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TrackNotes: Secretariat Knew

The second of three parts.

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"All was of a piece, in proportion (Charles) Hatton (of the Daily Racing Form) thought. Secretariat had depth of barrel, with well-sprung ribs for heart and lung room, and he was not too wide in the front fork, nor too close together, and he came packaged with tremendous hindquarters. It was as straight a hindleg as Hatton had ever seen and would serve as a source of great propulsive power."

- "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion" by William Nack.

Secretariat had been regally bred, the son of the great sire Bold Ruler, out of the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal.

The earliest notes on him, before he even had a name, pretty much said "he's real good lookin', and a nice kid, too." He really didn't need breaking, at least not the bronco kind you see on TV westerns, but he did have a learning curve. As with any great athlete, his mind had to catch up with his body, and then his body had to catch up with his mind.

Sure, Secretariat was a precocious two-year-old, but those can be dime-a-dozen. His transition into his three-year-old year went about as well as it possibly could.

With the big rear end, the straight legs, huge lung and blood-pumping capacity, and his great size, he was a phenomenon waiting to happen.

Famously, after Secretariat's death at 19 in 1989, it was discovered that his heart was two-and-a-half times the size of a normal heart for a horse his size. Not enlarged. Just big. There's an equine gene for it. He had that too.

The record is clear. Two-Year-Old Champion and Horse of the Year in 1972, Three-Year-Old Male Champion, Male Turf Champion and Horse of the Year in 1973. Triple Crown winner in 1973. Lifetime record of 16-3-1 in 21 total starts that were compressed, by today's standards, into 12 total calendar months of racing. He won short, middle and long distances, on slop, fast dirt, turf. He went eleven sixteenths of a mile - the shortest - in his first race, and a mile and five eighths - the longest - in his final race. He earned $1,316,808 in his racing career. He was the leading broodmare sire in North America in 1992.

Was Secretariat the greatest Thoroughbred racehorse who ever lived?

The same 16.2 hands as Secretariat, Man o' War had a bad start (no starting gate in 1919, just a mustering at the start line with a volleyball net-type barrier raised to start the race) and a bad ride in the Sanford Stakes, a race Secretariat would win 53 years later, and lost to Upset. A loss so shocking, "upset" quickly became a part of the American sports lexicon.

It was the only race Man o' War lost. He didn't win what would 10 years hence become the Triple Crown because his owner, Charles Riddle, didn't think he could possibly be ready for the Kentucky Derby. But the original "Big Red" did win the Preakness and the Belmont.

Citation, the epitome of the American work ethic, ran 45 times, winning 32. He won 16 consecutive races, the 16th (equaled by Cigar in 1994-96) after missing his four-year-old season with an injury. He ran a lot, perhaps too much, and usually with the highest weight in the race, so that his owners could be the first with a horse to reach the magical $1 million earnings mark.

Kelso may not have won the Triple Crown, but he was Horse of the Year five times from 1960-1964 and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup those same five years. He just won, a lot.

Whirlaway? Affirmed? Seattle Slew? Spectacular Bid? Seabiscuit?

Go anywhere there's a horse fan and you'll get an argument. But it's difficult to argue against Secretariat.

He lost five times and may have had a legitimate excuse in three of those. He was beat up in traffic in his first race, he had a mouth abscess in the Wood Memorial, and he was not well in the Woodward. Plus, he was disqualified from first to second in the Champagne. It can be argued that his connections may have run him at times when they shouldn't have.

He was what they call visually impressive, in spades. When he won, Big Red won big, open lengths, what seemed like a full furlong in the Belmont Stakes. He ran each and every quarter in the Kentucky Derby faster than the last! He was on the threshold of the track or stakes record in most of his races and he broke them in his Triple Crown races, the human timing screwup in the Preakness notwithstanding. He nearly broke the Arlington track record in what was for him a supermarket ribbon-cutting appearance. Secretariat was just plain fast.

Secretariat captured the imagination of the nation, racking up record television ratings and grabbing the covers of major magazines of the time. He wasn't plucky, like Seabiscuit. He was Chick Anderson's "tremendous machine," the power and speed of the Saturn V rocket, Craig Breedlove on the salt flats. But he was nice about it. They say he knew what he was and what he could do, and that he loved to do it. And they say he enjoyed the fans enjoying him.

To be sure, there was some not to like about Secretariat's connections.

We can see-saw all day on every single issue. Facing a large inheritance tax bill (no, Meadow Stable was not nearly bankrupt at the time; Riva Ridge saw to that the previous two years), Big Red was syndicated to stud before he ever ran as a three-year-old. It was why he never ran as a four-year-old and you could argue that it might have been the seeds of today's breeding profit-over-racing philosophy.

The horsewoman in Penny Chenery held some sway as Bold Ruler's offspring were not the greatest turning into their third year, nor did they necessarily excel at the classic distances. Rather than take the cash outlays of the Arlington Invitational or the Marlboro Cup, I would have rather seen Secretariat in the Travers and/or the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

But would anybody have raced him? And I guess you have to give them credit for getting at least as far west as Arlington.

The $6,080,000 syndication at $190,000 per share was a record at the time. Dealing with horseflesh has always been a business and the Chenerys had a decision to make. They maximized Secretariat's value. There were those who turned down a share in Secretariat's offspring at the $190K price tag. Hell, Mrs. Phipps gave up on Seabiscuit. All part of the game.

And how remarkable it is that we revisit the great Secretariat just as today's Zenyatta has won all 19 of her races and prepares for her 20th and final run. Imagine, 19 straight! But her legacy is also puzzling to us as the scales of immortal justice preclude the Triple Crown for her on the one hand, and weigh her parochial campaigns on the synthetic surfaces of California on the other.

Save a four-year-old season, we have no such reservations about Big Red.

In the 21st century's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately or I-only-know-what-I-just-saw mindsets, there are those who, in a most vitriolic style, downplay or dismiss Secretariat in favor of the big mare from California. Please don't be so short-sighted for the sake of a forum post.

Today, there's not much time to fall in love with a racehorse. Owners seem to care more about breeding, trainers more about their stats - neither of them willing to take on each other the way they should. The game suffers. Through no fault of hers, Zenyatta's reputation suffers.

Been plenty who've done much, even won more than Big Red. There's room for every single one of them in our racing memories.

But there is only one Secretariat.

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Pt. 1: Secretariat's Not Impossible Story

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Next Week: Secretariat: The Impossible True Story. A review.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday and welcomes your comments.

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