Why Secretariat is the Best Athlete Ever

A sports channel once had Secretariat in the top athletes of all time. He’s, in my opinion, deserving of that. Especially in today’s sporting world…where even at a school level athletes get in legal trouble breaking laws and acting up.

Secretariat was born in 1970 – along with over 24,000 other Thoroughbred horses he was in one of the last crops from the legendary Bold Ruler. On a cold late March night in Virginia a mare named Somethingroyal was in labor. She had already produced Sir Gaylord, favored to win the 1962 Kentucky Derby until breaking down the day before the race. She’d been bred to Bold Ruler and produced a filly, Syrian Sea, who was a stakes winner, and a full sister was a yearling. The colt Somethingroyal was carrying held more hope than normal – Bold Ruler was dying. As the big chestnut colt emerged into the world no one could know he would change racing.

He grew and became an eye catching young horse with presence. When it came time to register him, the first names were rejected by the Jockey Club. The first choice was Scepter, then Royal Line, then Something Special. All were rejected. Second round of names – Games Of Chance, Deo Volente and – Secretariat. After weaning he was moved into the premier stall, reserved for the most promising. Time passed and he was moved again and prepared for saddling – for learning to be a race horse. He learned the basics and as he was being conditioned he was not the star. Gathering the focus was a promiting young winner named Riva Ridge.

Bold Ruler’s health was declining – tumors ravaged his body. An iron horse in the 1950s who became a major influence in the world of breeding Thoroughbreds, Bold Ruler is an unquestionable legend. Three weeks after Secretariat went to the training farm, the gallant Bold Ruler was put down as his health declined and the pain increased. He was just 17 years old.

Secretariat had learned his lessons and in early 1972 he went to the track. He was big, lazy and indifferent. He wasn’t easily rattled. In works there were many who outran him – including another young colt named Angle Light. He remained a good looking prospect. The talent lurked but not all with talent express it.

Riva Ridge remained the barn darling – a little dark colored colt who went about his business of winning races. As the Classics approached he was moved to Kentucky…where he put his name in history winning the Kentucky Derby by three. Secretariat, with a new morning rider up, began to find himself. A change here, an adjustment there and it was sensed he really could be something.

The 1972 Preakness held a bitter disappointment – Riva Ridge was beaten by an otherwise unknown colt named Bee Bee Bee. At the Belmont Riva redeemed himself, but the chance at a place among the Triple Crown winners was gone.

During the summer Secretariat learned his lessons well. appearing at the track was another student to the ways of being a race horse – a young dark colored son of Claiborne Farms’ Pretense. His name was Sham. Secretariat was entered in his first race, a maiden (nonwinner) race for colts and geldings of 5-1/2 furlongs. Because of Sir Gaylord’s record, and Secretariat’s recent work, he was getting some attention. Secretariat was put in post 2, next to Strike The Line and in 4 Quebec. The gates opened and, as they were taught, the young horses jumped from the gates. Quebec veered across the path of Strike The Line and slammed into Secretariat, pushing him into Big Burn coming from the one spot. Trapped between two horses Secretariat tried desperately to stay on his feet. He had no choice – he entered the backside in eleventh. The rail was clogged with horses, he was boxed in and there was nowhere to run. When a hole opened he’d try squeezing through and when there wasn’t he had to be checked to keep from running up on another horse…but at the finish the best he could do was cut loose and bear down for fourth. Such a race is difficult for a seasoned horse to handle. For a first time starter it was disastrous.

A couple of weeks later he tried again. He struggled during the race getting in the game – but when he did he came home six legnths clear of the field. His first win. He redeemed himself. And the man who would have been riding was recovering from an accident. Secretariat developed a taste for speed. His own. He was gorgeous to look at, he was turning potential into talent. And there were signs that Riva might have to share the spotlight. Paired with a regular race rider in Ron Turcotte there was a feeling this big good looking colt might have what it takes. He then proceeded to win eight races in a row, and was officially disqualified in the Champagne Stakes for interfering with another horse. In the last two races of the year, the Laurel Futurity and the Garden State, Secretariat proved with no doubt that Angle Light would no longer outrun him, as he finished third and second respectively. He ran from six furlongs to 1-1/16 mile on fast tracks and sloppy. Riva, meanwhile, as the year wore down hit a slump. As he went home for some well earned time off, Secretariat was pointed towards the year that would define horse racing. He was one of the very few two year olds to be named Horse Of The Year.

In mid March on a sloppy track in the Bay Shore he charged to another win, then again in the Gotham G2 on a fast track. Then, as can happen to all athletes, disaster marked a perfect run. The Wood Memorial G1 was the final prep before his date with history. Stablemate Angle Light was entered, and going into the backstretch he was alone on the lead and looking for speed. Setting behind, not wanting to engage in a speed dual, waiting for the cue to run was the good looking dark colored Sham. Secretariat, however, was not engaging. He wasn’t tearing up the track, he wasn’t leaning on the bit wanting to run – his head was up and he wasn’t responding. Angle Light was blistering through the race and Sham was waiting for Secretariat’s charge. Turcotte asked for a charge and got enough response to know it was heard. But not enough response. Angle Light and Sham battled head to head on the lead – neither backing down. In a bob of the head and the flash of the wire Angle Light won the Wood Memorial – while Secretariat came in for third. Horses cannot talk so it’s up to humans to figure out when something goes wrong. And with an uncharacteristic dull performance Secretariat was screaming something was wrong. He wasn’t sore, he wasn’t dull. The next day Secretariat wasn’t right – and under his upper lip an abscess was sore, and noticed outside the lip. Treatment was started and in hindsight it was clear why Secretariat didn’t take hold of the bit during the Wood – his mouth was hurting. Once treated the big colt never looked back.

In Kentucky for the Derby there were a calvary charge of Thoroughbreds in that field. Twenty five years had passed since America had seen a Triple Crown winner. People criticized him – his soundness, the distance, his record, his performance in the Wood. As the field was loaded into the gates at Louisville the anticipation builds as only happens on Derby day. In the gate Twice A Prince suddenly went up and almost over the gate, his front legs hung over the stall. For several minutes people work to free the colt and Secretariat relaxed. Once in place he poised on his hind legs, his forelegs hovering waiting to grab track and get gone. Sham had slammed his mouth onto the iron bars, tearing loose two teeth . Secretariat lunged up the track and answered the question Turcotte silently asked – he grabbed the bit and bore down. Secretariat the race horse was back. Shecky Greene and Royal And Regal led the sizzling pace. At the turn Shecky Greene thought he saw history…but Sham loomed as did Secretariat. Sham moved alongside Shecky while Secretariat was not yet serious. Sham inched past and took the lead from Shecky for the first time…and as the empty track lay ahead it appeared Sham had his Derby – but neither he nor jockey Pincay saw who was coming on the outside and the quest for speed lay on the wings of two horses. Humans guide them, influence them but when it comes down to it, it is the horse that has the heart and the try or doesn’t. And both Secretariat and Sham were not willing to let this challenge pass. Both horses dug down with everything they had in the race of their lives and when they passed the wire it was Secretariat in front. Lights flashed and the noise was defeaning…the lights on the timer held the unbelievable flashing of 1:59.2 – under two minutes it’s Secretariat immortalized but Sham pushed him and the gallant Shecky Greene set the early fractions. Decades have passed – hundreds of horses have galloped and raced on that historical track. None have outrun the champion – his record still holds 33 years later. THAT is history. That is unquestioned dominance.

Secretariat was not done – as a horse, the concept of setting a speed record was beyond him. Unfazed by money and not tempted by the bad boy antics of some human sports competitors he came out to do what he did best – run. He shattered the mark set by the legendary Northern Dancer. He ran each fraction faster than the last – actually gaining momentum rather than tiring. For 32 years Whirlaway had the record for the fastest closing quarter in Derby history at :23.3 – Secretariat’s was :23 flat.

On to the Preakness – where Deadly Dream and Sham lept to the lead. Ecole Etage took over as pacesetter with Torsion and Our Native, third in Kentucky, factoring in. When Turcotte moved his hands it was all Secretariat needed – he mowed down the opposition and Sham tried desperately to close the distance. In an identical replay of the Derby it was Secretariat, Sham and Our Native on the tote board. Then came disbelieve. The timer read 1:55 – but there was believed to be a slight malfunction. This was backed up when the Daily Racing Form stopped their clock in 1:53.2 and although the official timer stood most agree Secretariat unofficially had another track record. Time aside, a win is a win and Secretariat had two of the three in the bag. The Belmont lay ahead. And a million things that could go wrong.

Great horses – Northern Dancer, Tim Tam, Majestic Prince – faltered in the Belmont. Secretariat was caught in a media frenzy – landing cover spots on Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Headlines blazed SUPERHORSE. Unlike human counterparts, Secretariat never gave any credence to the publicity or to the critics. But surely he knew something big lay ahead. In the post parade he was non-reactive to a tap with the whip. Sham was there for one more try. My Gallant and Twice A Prince broke from the gate solidly but Sham and Secretariat came out with one thing on their minds. SPEED. They hooked and the duel was on. They sizzle down the backside with no one else in contention. They could not see the timer flashing dangerously 0:46.1 – they’re running easy. Secretariat changed leads and eased into long ground eating strides. Sham’s wet, lathered neck stretches desperately for the lead, faltering and trying in vain to not lose his ground. Secretariat rolls on as Sham’s drive falls apart. At the three quarter pole he had no more to give and eyes look to the timer flashing 1:09.4 – outrunning his sire Bold Ruler who was at 1:10.2 at that point in the race. Experts are reeling…he’s going too fast. Turcotte is sitting easy wondering how fast they’re going. He’s on the lead, he has not touched the whip and has opened daylight on Sham. On the turn Secretariat puts more distance with every stride. 70,000 people are screaming for history as Chick Anderson’s now famous race call “Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5 – Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” Sham is faltering in distress and coming back to My Gallant and Twice A Prince. Secretariat charges on – nine furlongs into the race the clock is at 1:46.1 – Secretariat set a world record for nine furlongs. But he was not done – he’s running alone, unchallenged, unasked, in his own way and eating up the clock. In 1943 Count Fleet had a record margin in a 25 length lead. Secretariat shattered that – and was STILL blazing on. No one is closing the distance. He has shattered Man O War’s world record in the Belmont 53 years earlier. The cameras back up and no one else is in the scope of the camera. Turcott looks back for someone and there’s no one there…he looks again and realizes they ‘re all alone. He hand rides Secretariat to a widening margin and the only record left – the final time. It stops at 2:24 – 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field with Twice A Prince a forgotten second. Sham staggered home last, beaten – some believe shattered. In any other year Sham would have been a dominant standout. It was a high point in Secretariat’s career that has stood the test of time. Before million dollar races, before the Breeders Cup. Secretariat cemented himself firmly in history and did so in a measure that still stands today. With advances in many aspects of racing, none have outrun Secretariat. He was again named Horse Of The Year.

On November 12, 1973 two horses arrived at Claiborne farm. Now eclipsed totally by his stablemate, Riva Ridge had a stud career in front of him. History has forgotten some things. Sham was retired with a fracture – Angle Light broke down and was retired to stud. But on that November morning when the plane touched down in Lexington two good horses going to the same farm to become rivals in a different race – that of siring winners.

Years later Secretariat had become one of the top broodmare sires in the world. He’d sired Classics winners including the tough Risen Star, whose Belmont was eclipsed by greatness. He sired Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret, often called The Iron Lady. He sired many winners but is often considered a failure at stud because he didn’t do the impossible – he didn’t reproduce himself.

In 1981 on a trip to Lexington I was fortunate to be able to see up close Secretariat – and Riva and Sham. Secretariat was definitely not just a horse. He came out and stood, posing as if KNOWING he was special. Riva Ridge grazed, unnoticed, in the field behind the crowd. Spectacular Bid, Drone, Nijinsky II barely drew looks and that only from “TB people”. Across the way, seeing Sham, along with Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Nashua and others – this was a trip that at the time was special but years later it is priceless.

In the fall of 1989 Secretariat entered a deadly race he did not choose – a battle with laminits. The feet that carried him to greatness were a source of pain. Farm manager John Sosby commented “Ten thousand people come to this farm every year, and all they want to see is Secretariat. They don’t give a hoot about the other studs. You want to know who Secretariat is in human terms? Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world. The greatest. Now make him six-foot-three, the perfect height. Make him real intelligent and kind. And on top of that make him the best-lookin’ guy ever to come down the pike. He was all those things as a horse. He isn’t even a horse anymore. He’s a legend.”

On October 4, 1989 at 11:45 a.m. Secretariat was euthanized to prevent suffering. The news travelled around the world and fans stopped to weep for an icon that was not “just a horse”. He was THE horse.

His heart was found to be larger than normal – the average heart for a horse is nine pounds. Secretariat’s was almost twice that. Simply put – he had a bigger motor…more blood flowing through his body, more air, less tired. Many believe without question he is THE greatest of all time.

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