Before the arrival of Secretariat in the early seventies, the two racehorses almost always mentioned as the greatest ever were Man O' War, who was born in 1917, and Citation, a foal of 1945. There is no definitive way to judge those two against each other or against Secretariat. They were all great and dominant in their time. But there can be no question that what Secretariat accomplished in his two years of racing was spectacular and dynamic.
An indication that Secretariat would be an unusual horse was evident right from his birth. His great champion sire, Bold Ruler, was a bay-a shade of brown-as was his dam, Somethingroyal. And yet Secretariat was a bright red chestnut. It was not a surprise that Secretariat was a champion two year old, because during the 1960's, when Bold Ruler was leading sire in America seven times, he sired many talented and fast two year olds, including Bold Lad, Successor, Reviewer and Vitriolic. As good as they were at two, none of them went on to win Triple Crown races at three. Most of the Bold Ruler offspring had distance limitations. They were rarely at their best beyond a mile. So when Secretariat gave Bold Ruler another two year old champion, the question was whether he would, like so many other sons of the sire, find problems at longer distances. At two, he had won the Sanford Stakes at six furlongs (three quarters of a mile) the Hopeful at six and a half furlongs and the Futurity at seven-eighths. He then crossed the wire first in the Champagne Stakes at a mile, but was disqualified. However, he finished off the year with two more wins, first in the Laurel Futurity and then in the Garden State Stakes. Both of those races were at a mile and a sixteenth, the longest distance at which the colt would win before the Kentucky Derby.
At three, Secretariat first came out in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on St. Patrick's Day (the program sold that day at Aqueduct was entirely in green ink). He won the race as a heavy favorite, though he had to withstand a foul claim (when his number stayed up, most of the Aqueduct crowd booed, hoping for a disqualification and a larger payoff.) He then won the Gotham at a mile before getting beaten by his stablemate, Angle Light, in the Wood Memorial. Also finishing ahead of him in that race was Sham, who eventually would be the second choice in the Kentucky Derby.
On Derby day, with uncertainty after his loss and with the question still unanswered as to whether he would handle the mile and a quarter distance, Secretariat went off a lukearm 9-5 favorite. The morning of the race, his trainer Lucien Lauren was consoled by another trainer who heard (incorrectly) that the colt had been scratched. All sorts of rumors were flying around Louisville. But when they ran the race, Secretariat did win and he broke the track record for a mile and a quarter. Nearly forty years later, his time for the race, 1:59-2, is still the standard. In the Preakness, again Secretariat won, this time with a spectacular move looping the field on the clubhouse turn. Then he won the Belmont by an unprecedented 31 lengths, Normally, track records are broken by a fifth or two-fifths of a second, but in the Belmont, Secretariat broke the existing mark by more than two seconds. He was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, since Citation.
Secretariat was owned by the Meadow Stable, whose owner, Christopher Chenery, had recently died. There were estate issues to settle, which is why Secretariat was syndicated for stud duty even before he ran at three. After his spectacular Belmont race, some members of the syndicate wanted him to be retired immediately. But the stable decided to keep running him through the rest of the year. After winning in a virtual exhibition in Chicago, Secretariat ran at Saratoga and was surprisingly beaten by a longshot, Onion. Then Secretariat suffered setbacks in his training and did not run again for over a month. A new race was created for him, the Marlboro Cup. sponsored by the cigarette company (just recently barred from advertising on telelvision.) Secretariat won that race against several top older horses, including his stablemate, Riva Ridge. He set another track record, running the mile and an eighth in 1:45-2.
Secretariat ran three more times, first in the Woodward Stakes. He ran well, but was surprisingly beaten by Prove Out, a stablemate of Onion, who had beaten him at Saratoga. Then he ran on the turf course for the first time, winning the Man O' War Stakes at Belmont on Columbus Day. For his final race, he ran in another grass race, the Woodbine International in Canada. Again he won and his amazing career was over. He was named horse of the year for the second time. He accomplished things on the racetrack that few others have done, or even approached. He did it from six furlongs to a mile and a half, on dirt, in mud and on the grass. The other great horses of the past perhaps accomplished as much, but in any case, no one accomplished more, or was more exciting to watch.