Babe Ruth. Michael Jordan. Wayne Gretzky. Jim Thorpe. Muhammad Ali.
All of those greats are widely considered legendary American athletes and the best to ever perform in their respective sports. However, the greatest athlete born in America may not have been of man at all. It might have very well been a racing horse, one that went by the name of Secretariat.
Some may know the story of Secretariat from the hit Disney movie that came out in 2010. However, many still don’t know the story of the legendary horse. We’re going to try to change that here today in this article.
Secretariat’s legendary Triple Crown victory came 50 years ago this year but his story started three years earlier on March 30, 1970, in Caroline County, Virginia. The foal of Bold Ruler (sire) and Somethingroyal (dam), Secretariat from the moment he was born was a special horse. He stood up just 45 minutes after his birth, it usually takes an hour or more for most foals to do so. Bet on horse racing and more while indulging in the thrill of horse racing at Virginia’s many racetracks, you could also bet online using one of multiple Virginia sports betting promos.
His first race would come just two years after he was born on July 4, 1972 – a five-and-half furlong race at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. He would finish fourth in that race out of 12 horses. It would be the first and last time in his career that he would finish lower than third in a race.
A few weeks later, also at ad Aqueduct, he would pick up his first career win, this time in a six-furlong race. It would be the first of five-straight wins for the Secretariat. It looked like that winning streak would continue on October 14 in 1972 at the Champagne Stakes in Belmont in Elmont, New York. However, after finishing in first, Secretariat would be disqualified and was given a second-place finish. Secretariat would go on to win each of his next four races after the controversial finish including the Laurel Futurity, the Garden State Stakes, the Bay Shore Stakes, and Gotham Stakes.
Then just a few weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat ran at the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. He would finish third in that race, an ominous sign for him just ahead of the biggest race of his life at the Kentucky Derby.
Of course, that would be far from the case.
On May 5, 1973, Secretariat would start from the 10th position while being tied for the best odds at 1.50 to win the Kentucky Derby.
It was a slow start for Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby but that would not last for long. He would quickly move his way up the field. For most of the race, it was Shecky Green, Sham, and Gold Back battling it out for the lead. Secretariat, however, would be surging through the pack and overtook Sham in the final furlongs of the race. He would eventually finish two and a half lengths ahead of Sham while setting a track record of 1.59 2/5. Sham who finished second finished with a time of 1:59 4/5, which would’ve been a track record itself.
This won’t be the last time we discuss Sham, who established a short but legendary rivalry in itself with Secretariat during his Triple Crown run. Many believe had Secretariat not been a part of the 1973 Triple Crown races, Sham himself would’ve been a Triple Crown winner himself.
Two weeks after the Kentucky Derby was the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Only six horses would run in the 1973 Preakness with Secretariat being the overwhelming favorite as the race went off. Much like the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat was a slow starter but it didn’t take long for his amazing speed and acceleration to push him to the front of the pack. Secretariat and Sham would go nearly stride for stride over the remainder but “Big Red” was simply too much for Sham to keep up with for the entirety of the race. He would eventually win by two-and-half lengths.
Finally, there is the Belmont Stakes. Secretariat’s most famous race of all, without a doubt the greatest race ever by a horse. Unlike the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Secretariat, and Sham would both get out to fast starts. It was a pace that was never seen before and one that many thought couldn’t believe would last. Secretariat’s pace, however, was unbeatable. He simply continued to accelerate and never showed signs of tiring. As he moved down the backstretch, track announcer Chic Anderson uttered the famous saying… “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” As the race continued, “Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths… an unbelievable, an amazing performance!”.
That it was. It was truly an unbelievable performance. Once the dust settled Secretariat recorded an incredible winning time of 2:24, the track record by two seconds. He also won the race by an amazing 31 lengths, a number that will never be touched. With the win at the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat also, of course, won the Triple Crown. At the time, he was just the ninth horse to win the Triple Crown.
After winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat would go on to race six more times winning four of the races to finish with a career record of 16-3-1 in 21 career races. He would total over $1.3 million in earnings. When accounting for inflation, that would be equal to $9.2 million in 2023.
Following his racing career, Secretariat would go on to have a rather successful career as a stud, with 663 foals. While none of his male foals would go on to have great success, many of his daughters would have great success.
As Secretariat aged, he was diagnosed with laminitis, a hoof condition that deteriorates the quality of life for horses. He would be euthanized on October 4, 1989. Following his death it was found that Secretariat had a heart that likely weighed nearly 22 pounds, a heart nearly three times the size of an average racehorse.
Following his death, Secretariat’s popularity remained high and was widely celebrated following for his feats. He was named one of the greatest athletes by ESPN and Sports Illustrated of his time by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN despite not being human. In 2010, Secretariat was released by Disney which is the real-life story of Big Red, his career, and those behind the scenes that played a major role in his success including owner Penny Chenery, trainer Lucien Laurin, and jockey Ron Turcotte.