Every generation has its heroes and stars, whether they are on the radio, the silver screen, or on the field of competition. It’s no different for horse racing. This past spring saw a great deal of excitement over the prospects of there being a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 34 years. I’ll Have Another captured the public’s imagination, and until he was injured, seemed on the cusp of joining a rare group of thoroughbreds; the Triple Crown winners. The 1970’s yielded three Triple Crown winners in Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed. Before Secretariat, racing had gone through a drought of 25 years and left fans at the time wondering if there would ever be another horse that could pull off the difficult feat of winning three distinctly different races in less than two months. Secretariat broke that drought and we will begin with him, in what will be a three part series, as DerbyDeals.com takes a look back at the only Triple Crown winners in the age of modern television.
Independence Day in 1972 kicked off Secretariat’s journey which would eventually end in him being called the greatest race horse of all-time. The red chestnut colt was dubbed Big Red, and along with owner Penny Chenery, groom Eddie Sweat, and jockey Ron Turcotte, they combined to become the toast of the sporting world for a brief period in 1973. Secretariat had an uneventful start to his career as he finished fourth in his maiden trip at Aqueduct Park. It was the only time that he didn’t win, place, or show in a race. As a two-year-old, he would go on to race eight more times in just six months. Seven of those races would wind up in the victory column for Secretariat, and he finished second to Stop The Music in the Champagne Stakes, held at Belmont Park. The future looked very bright as he won the 1972 Horse of the Year Award and was proclaimed the Eclipse Award winner for two-year-old males.
As good as 1972 was to Secretariat and his team, 1973 would prove to be epic. He ran in three races in preparation for the Kentucky Derby, winning two of those (Bayshore Stakes, Gotham Stakes) and finished third behind his stable mate, Angle Light, and emerging rival, Sham, in the Wood Memorial. It was the final time he would cross the finish line behind another horse for several months. Sham was considered to be the favorite going into the Derby that year, but how was anyone to know that Secretariat would emerge as an unstoppable force? After all, he had only dominated one race wire-to-wire in his career, and Sham was coming off a second place finish in the Wood Memorial and a win in the Santa Anita Derby. The Triple Crown journey began with Secretariat defeating Sham by three lengths in the Kentucky Derby, breaking the race’s record time by posting a trip that took him only 1:59.40 to complete. The Preakness was up next, and once again, Sham provided the competition. Out of the gate, Secretariat started a bit slow and trailed around the first turn. Moments later, he put on an incredible burst of speed and by the time the field had made it through the second turn, he was challenging Sham for the lead. Sham and Secretariat pulled away from the field and battled one another down the stretch with Secretariat again winning by three lengths. At the time it was not known, due to a faulty clock, that the time Secretariat ran was a flat 1:53. It would take almost 40 years for that record to be corrected and recognized officially. The Belmont Stakes was on tap and the public was excited about the possibility of seeing the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. The Belmont had only five horses enter, but it became obvious that only one was competing that day and he was competing against the track itself. Secretariat started well, hanging with the field around the first turn, before he and Sham pulled away a bit from the rest of the pack. Along the back stretch he overtook Sham, who eventually tired and finished last. Secretariat had started to put a great distance between him and the field through the final turns. At the top of the home stretch, Turcotte checked over his shoulder to see the lead at an incredible 18 lengths. That distance was increased upon as Secretariat set a blistering pace approaching the wire, where he won by an amazing 31 lengths and shattered the previous Belmont Stakes record by two full seconds.
The racing world had their first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century and it didn’t take very long for people to realize that they had been witness to a special series of events. Only three weeks after achieving glory, he was back on the track again, winning the non-graded Arlington Invitational at Arlington Park. The remainder of 1973 held five more races for the great chestnut colt, and they would be the final contests in what was a brief, whirlwind 18-month career. He would go on to win three of those races, including his finale in the Canadian International, and once again was named Horse of the Year while winning two more Eclipse Awards.
In his career, Secretariat won 16 of his 21 races, with 14 of those being major stakes or Triple Crown races. He also won six major horse racing awards and was honored with a postage stamp, two statues (Belmont Park, Kentucky Horse Park), as well as having been voted into the U.S. Racing Hall of Fame, and the Kentucky Athletic Association Hall of Fame. In 2010, Disney released a movie documenting his life and career. In 1989, Secretariat died after a battle with a hoof condition, but his legacy lives on as he continues to loom large in the sport and in American culture.