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Secretariat: The Heart of a Champion

Holle is a retired English and creative writing teacher who writes on a variety of topics.


There’s something about a horse that all horse lovers recognize and understand, although none can put it into words that will fully explain and convey the feeling to non-horse lovers. The concept is easy to grasp for equine aficionados, but it’s impossible to transfer the emotion to those who have never experienced it. As a lifelong horse lover, the best word I can think of is “heart.” While true of most horses, this term is especially appropriate for Thoroughbreds. There’s an old saying about the breed’s heart: “A Thoroughbred throws its heart over a fence first, and then its body follows.”

Secretariat was foaled on March 30, 1970, at Meadow Farm near Richmond, Virginia. Meadow Farm was owned by Christopher Chenery, who divided the horse farm into Meadow Stud, the breeding farm, and Meadow Stable, for the racehorses. Secretariat’s sire was Bold Ruler, and his dam was Somethingroyal. It was actually just the luck of the draw, or rather the toss of a coin, that gave Secretariat to Chenery.

Bold Ruler was owned by Wheatly Stable and Ogden Phipps. Phipps and Bull Hancock of Claiborne Farms put their heads together to come up with a way to get the best Thoroughbred mares available to breed to Bold Ruler. They wanted Bold Ruler’s fillies to be part of their own breeding programs. They decided that instead of a stud fee, they would breed their impressive stud to appropriate mares—either two mares from the same farm or the same mare two years in a row—and Phipps would keep one foal and the mare owner would get the other. A simple coin toss decided who would get first choice.

Christopher Chenery sent two of his mares to Bold Ruler in 1968—Somethingroyal and Hasy Matelda. The next year, the two Chenery mares delivered a colt and a filly. After Hasty Matelda gave birth to her foal, she was replaced as a broodmare by Cicada. In 1969, both Cicada and Somethingroyal were bred to Bold Ruler, but Cicada didn’t conceive.

The famous coin toss took place in the autumn of 1969. Three foals were at stake: Hasy Matelda’s, Somethingroyal’s, and the unborn foal of Somethingroyal. It was agreed that the winner of the toss would get first choice of the three foals, and that the loser would keep the other two foals. Phipps won the toss, and he chose Somethingroyal’s weanling filly.

Chenery eagerly awaited the arrival of Somethingroyal’s foal. It arrived on March 30, 1970. It was a beautiful chestnut colt with a star, a white strip, and three white socks. The colt remained unnamed for months, due to the stringent rules of the Jockey Club, the registry for Thoroughbreds.

The Chenery colt was often called “Big Red” by his handlers and by those closest to him. The nickname was the same one given to the great Man O’ War, another chestnut. By the time the colt was a weanling, he finally got an official name—Secretariat. On her 11th try, Chenery’s secretary, Elizabeth Ham, was successful with her name submission to the Jockey Club.

According to those who knew Secretariat personally, he had a wonderful temperament and a playful attitude. He had been known to steal writing tablets from reporters and to hold a rake in his teeth and move it back and forth as if he were cleaning the stables. He also had an unusual way of running. He lifted his forelegs high before stretching them as far as he could.

Secretariat had a very close relationship with his groom, Eddie Sweat. Sweat once told a reporter, “Only way horses win is to sit there and spend time with ’em. Love ’em. Talk to ’em. Get to know ’em. Now, that’s what you gotta do. You love ’em and they’ll love you too. People may call me crazy, but that’s the way it is.”

Secretariat grew into a big, powerful horse. As an adult, he stood 16.2 hands tall and weighed almost 1200 pounds. He had a deep chest with a girth of 75 inches. He also had a thick neck and very muscular quarters. He began his official training as a racehorse on January 20, 1972, at Florida’s Hialeah Park.

Secretariat had an unimpressive start as a racehorse. In his first race, on July 4, 1972, at Aqueduct, he came in fourth. In his next five races, however, Secretariat outran his competitors. As a matter of fact, he wowed onlookers at the Hopeful Stakes by passing eight other racehorses in just a quarter of a mile and going on to win by five lengths.

After the five aforementioned wins, Secretariat came in first in the Belmont’s Champagne Stakes, but he was disqualified for bumping Greentree Stud’s Stop the Music on a turn. The track stewards awarded the win to Stop the Music and gave Secretariat second place. The two horses, however, would meet again as two-year-olds.

In November of 1972, both Secretariat and Stop the Music were entered in one of the most important events for two-year-olds in Thoroughbred racing. Held at the Laurel Park Racecourse in Laurel, Maryland, the Laurel Futurity measured 1 1/16 mile over turf. Secretariat won by eight lengths, with Stop the Music coming in second. After the Laurel, Secretariat also won the Garden State Futurity, once the richest contest in the world for two-year-old Thoroughbred racehorses. As a result of his impressive performances, Secretariat was awarded the Eclipse. He was also named American Horse of the Year, which is extremely rare for a two-year-old.

Secretariat’s horse racing career as a three-year-old started out well. He won the Bay Shore Stakes easily, and went on to nose out his competitors and win the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, tying the track record. In April of 1973, Secretariat was entered in the Wood Memorial, a testing ground for Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Secretariat came in third. Big Red’s stablemate, Angle Light, won, and Sham came in second. This was the last race Secretariat would compete in before the 1973 Kentucky Derby, and his loss in the Wood Memorial was unsettling. What had happened to the super horse?

There are two theories about Secretariat’s defeat. Many handicappers thought that the big chestnut just didn’t have the stamina for the Wood. It was 1 1/8-miles long, and Secretariat was used to shorter races. This had to concern his owner and trainer because the upcoming Kentucky Derby was even longer, at 1 ¼ miles. Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin, had another theory for Secretariat’s loss. He found a painful abscess in Big Red’s mouth and felt that the discomfort averted the horse’s concentration.

The Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby of 1973 was an exciting race. Secretariat and Angle Light were the favorites to win, with Sham being next in line. As he often did, Secretariat started out last, but he made his move in the backstretch. He passed Sham, the leader, and went on to win the race by 2 ½ lengths, setting a new track record, which has yet to be broken. To those who thought Secretariat lacked stamina, he proved them all wrong. Amazingly, the big red horse ran each quarter-mile of the race faster than the one before.

The 1973 Preakness

In May of 1973, Secretariat was entered in the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown of Thoroughbred racing. Secretariat again started from behind, but by the first turn, he overtook the field and won the race by 2 ½ lengths. Sham came in second place.

With two legs of the Triple Crown under his girth, Secretariat became a household name. Horse racing fans were hungry for another Triple Crown winner. After all, it had been 25 years since Citation’s Triple Crown win in 1948. Secretariat’s picture adorned the covers of Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek. His fans just couldn’t seem to get enough of him.

The 1973 Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown

The 1973 Belmont was held on June 9. Only five horses were entered, but it was really a match race between two great racehorses—Secretariat and Sham. Secretariat was the favorite, but Sham was certainly a contender. The two horses jumped out in front quickly and left the other three horses ten lengths behind. As Sham began to tire, Secretariat opened up an amazing distance. He won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths and set a new world record that stands to this day. The crowd went wild! America had another Triple Crown winner—the ninth one ever.

After winning the Belmont, Secretariat didn’t rest on his laurels. Just three weeks later, he won the Arlington Invitational. Next, he lost the Whitney Stakes by one length to Orion. He redeemed himself in the Marlboro Cup, beating Orion and Riva Ridge and setting another world record. Riva Ridge had won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont in 1972.

After the Marlboro, Secretariat was entered in the Woodward Stakes, but he lost to Prove Out. Next, he took on the field in the Man O’ War Stakes and won by five lengths and setting a new track record that has never been broken.

On October 22, 1973, Secretariat ran his last race—the International Stakes in Toronto, Canada. There were several concerns about this particular race for Big Red’s owner and trainer. For one thing, Secretariat had run on grass only once before. For another, he had never run such a long race—1 5/8 miles—before. Another problem was the jockey. Secretariat’s usual jockey, Ronnie Turcotte, was out because of a suspension, so Eddie Maple rode Big Red in the race. All these concerns didn’t seem to bother Secretariat. He won the International Stakes by 6 ½ lengths—a great ending to his racing career.

Secretariat once again earned the title of Horse of the Year, along with two Eclipse Awards. Secretariat had been placed in syndication, so he wasn’t allowed to race as a four-year-old or beyond. Even so, he had won 16 important races out of the 21 in which he competed. He had come in second in three races, and had placed third in one race. As a result, the famous racehorse won money in every race he ran except for one. His career racing earnings were $1,316,808. Not bad for a horse won on a coin toss.

After retiring from racing, Secretariat was sent to Claiborne Farm, where he stood at stud. The racing world was eager for his foals, and 57 of them went on to be stakes winners. Of his 653 offspring, many were disappointments. Most of them lacked the speed, power, and stamina of their famous sire. It was another story when it came to the broodmares produced by Secretariat, however. Many of the foals born to his daughters grew into great Thoroughbreds. You probably heard of some of Secretariat's descendants: Smarty Jones, A.P. Indy, Storm Cat, Gone West, and Elusive Quality.

During his years at Claiborne Farm, Secretariat might meet as many as 10,000 fans a year. People from all over made the drive to Kentucky to get a close look at the legendary champion. He loved all the attention and would often “pose” willingly for pictures.

The X Factor

How was Secretariat able to win so many races against so many excellent racehorses? And why were the foals born to his daughters so much more impressive, overall, than his own offspring? Many experts believe it was something called the X Factor—an abnormally large heart that can be carried only on the x-chromosome. In other words, Secretariat couldn’t pass on the propensity for a large heart to his sons, but he could pass it on to his daughters. In turn, the mares out of Secretariat could pass it on to their sons.


The Heart of the Matter

The heart of an adult Thoroughbred generally weighs around six to eight pounds, but occasionally a much larger heart is discovered with a necropsy. This phenomenon was first noticed with the famous racehorse Eclipse in the late 18th century. His heart weighed 14 pounds. Another great racehorse, Phar Lap, was discovered to have a heart just as large as that of Eclipse. When Secretariat was necropsied by his veterinarian, the heart was not weighed, but the attending vet estimated that it weighed 22 pounds. It was perfect in every way—just huge. Secretariat inherited his enormous heart from his dam. She was a descendant of one of Eclipse’s daughters.


The Death of a Legend

On October 4, 1989, Secretariat died at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. He had been suffering from laminitis. Laminitis is an inflammation of the laminae within the hoof, making it painful to walk or even stand. It can cause the coffin bone to rotate, or even worse, the coffin bone can sink in extreme cases. Laminitis is often difficult to diagnose in the early stages. By the time it was discovered in Secretariat, he was treated, but the laminitis did not respond favorably. After weeks of watching him suffer, the decision was made to have the great horse humanely euthanized. He was 19 at the time.

When a successful racehorse dies, its head, hooves, and heart are usually buried, and the rest of its body is cremated. Horses are large, heavy animals, and burying them in their entirety is difficult. Secretariat, however, was so loved and honored that he was buried whole at Claiborne Farm. The ceremony was private, but fans somehow found out about it soon. By the morning after, more than 100 flower arrangements adorned Secretariat’s grave. Since his death, an anonymous fan leaves 12 red roses on Secretariat’s grave every year on his birthday to honor and memorialize one of the greatest ever produced by Thoroughbred racing.


8765 on March 30, 2012:

secretariat is the best horse in the whole world. Secretariat is going to be on my birthday cake! I love secretariat so much!!!!!!!!

L. S. on December 12, 2011:

I am in love with this horse. Secretariat is AMAZING! I have the same B-day as him too! He was a great champion. Rest In Peace Big Red.

Randolph on December 11, 2011:

I met Secretariat in 1973 after he won the International Stakes. Absolutely powerful, stunning and beautiful horse. I cried when I saw the videos because you had to be there that day when he won, the excitement of the crowds, the victory of winning.

Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on August 19, 2011:

@habee...Great job on a great champion! You've said about everything that can be said about Secretariat -- but I'll say some more later, anyhow! I loved viewing his winning races again!

fashion on July 31, 2011:

This is very interesting hub.Pics are so beautiful.Well done.

Randy Mayzes on July 30, 2011:

I was twelve when I first heard of Secretariat. I was greatly intrigued by the Horse that God made. When he beat Sham in the Derby and went on to take the Preakness, I believed in my heart that I was seeing something truly phenominal !! The Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown were the logical conclusion to Big Red's run, But he made a statement that day that I will never forget !!! I'm still very emotional whenever I read a story or see any clips of his races. He was and always will be the best racehorse that ever lived ! The movie was good, but I don't know if it is possible to do the great horse justice in a film. I wish that I had ever had the opportunity to see him in person. I'm sure that those who've had that chance were touched by his immense heart !!! Secretariat, Big Red I am blessed to have lived during your lifetime !

Francesca27 from Hub Page on June 14, 2011:

I've been in Love with this horse for years. Thanks for the memories. I had chills all the way to the finish line of each race.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on June 11, 2011:

Atlanta, hope you get a great one!

Susan, thanks for reading!

SUSANJK from Florida on June 06, 2011:

Great hub. What an inspiring story.

Miss Lil' Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on May 25, 2011:

Wow really nice hub Habee!

Now, if only my next horse were more like Secretariat lol that would be pretty cool. I'm keeping my fingers crossed, although I have my doubts. :)

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on May 17, 2011:

Robert, I agree 100%!!

Robert Scott on May 06, 2011:

There can be only one...and he was that.The greatest to ever run.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on March 01, 2011:

Susie, thanks for reading!

SUSIE DUZY from Delray Beach, Florida on February 21, 2011:

I say the film and just loved it. Good hub.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 16, 2011:

Secretariat luver, glad you enjoyed the film!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 16, 2011:

Mochan, I think Secretariat is my favorite horse of all time! Except for the ones I've owned, of course. lol

secretariat luver on February 14, 2011:

i did my speech on secretariat, and it was awsome!! I have the movie, and it's awsome!!

Morgan Garcia from Texas on February 14, 2011:

I've been meaning to watch the movie, but I'm glad I read this first. Gives me a lot of perspective on the actual events before watching the movie.

Such an amazing horse!

Thanks for this great hub!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 05, 2011:

Thanks, Pamela. Secretariat was an amazing racehorse!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 05, 2011:

Many thanks, HH!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 05, 2011:

Same here, Born Again! I love the racing clips of Secretariat!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 05, 2011:

Austin, do you think we'll ever have another horse racing legend like Secretariat, Sea Biscuit, or Man O' War?

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 04, 2011:

Dahoglund, have you see the Sea Biscuit film?

Pamela Dapples from Arizona. on February 04, 2011:

Amazing article you have written here. So much new information that I didn't know. I loved the show. I saw it twice.

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 04, 2011:

Drbj, Secretariat was nothing short of spectacular!

Austin, so did I!

Holle Abee (author) from Georgia on February 04, 2011:

Feline, those videos are still thrilling to me!

Genna, glad you enjoyed it!

Hello, hello, from London, UK on February 04, 2011:

Thank you for so many details which I didn't know. A brilliantly written story.

Elisabeth Van Valkenburgh from Honesdale on February 03, 2011:

I remember watching Secretariat winning the Belmont like it was yesterday! I was glued to the tv every time he ran. I still have the newspaper clippings I cut out and saved of him. He was one super horse referred to as the horse God made! Great hub with lots of info I didn't know. Thanks for writing this.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on February 02, 2011:

Awesome hub. Thanks for the videos. It reminded me of when I watched the last TC winner!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on February 02, 2011:

I've never been to a horse race. I should probaly see the movie of Secretariat.

Lela from Somewhere near the heart of Texas on February 02, 2011:

I'm saving this hub to read later. Oh, I loved that horse!


drbj and sherry from south Florida on February 02, 2011:

Thank you, Holle, for these great videos. Secretariat was an amazing horse and his races were thrilling to watch. Especially the first two of these videos where he started out dead last and then overtook every horse to win. And in the third race, set a new record. Unbelievable.

Genna East from Massachusetts, USA on February 02, 2011:

Excellent timing. I plan to watch the film this weekend. Thank you for this informative and excellent hub!

Feline Prophet on February 02, 2011:

What great timing - I saw the film just yesterday and have been quite smitten by Secretariat since then! What a wonderful horse he was! Thanks for including the original videos! :)