Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 44 Days to Go!

Countdown to the Kentucky Derby - 44 Days to Go!

Secretariat, aka “Big Red”, was the horse that ended the 25 year Triple Crown drought. Almost everyone has heard about the big horse, I almost didn’t feel like I had to write anything about him, which led me to decide to write in some of the lesser known things about him for today.

Bred and owned by the Chenery’s Meadow Stable, Secretariat was the offspring of Bold Ruler and the stakes-producing *Princequillo mare, Somethingroyal. The chestnut colt with three white stockings became a favorite of the farm’s connections, as he looked and acted every part of a racehorse. His name would be forever linked as one of the greatest race horses as all time, though it was actually the sixth name choice for the youngster. The first choice for him was Scepter, which was rejected. The others turned down were Royal Line, Something Special, Games of Chance, and Deo Volente.

Sent to the farm’s trainer Lucien Lauren for his preparation, the leggy colt quickly filled out into an imposing individual. His 16.2 hand frame would boast a 75 ½ inch girth with his weight around 1160 pounds. His only off-the-board finish would come in his first race, a 5 ½-furlong maiden, where he was bumped around, yet once his long-stride was found the maiden would close strongly to finish fourth, only 1 ¼ lengths behind the winner. Taking on another maiden race on the 15th of July, 10 days after his first try, the big colt would put it together winning by 6 lengths in the 6-furlong contest. Moving to an allowance race on 7/31, under new jockey Ron Turcotte, Secretariat would win by a length and a half, making it the last start he would have that wasn’t a stakes race.

After winning his next three starts, the Sanford, Hopeful, and Futurity, Secretariat would next take on the Champagne Stakes in which he was disqualified to second. In spite of the take down, Lauren would still believe it was one of the juvenile’s best races. The big red colt was squeezed back at the start, resulting in his being 20 some lengths behind the leaders. Lucien Lauren would look at Penny and tell her that this is one time that her colt wouldn’t be able to catch up. When she asked why, his reply was that there was no way that he could make up that amount of ground over the Belmont track. Proving the trainer wrong, the chestnut would go from last at the half-mile pole to competing head-to-head with Stop The Music for the lead with a quarter-mile left to cover. He had gone wide around the sweeping turns, which for normal horses would result in them losing an eighth of a mile, yet he would fly past 6 horses with his enormous stride, and battle with Stop The Music before drawing away to pass under the line by 2. In his disqualification, the colt was moved to second after brushing with Stop The Music, yet in his amazing performance he showed his tenacity and heart.

Wrapping up his 2YO campaign with victories in the Laurel Futurity and Garden State, Secretariat would become only the 3rd horse to win America’s Horse of the Year as a 2YO since the official honors were given in 1936, although he was the first to win both unanimously. As a 3YO, Secretariat would win from 7 furlongs to 13 on both dirt and turf in a season that saw the colt almost not run in the Kentucky Derby. Trainer Lucien Lauren wintered the colt in Florida as a syndication deal on the colt’s future as a stallion was being finalized. Unable to race until the $6,080,000 deal was completed, Lauren gave the colt time to grow and brought him along slowly from November until March. In the meantime, Lauren was patiently waiting to see what the end of the year voting for 3YO male was going to produce. He had decided that if his Derby and Belmont winner, Riva Ridge, didn’t earn the Championship after his Spring and Summer campaign, with the award instead going to a colt that was better in the fall, he was not going to push the large red colt towards a Triple Crown run. Thankfully for history, Riva Ridge won the Championship, allowing Secretariat to end the 25 year drought of a Triple Crown Champion.

Though Secretariat was in Florida when the deal was finally completed, he wouldn’t race until they arrived in New York. Starting his 3YO endeavor with a victory in the Bay Shore, he would follow up with another win in the Gotham. In his final prep before the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat would have a lackluster performance, finishing third behind Angle Light and Sham. With no known excuse for his effort, he would be made the luke-warm favorite for the Derby, with doubters believing that he wouldn’t be able to get the distance. In the 99th Kentucky Derby, Secretariat would deliver a hair-raising performance in the field of 13. Dropping to last as was his custom, he would trail the field as they passed the stands for the first time. As they came into the first turn, Turcotte would begin to move him up on the inside, however as they came into the backstretch the jockey would decide to move him back to the outside where they began to pass horses one at a time. Entering the stretch, the red, white, and blue team would pass all of the horses, save Sham. The Derby would at that point become a two horse battle, with the Santa Anita Derby winner unwilling to give in; trying to hold on as the big red machine would draw away, gliding under the wire with the victory.

Secretariat would run each quarter faster than the last in the mile and a quarter event, setting a track record that still stands today, 1:59 2/5. The splits were :25 1/5, :24, :23 4/5, :23 2/5 and :23, meaning that he was still accelerating from the break to the finish. No other winner until Monarchos would finish under 2 minutes, taking the race in 2001 in a time of 1:59.97. Secretariat won the race by 2 ½ lengths over Sham, with 8 lengths back to Our Native. In the Preakness, the results would stand exactly the same. Running towards the back of the pack, Secretariat ran three wide around the first turn, taking command of the race as they traveled down the backstretch. All three of the top finishers were the same as the Derby, with the same amount of distance between each. As of 2012, the disputed race time was finally agreed upon with it being recognized as 1:53, which still to this day stands as a record.

Prior to the Belmont, “Big Red” was proclaimed a Super Horse, appearing on the covers of Newsweek, Time, and Sports Illustrated. In a time when the country needed some good news, Secretariat became a hero, receiving fan mail that necessitated having a director of publicity. The Belmont, a race that has gone down as one of the greatest ever, would see Secretariat win by 31 lengths, not only setting a track record in the process,  but also a world record for the mile and a half. Secretariat and Sham would set the quickest half mile of the race in history, sparring with each other while setting the torrid pace. After Sham tired and gave way, Secretariat would set the fastest time for the mile, 1:34 1/5, with a 7 length lead. It was over a second faster than the mile that his sire, Bold Ruler, had set. He would continue to roll on, opening his lead, which prompted one of the most famous calls in history by Chic Anderson as he would announce on television that, “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!” His time surpassed the stakes record by more than two seconds, and Andrew Beyer said that if his Beyer Speed Figure was in use at the time that Secretariat would have earned a 139, the highest ever.

Earning a victory in the Arlington Invitational on June 30th, Secretariat would then be pointed to the August 4th Whitney, where he would be upset by a horse named Onion. After the loss at the “Graveyard of Champions”, Secretariat would then contest the Marlboro Cup Invitational. In carrying more weight than the 5 champions he was facing, Secretariat would set a world record for the 9-furlongs, covering the distance in 1:45 2/5, defeating his stablemate Riva Ridge as well as Onion. After another 2nd in the Woodward, Secretariat would wrap up the year with victories in the Man O’ War and Canadian Invitational Championship. The fan favorite would prove to be just as popular with the voters, as he would earn the 3YO, Turf, and Horse of the Year Championships.

After his 3YO season, Secretariat was retired, as it was part of his syndication deal. The amount that he was syndicated for at the time actually made him worth more per ounce than gold. One of the first mares that he was bred to was a test mare, an Appaloosa named Leola. She would give birth to his first foal, First Secretary, a chestnut like his sire, with spots like Leola. As a sire, he was very successful in his female offspring, even siring Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret. His female lines have produced many champions, including Terlingua who was the dam of the great Storm Cat, and Weekend Surprise that foaled A.P. Indy. His sons included General Assembly, the 1979 Travers winner who held the track record until Arrogate would break it. He is also in the middle of a three-generation chain of Preakness winners. His sire, Bold Ruler, won in 1957, and his son Risen Star would win in 1988. It was one of two chains, the other was 1945 Polynesian, who sired 1953 winner Native Dancer, who would sire 1966 winner, Kauai King.

Secretariat would have a necropsy performed after his death in 1989. It would reveal that Secretariat had a perfectly normal heart; however it was about 2.5 times the size of a normal horse. While most are around 8.5 pounds, Secretariat’s heart would weigh between 21 to 22 pounds. The vet would say that there were no defects in the heart, as he was just from a line of horses that tended to have a larger heart. Secretariat became the first horse inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, along with being ranked by ESPN as number 35 in the top 100 American Athletes of the 20th century, the highest honor to a non-human. Secretariat also had his image put onto a 1999 US Postal Service stamp. Secretariat is buried whole at Claiborne Farm, where he stood his entire career at stud, residing in the same stall of that of his sire.

(Shoe courtesy of KDM archives)

Rickelle  Nelson

Rickelle Nelson

Reservations Manager for the Kentucky Derby Museum