed to the horse being able to average over 37 mph in the Triple Crown Races.
Well, now that you’ve read my geek out session about the greatest racing horse to ever exist (fight me on it), I sure do hope that you’ll check out the Disney movie adaptation of Secretariat. And if you just can’t get enough of Big Red (much like the rest of the world), check out The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, The Worl’ds Greatest Racehorse!
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