There is no more famous thoroughbred racehorse than the legendary Secretariat. Nicknamed “Big Red” because of his chestnut color and prodigious size, Secretariat is most famous for winning the American Triple Crown by beating a field in the Belmont Stakes by more than 30 lengths. This is a feat that many claim will never be duplicated.
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Secretariat’s humble beginnings
In 1969, a simple coin flip changed the fortunes of a few men and women in thoroughbred horseracing. Ogden Phipps of Wheatley Stable made breeding arrangements with Christopher Chenery’s breeding farm in Virginia in an effort to breed their sire Bold Ruler to Chenery’s best mares. The coin flip was devised as a way to let both parties secure a Bold Ruler foal. When the elder Chenery became ill, his daughter, Penny, took his place at the coin toss and history was made. Chenery lost the coin flip and was given the foal of Something Royal, a chestnut colt with three white socks and a star with a narrow blaze on his forehead.
In his debut race as a two-year old, Secretariat was unimpressive. He finished fourth at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack after being seriously hindered by other horses at the beginning of the race. Chenery and her connections must have been disappointed with this initial effort, but things were about to change.
The Triple Crown
After his lackluster debut, Secretariat won five races in a row. One of these was the prestigious Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. Over the years, the Hopeful has often signaled the arrival of a Triple Crown contender. Secretariat won the race by five lengths and firmly placed himself on the Triple Crown trail.
In the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat squared off with Sham in a battle that would continue in all three races of the Triple Crown. Secretariat won in dramatic fashion, setting a new track record of 1:59 2/5 that still stands today. Sham finished a competitive second, also breaking the track record.
The Preakness Stakes saw the two horses square off again with the same result. This set the stage for Secretariat to try and complete the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 1973.
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Due to a malfunction in Pimlico Racecourse’s timing equipment, Secretariat was not credited with breaking the track record in the Preakness. Three different times were proposed for his victory despite convincing evidence from two Daily Racing Form clockers that Secretariat had in fact broken the record. In 2012, at the request of Penny Chenery, a special forensic inquiry was conducted. It was determined that Secretariat had, in fact, set a new track record on May 19, 1973. The legendary horse was finally given credit for his performance.
A Race for the Ages
In the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Secretariat once again faced off with his old rival Sham. There were only five horses to enter the starting gate at Belmont that day. Secretariat and Sham broke from the gate and immediately established a 10-length lead on the rest of the field. Many in attendance were concerned that Secretariat would be compromised by running too fast in the early stages, something that was contrary to his traditional style of coming from behind the leaders. The horses dueled through six furlongs in a torrid pace, but Sham began to tire.
Secretariat actually began to run faster and extend his amazing lead, prompting the CBS television announcer Chic Anderson to say the famous words, “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!” When the race was over, Secretariat became the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years and only the ninth to ever accomplish the feat.
Secretariat only raced a few more times after the Belmont Stakes; a syndicated breeding agreement prevented him from racing after three years of age. Secretariat, despite his amazing success on the track, largely failed as a sire.
In 1989, Secretariat became afflicted with a hoof condition known as laminitis. After a painful month in which doctors tried to treat the conditioned, Secretariat was euthanized. Doctors conducting the official necropsy of the horse estimated that Secretariat’s heart weighed 22 pounds, almost 2 ¾ times as large as the heart of an average thoroughbred.
Update September 16 2017 – Penny Chenery, Owner Of Secretariat.. passed away at 95