The Racehorse Secretariat Was Considered One of the Greatest Athletes of All Time

Horse racing is a relatively niche sport. But if you want to know at least one thing about it, get familiar with the name Secretariat. This record-shattering horse was basically the Michael Jordan of the racetrack — although it might be more accurate to say that Michael Jordan was the Secretariat of the basketball court.

Secretariat winning the 1973 Belmont Stakes

Tall, Dark, and Hoofsome

Secretariat was a statuesque, chestnut-brown Thoroughbred racehorse born on March 30, 1970 in Virginia. Not four years later, Big Red — as he was known around the stable — would already cement himself in the record books. Let New York Post columnist Larry Merchant introduce you: "Secretariat is the kind of Big Horse that makes grown men weep, even when they are flint-hearted bettors, even when he goes off at 1-10. He is the apparently unflawed hunk of beauty and beast they search for doggedly in the racing charts every day, and never seemed to find. His supporters rhapsodize over him as though he is a four-legged Nureyev, extolling virtues of his musculature, his grace, his urine specimens."

In his short but successful racing career, Secretariat only failed to win two times. The first time was his very first race in 1972 (give him a break), and the second was at the Champagne Stakes, during which he technically placed first but was disqualified to second place for interference. But lots of horses win lots of races. That's just one part of what made Secretariat a star.

Third Time's the Charm

In 1973, Secretariat became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. If you're not up on your horseracing vocab, winning the Triple Crown requires a 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse to win three races in the same year:

  • The Kentucky Derby, a one-and-a-quarter-mile (2-kilometer) race at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
  • The Preakness Stakes, a one-and-three-sixteenths-mile (1.9-kilometer) race at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland
  • The Belmont Stakes, a one-and-a-half-mile (2.4-kilometer) race at Belmont Park in Elmont, New York

Since 1919, there have only been 12 Triple Crown Winners. It would be like the Super Bowl of horse racing if winning the Super Bowl meant the same team won it three times in the same year. Winning the Triple Crown is a huge feat on its own, but Secretariat set the racetrack record at each of those wins. And in the 45 years since his hooves pummeled those dirt tracks, and even with the advancements made in horse training and breeding, Secretariat's records have never been beaten.

But that's not all! Secretariat's showing at the Belmont Stakes (the longest race in U.S. Thoroughbred racing) in 1973, specifically, was one for the highlight reel. Leading up to this final leg of the Triple Crown — during all-out Secretariat-mania — Secretariat's horsey snout graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek magazines. And he didn't let anyone down. He won the race by 31 lengths or roughly 150 feet (46 meters), which was arguably the most dominant performance in sports history. The CBS cameras could barely pan wide enough to show Secretariat and his runner-up in the same frame. While Secretariat ranked 35 on ESPN's 100 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century (there were two other horses on the list, much further down), his Belmont performance nabbed the second spot on ESPN's Classic's show "Who's No. 1?." for greatest sports performances by individual athletes. He was the only horse on this list, coming in behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.

That Horse Had Heart

He was put down at age 19 due to laminitis, a painful hoof disease, on Oct. 4, 1989. Though he ran for just a year, Secretariat is remembered as one of the greatest racehorses — and, yes, athletes — of all time. His secret weapon? It may have been his heart, and that's no metaphor.

Dr. Thomas Swerczek, the veterinarian who performed the autopsy, reported Secretariat's heart was approximately twice the size of a normal horse's heart: "Certainly, after performing autopsies on several thousand thoroughbred horses, including mares and stallions, no other horse came close to Secretariat's heart size. The second largest heart I found was the heart of Sham, who actually broke the Kentucky Derby record, but still lost to Secretariat." Until other racehorses with as much heart as Big Red, we may have a while yet to see a horse break the records of Secretariat.

Got Secretariat fever? Check out Lawrence Scanlan's "The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World's Greatest Racehorse." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

American Pharoah vs. Secretariat: Who Would Win?

Spoiler: Secretariat — by a lot.

Written by Joanie Faletto May 1, 2018

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