2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the racehorse Secretariat (March 30, 1970 – October 4, 1989) winning the Triple Crown in 1973, a feat that had not been achieved since it was won by Citation in 1948.
Secretariat, also known as Big Red (a nickname shared with Man O’War), was the ninth winner of Triple Crown, setting and still holding record fastest time in all three races – the Kentucky Derby, the Belmont Stakes and the Preakness Stakes. He spent much of his career in New York State, and was notably beaten at Saratoga Race Course in 1973, but the only three races he ever lost were in New York State.
At his first race on July 4, 1972, at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, NY, Secretariat was the favorite but was bumped hard at the start and finished fourth. In later races Secretariat hung back at the start and came back on later in the race to win by big margins, which has been attributed to the bumping he received in his first race. When Secretariat returned on July 15, again as the favorite, he broke badly but passed the field on the turn to win by six lengths.
Secretariat’s commanding win on July 31 in an allowance race at Saratoga Race Course, inspired veteran New York sportswriter Charles Hutton to later write:
“You carry an ideal around in your head, and boy, I thought, ‘This is it.’ I never saw perfection before. I absolutely could not fault him in any way. And neither could the rest of them and that was the amazing thing about it. The body and the head and the eye and the general attitude. It was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes, frankly.”
At the Sanford Stakes in Saratoga that August, Secretariat faced Linda’s Chief, the only horse ever to be favored against Secretariat, winning by three lengths. Ten days later in the Hopeful Stakes, Secretariat passed eight horses within 1⁄4 mile to take the lead and then win by five lengths. His time of 1:161⁄5 for 6+1⁄2 furlongs was only 3⁄5 of a second off the Saratoga.
At Belmont Park in Hempstead, Nassau County, NY, on September 16th he won the Belmont Futurity by a length and a half and then won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont on October 14 by two lengths, but was later disqualified for interfering with another horse, Stop the Music, who was declared the winner.
Secretariat then won the Laurel Futurity in Laurel, Maryland on October 28 by eight lengths over Stop the Music on a sloppy track (just 1⁄5 of a second off the track record). His last race that season was in the Garden State Futurity at the now defunct Garden State Park Racetrack in Cherry Hill, New Jersey on November 18th, winning by 3 1⁄2 lengths.
Secretariat wintered in Florida and did not race until March 17, 1973, when he won the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct as the heavy favorite after encountering traffic. In the Gotham Stakes on April 7th Secretariat won by three lengths, matching the track record.
In his last race before the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, he finished third in a loss attributed to a large abscess in his mouth, which made him sensitive to the bit.
On May 5, 1973 in the Kentucky Derby, in front of the largest crowd in the history of North American racing, Secretariat broke last from post position (10), cut to the rail and moved as they entered the stretch beating Sham by 2 1⁄2 lengths with a still standing track record.
Then at the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Maryland held on two weeks later. Secretariat won by 2 1⁄2 lengths ahead of Sham, again in front of a record crowd, and at a record time. For the first time in history that the top three finishers in the Derby and Preakness were the same (Secretariat, Sham, and Our Native) as was the distance between each of the horses.
While preparing for the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park Secretariat had become a national celebrity, appearing on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. In the race watched by 15 million people on television (more than half of all TV viewers at the time), he won by 31 lengths, breaking the track record, the Triple Crown margin-of-victory record, and the record for the fastest 1 1/2 mile race on a dirt track a 2:24 (you can watch it here). Bettors holding 5,427 winning parimutuel tickets on Secretariat never redeemed them, instead keeping them as souvenirs (they would have paid $2.20 on a $2 bet).
Secretariat just missed the Arlington Park (outside Chicago) track record on June 30th in the Arlington Invitational.And went to Saratoga to face older horses for the first time.
At Saratoga, known as “the graveyard of champions,” Big Red lost the Whitney Stakes to Onion, a four-year-old gelding who had recently set the track record at 6 1⁄2 furlongs. The loss is sometimes attributed to a viral infection, which caused a low-grade fever and diarrhea. On September 15, Secretariat was at Belmont for the inaugural Marlboro Cup and set a world record on dirt for the distance.
Big Red lost the Woodward Stakes at Belmont, but won the Man o’ War Stakes there nine days later on the turf. Then at Woodbine in Toronto, Secretariat won the Canadian International Stakes, his last race. Following the race Secretariat was brought to Aqueduct and paraded in front of before the crowd for his last public appearance. He had won 16 of his 21 races (he took second three times and was once third).
In the fall of 1989, Secretariat became afflicted with the painful and debilitating hoof condition laminitis. Rather then let him suffer, he was euthanized on October 4 at the age of 19 and buried whole at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky (traditionally only the head, heart, and hooves of a winning race horse are buried).
Secretariat, who was named to associate the horse with the secretariat of the League of Nations (the predecessor of the United Nations), was inducted into Saratoga’s National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974. Also at the Hall of Fame is a life-size statue of Secretariat that stood in the center of the walking ring at Belmont Park from 1974 to 1988 (it was replaced at Belmont by a replica).
Photo: Secretariat by Marshall P. Hawkins.