With Secretariat however, one of the best ever to race in North America, the story comes with a number of interesting facts, twists and turns that could have changed the career of one of the greats for the long term.
The most interesting fact to start on however came to light before the American Triple Crown winner was ever born.
1. Secretariat’s Life Was Changed On The Toss Of A Coin
Penny Chenery is classed a little like Gai Waterhouse is in Australia, as The First Lady of American Horse racing. Her career stretched across many decades but she will forever be known for her association with the great Secretariat and his impeccable breeding.
However the success and fame could have all gone in a completely different direction but for the toss of a coin.
In 1968 Chenery entered into a unique foal-sharing agreement with Clairborne Farm’s owner Ogden Phipps where she would provide a mare in 1968 and 1969 to breed with Clairborne owned Bold Ruler.
The decision on who would receive which foal was decided on the toss of a coin with the winner allowed to have first choice on which foal they wished to keep.
Phipps won the coin toss and elected to take the first foal by Somethingroyal in 1969 with Chenery receiving a second foal from the same mare by Bold Ruler in 1970. The first foal was a filly called The Bride who was never able to win a race. The second was a huge chestnut colt foaled on 30th March 1970 who would be named Secretariat.
2. Secretariat was the first two year old Horse Of The Year
If you were on the receiving end of that coin toss you’d be forgiven at feeling slightly sick as Secretariat would go on to be one of the greatest racehorses ever. That affirmation is well documented amongst the racing community however Secretariat would become the first ever race horse to be crowned American Horse Of The Year as a two year old.
Secretariat won the accolade when edging out unbeaten filly La Prevoyante in the 1972 edition of the awards. Already at this stage of his career the big chestnut was emerging as one of the great racehorse for the way he casually demolished fields, either from off or on pace it really didn’t matter.
In his first start Secretariat was bumped badly in a chain reaction of events at Aqueduct but managed to stay on fourth just 1 ¼ lengths off the winner. This would be the only sticking point for the two year old as he would return to win by 6 lengths on his next start.
From this point the Lucien Laurin trained colt would not look back recording wins in the Sanford Stakes, Hopeful Stakes, Belmont Futurity, Champagne Stakes, Laurel Futurity and Garden State Futurity all at Group level in the same season.
Such was his performance in the Sanford Stakes, Sportswriter Andrew Beyer who covered the race for the Washington Star wrote "Never have I watched a lightly raced 2-year-old stamp himself so definitively as a potential great.”
3. It was already agreed Secretariat would not race past the 3yo season
Despite winning the American Triple Crown as a three year old it was already agreed that regardless of how great the big red chestnuts achievements he would not run another race passed that season.
The reason behind it is a rags to riches story that meant that Secretariat’s greatness saved the Meadow Stud breeding business.
Before Penny Chenery took over the business after her fathers passing she was hit with a hefty volume of state tax as well as debts associated to the Meadow Farm Stud. In order to save the business she was forced to syndicate Secretariat's breeding rights in order to raise the funds required to save the business.
In partnership with Clairborne Farms, Chenery syndicated a total of 32 shares at a price of $190,000 each. The Syndication raised over $6m in initial capital which Chenery would put towards paying existing business debts.
The practice is a well worn path in Australia with the likes of Golden Slipper winner, Capitalist or Doncaster Mile winner Brutal being retired after there three year old seasons however with Secretariat operating at a far more dominant and superior level it would have been a bitter pill for connections to agree to but a necessary one given the ongoing debts the business held.
4. Secretariat’s records still stand today
It was undoubted that Secretariat’s greatest achievements came when he was a three year old. During the season he was able to win the triple crown of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and finally the Belmont Stakes.
During these races Secretariat wasn’t able to just win the race but he was able to absolutely demolish the opposition.
On May 5th 1973 at Churchill Downs Secretariat would line up in the Kentucky Derby in front of a crowd of 134,476. To this day that remains the largest crowd to attend a race day in North American history.
It was almost fate that when Secretariat would run in the Derby he would create a record to match the crowd when winning the race in a time of 1 minute 59.4 seconds. It was the first time the Derby was run in under two minutes and is a record that still stands to this day.
What was most impressive about the win was that Secretariat's sectional times got quicker as he went through the race which meant he was still accelerating when he came to the line. The successive quarter-mile times were :25.2, :24, :23.8, :23.4, and :23.
The big chestnut would go on to then set a course record on the second leg of the Triple Crown in the Preakness Stakes with a time of 1 min 53 seconds he would then go on to win the Belmont Stakes by a jaw dropping 31 Lengths.
Such was the dominance of the great Secretariat it is documented that after his Belmont Stakes win where punters who backed ‘Big Red’ netted a cool $0.20 on the dollar, most preferred to keep there tickets as souvenirs.
5. Secretariat became a celebrity
In the lead up to the final leg of the Triple Crown Secretariat became a celebrity with fans scrambling to see the great at races and craving for more content around the big chestnut when he was away from the track.
Noted for his impeccable breeding, his size and muscular physique as well as his bright red Chestnut coat, Secretariat was eye catching when entering the track however he was becoming more eye catching away from the track as well with press featuring him in a number of magazines and newspapers.
In the week of the Belmont Stakes Secretariat had features in Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek magazines with the big chestnut featuring on the front page of all.
Such was Secretariat’s rise to fame the Chenery family were forced to hire a secretary to handle the triple crown winners fan mail as well as hiring the William Morris Agency to act as the colt’s agent. He was the first horse in American history to have a Hollywood Agent!!
In the coming years Secretariat would be inducted into the Horseracing Hall Of Fame, The US Postal Service issued a commemorative Secretariat stamp after him and he would be the first Equine entrant into ESPN’s top 100 athletes of the 20th Century.
Secretariat would also go on to have a film created after his legacy which was created by Walt Disney in 2010.
6. Secretariat’s breeding career was a hit and a miss
In his retirement Secretariat officially sired 663 foals of which just over half went on to register a win with 54 of those winning at Stakes grade or better. Despite having a 51.4% win record from his offspring there was criticism that Big Red had failed to produce any foals of his own ability or a leading son that could continue his legacy after racing.
Despite this he was still able to produce a number of successful runners including Kingston Rule who was able to win the 1990 Melbourne Cup and also set a course record at the same time similar to the achievements of his father before him.
Whilst there is mixed opinion on how good Secretariats career was after racing there is definitely a strong legacy through his daughters who have produced many successful stakes or group winners across the globe.
Particularly through his daughters Weekend Surprise and Terlingua, Secretariat has been able to produce a number of Kentucky Derby winners and Stakes winners like Orb, California Chrome and Tapit. A handful have also gone on to win Horse of the Year awards as well as a number of breeding accolades.
7. In death Secretariat continued to break the trend
Secretariat was euthanised as a 19 year old in the Autumn of 1989 after a rare hoof condition became painful and didn’t respond to treatment. The legend of racing was buried whole at Clairborne Stud Farm.
What really stood out for Secretariat though was during the post mortem where it was discovered that the triple crown winner had an abnormally large heart. It was said to be around two and a half times the size that of a normal racehorse.
The vet who would complete the necropsy Dr. Thomas Swerczek, head pathologist at the University of Kentucky, did not weigh Secretariat's heart, but stated, "We just stood there in stunned silence. We couldn't believe it. The heart was perfect. There were no problems with it. It was just this huge engine."
An extremely large heart can be traced back to another great racehorse called Eclipse. Eclipse, who was necropsied after his death in 1789 was found to have a heart weighing 6.4kgs and is said to have passed this on through his breeding bloodlines.
Secretariat traces his dam line to Eclipse and was said to have a heart weighing around 10.0kgs and much larger than the average racehorse. Is it yet to be proven whether this gives horses a performance edge but is seen in many top performing horses.
8. Recognition for Secretariat continues to this day
It is undoubted that Secretariat leaves behind an impressive legacy but what is just as impressive is the love Americans have for ‘Big Red’ much like Australians have for the champion mare Winx.
In 1994 Sports Illustrated listed Secretariat at number 17 of there 40 greatest sports figures in the past 40 years.
In 1999 ESPN listed Secretariat 35th of 100 in the 100 Greatest North American athletes of all time. He was one of only three none humans on the list and ranked the highest of those three overall.
In 2005 in an episode of ESPN’s iconic show Who’s Number One? Secretariat finished second on the “Greatest Sports Performances Ever” behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game.
In March 2016, Secretariat's Triple Crown victory was rated #13 in the Sports Illustrated listing of the 100 Greatest Moments in Sports History
Away from the sports arena it is believed that there are 263 roads in the US named after the big chestnut which is said to be more than any other athlete.
How it could have all been so different if it hadn’t have been for a coin toss!!