Big Red: The Legendary Story of Secretariat, Horse Racing‘s Greatest Champion

In 1973, a massive chestnut stallion with a fiery reddish coat captivated the nation by achieving what no horse had done in a quarter century – winning the Triple Crown. That horse was Secretariat, who earned the nickname "Big Red" and secured his place as one of the most celebrated icons in horse racing history. His record-shattering performances have never been duplicated in the last 50 years. Let‘s look at the incredible journey of Secretariat, from his early origins to his unprecedented Triple Crown run to his lasting legacy as one of the sport‘s immortal champions.

The Making of a Champion

The story of Secretariat begins even before he was born. His owner, businessman and horseman Christopher Chenery, sent his broodmare Somethingroyal to be bred by Bold Ruler, seeking to create a new champion. Bold Ruler had demonstrated tremendous speed and stamina in winning the 1957 Preakness Stakes and Horse of the Year honors. Somethingroyal too came from an accomplished bloodline as the daughter of Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. The pairing exemplified thoughtful, quality breeding aimed at producing excellence.

On March 30, 1970, the result of this pairing was born, a strapping chestnut colt with three white socks and a star on his forehead. Chenery‘s Meadow Farm staff took notice, nicknaming the young foal "Big Red" for his already sizable frame and striking reddish coat.

As Secretariat matured, his physical gifts were undeniable. Standing over 17 hands and weighing nearly 1,200 pounds at his peak, he was a sculpted, muscular athlete. Under the guidance of trainer Lucien Laurin, Big Red began conditioning at Belmont Park to ready himself for the rigors of professional racing. Laurin implemented a strenuous but carefully managed regimen – regular gallops of up to 4 miles followed by leisurely grazes in the grass to rest. This built the colt‘s foundational endurance and stamina.

"You could see he was something special even as a young foal," Laurin later remarked. "He just had a charisma about him and showed the potential for greatness."

By the fall of his two-year-old season, Secretariat had already won 7 of 9 starts and clinched divisional Horse of the Year honors. But his career-defining moment was still to come.

The 1973 Triple Crown

Going into the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat was one of the favorites but still relatively untested. Under jockey Ron Turcotte, Big Red stalked the leaders for most of the race before exploding to the front down the stretch, pulling away to win by 2 1/2 lengths in a stakes record time of 1:59 2/5. His late charge was so sudden and decisive it left the crowd breathless.

Two weeks later, Secretariat followed up with a similarly dominant 2 1/2 length victory at the Preakness, just shy of the track record. He demonstrated the ability to set relaxed early speeds then accelerate almost instantly when called upon.

By the Belmont Stakes, the third leg of the Triple Crown, Secretariat had captured national attention and appeared on magazine covers as the horse to usher in the first Triple Crown triumph since Citation in 1948. Over a crowd of over 67,000, Secretariat delivered an otherworldly performance that was unlike anything seen before or since.

Charging from behind early leader Sham, Secretariat seemed to hit a gear no other horse possessed, tearing down the home stretch at almost 40 feet per stride and pulling away to an unthinkable 31 length victory. His time of 2:24 for the 1.5 mile race shattered the stakes record by a full 2 seconds. To put this in perspective, this would be like winning a 1-mile race in 1:57, at speeds over 37 mph. Secretariat had demonstrated a level of speed, stamina and dominance fitting of a true legend in the making.

"I didn‘t know records could be broken by that much," said awestruck rival jockey Jacinto Vasquez. "Amazing, just amazing."

The Heart of a Champion

So how did Secretariat manage such extraordinary feats? Part of the explanation could be found after his passing in his massive heart, weighing over 22 pounds. This was more than two times larger than the normal equine heart.

Veterinarian Dr. Thomas Swerczek, who performed the autopsy, remarked he had never seen such cardiac dimensions in over 300 necropsies, saying it "had to be able to pump a tremendous amount of oxygen."

With each pump, Big Red‘s oversized turbine was likely able to propel significantly more oxygenated blood through his system, fueling tremendous speed and endurance. This structural gift, coupled with ideal musculature and temperament, combined to make Secretariat a winner in every sense.

The Measure of Greatness

Secretariat‘s 1973 performances made him the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. He set or broke stakes records in all three classic races – marks that still stand today. His 31-length Belmont triumph is considered the single greatest performance by any thoroughbred in history.

For these monumental achievements, Big Red was again named Horse of the Year, becoming one of only two horses at that time to earn this honor twice. By the age of three, he had landed on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

After retiring from racing, Secretariat‘s popularity never waned. He became the subject of several books and was recognized through events like Secretariat Day at Arlington Park. As a breeding stallion, he sired over 600 foals, passing down his remarkable genetics. His likeness endures on merchandise, artwork and more.

Simply put, Secretariat captured the heart of America and the world in a way few athletes have managed before or since. While impossible to definitively rank horses across eras, Secretariat belongs in the company of elite thoroughbreds like Man O‘ War, Citation and Seattle Slew. His rare combination of raw talent, work ethic, and heart made him a once-in-a-lifetime runner. Even today, Big Red remains horse racing‘s consummate superstar.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 3 / 5. Vote count: 2

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.