Secretariat ran 21 times and got beat 5 times. Still, he is generally regarded as the greatest thoroughbred ever. This article is for digging into some specifics that separate a champion from the rest. Many are quick to say Secretariat when asked who was best but even many that watched him race are not totally clear on just what it is that does separate Secretariat from the rest. So lets reflect.
First, he was supposed to be great. He had the hype of being Horse of the Year at age two! Along with that honor he was syndicated for a huge record of six million in 1972 dollars. That's right, before Secretariat even stepped on a racetrack at Derby age three, he was foretold as the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948! And his trainer, arrogant Frenchman Lucien Lauren told the world his horse would do it. So he did do it. Secretariat came through. It's one thing to win but another when you are SUPPOSED to win. That alone lends great weight to Big Reds rep.
Second point was that Secretariat, although impeccably bred, was always suspect at whether he would "stay" the distances if the Triple Crown. The Belmont Stakes in particular is 1 1/2 miles. A grueling challenge for young three year olds. Secretariat was more bred to be a miler or even a sprinter but this was all overlooked at the very sight of Big Red. They knew what they were getting when they paid six million back then for an unproven distance horse. So he transcended his breeding expectations.
Secretariat had a west coast rivalry with Sham, a Frank Martin trained horse who many thought would take the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the series and deny Secretariat the Triple crown. Lucien Lauren knew he was up against a good one in Sham and ran Secretariat who had a major tooth infection, an abscess in an important Derby prep race. Secretariat ran third that day but got conditioning he needed to face Sham. So with all these questions about Secretariat and the fact he lost the race prior to the Derby and that Sham stood in his way, what happened? Well Secretariat isn't bet so overwhelmingly and even pays a nice price as he let Sham think the race was his halfway down the stretch and then like turning on the water faucet, he blows by Sham near the wire and sets a new track record!
His move in the Preakness, the second leg in a series that had seen 24 unsuccessful attempts for the Triple Crown, was a move that convinced every seasoned handicapper who may have had doubts. Not only do you never want to move too early but you never want too lose ground or expend extra energy holding a turn. Secretariat did all of the above and still won laughing. Dead last going into the clubhouse turn right after the start he decided to circle horses wide on the turn and that's just what he did. He lost all that ground and still went from last to first and now had to fight with Sham who was going easy up till then. You just know Secretariat goes down here probably when they come to the top of the stretch. So what does he do? He destroys Sham in a blazing speed duel and fly home in another track record performance although that time was later disputed.
The Belmont Stakes is the one race most casual fans ever see films of. Secretariat would never go 1 1/2 miles with his breeding. So what happens. He goes out fighting with Sham and instead of saving himself for the distance he is locked in a speed duel! He destroys Sham again, this time Sham drops back, never to race again. Secretariat finds himself in front by 10 at the top of the stretch. But all of a sudden it's only five as the field closes in on the tiring speed baller who expended his energy. Now here is the thing. At that very moment as the field was closing in on him at the top of the stretch, many thought, ok, no Triple Crown winner again. He moved way to soon for the Belmont Stakes. The rest is history including the famous call. " Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine". Yes, he turns it back on at that moment and wins by an unheard of 32 lengths while destroying the track record. No doubt in this one. Talk about delivering under pressure. He was just toying with them. Allowing them to get close before saying bye bye.
That year was the inaugural running of the Marlboro cup. A championship race for the best horses including the older ones on the grounds. The war horses. Secretariat was still only three and had gotten beaten by some of these at Saratoga and in rain soaked conditions elsewhere. He was again susceptible for getting beat. So what does he do? He runs down older stablemate Riva Ridge and they run one two as Secretariat breaks a world record for 1 1/8 miles. The blue and white checkered colors of Penny Tweedy and the Meadow stable was exhilarating to watch as they flickered in the light going one two under the wire like that.
The breeders who put up the six million then wanted one more test for their prize investment. Turf or grass racing. Could Secretariat grass as well? Again, he goes against the best older turf horses in the world who are seasoned in their specialty of turf racing. So what does he do? He steps on the grass for the very first time and destroys the finest grass runners around. Every time, Secretariat was suspect or on the line where he was under the gun to perform, he performed. He proved all the doubters wrong and confirmed what his people were saying all along. Ron Turcotte, his regular rider was just as shy as trainer Laurin in telling the world what they had.
One final thought. After his death, an autopsy was performed and Secretariat was found to have a heart nearly double the size of most thoroughbred horses. And it was not a diseased or malformed heart. It was completely healthy. They say heart is the difference in why many horses over perform. And when they say that a horse showed heart they don't expect it to be figuratively speaking. Secretariat had both. The size and the determination. The will to win. The ego to be best.