The 2023 Belmont Stakes celebrates the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown sweep.
The legend known as “Big Red” is impossible to miss, from the statue in the Belmont Park paddock to the cartoon logo for the race that features his likeness.
Secretariat’s story has captivated racing fans of all ages and backgrounds for several logical reasons. Here, we’ll dive into some of the “why” behind that.
Reliving Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown wins
Secretariat actually entered the 1973 Kentucky Derby off of a loss.
He was beaten in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, and his start was far from auspicious. He broke slowest of 13 runners on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.
However, for the first of several times during the Triple Crown, Secretariat did something horses aren’t supposed to do. Instead of getting slower as the race went on, he and jockey Ron Turcotte ran each quarter-mile faster than the previous one. The result was a last-to-first victory in a track-record time of 1:59 ⅖.
Two weeks later, he won the Preakness at Pimlico. He moved from last to first around the clubhouse turn and coasted home. That race’s time was a subject of controversy for decades before the Maryland Jockey Club stepped in in 2012. Secretariat was ruled to have run the race in 1:53 flat, which gave him yet another track record.
Secretariat ensures immortality in 1973 Belmont Stakes
Just four other 3-year-olds lined up against Secretariat in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Sports Illustrated reporter Bill Nack (who literally wrote the book on Secretariat) discussed the atmosphere at his barn the morning of the race as part of ESPN’s SportsCentury series:
“The fittest I have ever seen a horse. His eyes were big as saucers, his nostrils were flared, he was nickering, his ears were playing, his muscles were rippling, and he was walking around on his hind legs. I remember thinking to myself, ‘boy, what are we gonna see today?’”
What racing fans saw was one of the most dominant performances in American horse racing history. After dueling rival Sham into defeat early in the race, Secretariat quickly moved away from the rest of the field. Track announcer Chic Anderson’s call has moved into horse racing lore:
“Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine! Secretariat by twelve, Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn! Sham is dropping back. It looks like they’ll catch him today, as My Gallant and Twice a Prince are both coming up to him now. But Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses!”
He hit the wire clear by 31 lengths and stopped the timer in 2:24 flat. Five decades later, that remains the fastest time for a 1 ½-mile race in North American history.
No other Belmont winner has come close. The fastest time since Secretariat was posted in 1989, when New York horse racing fan favorite Easy Goer crushed Triple Crown hopeful Sunday Silence in 2:26 flat. Still, Easy Goer would have finished roughly 10 lengths behind Secretariat.
Hollywood errors and omissions
If you think this sounds like a Hollywood movie script, you’d be right. The movie Secretariat hit theaters in 2010 and did reasonably well, grossing more than $60 million at the box office.
Much of what you might think you know, however, may not be accurate.
For one thing, Secretariat was only part of what transformed Meadow Stable into a prominent horse racing enterprise. One year earlier, Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and may have been denied the Triple Crown by a wet track at the Preakness. Riva Ridge was inducted into horse racing’s Hall of Fame in 1998, yet isn’t mentioned in the movie.
In addition, the movie correctly portrays Sham as Secretariat’s chief rival. He ran second in both the Derby and the Preakness. However, it acts as though Sham won the Wood Memorial. He did not; in fact, that race’s winner, Angle Light, shared the same trainer as Secretariat (Lucien Laurin).
Finally, Los Angeles Times horse racing writer Bill Christine panned the portrayals of several major horse racing figures. In particular, he deemed the on-screen version of Sham’s trainer, Frank “Pancho” Martin, “overheated,” and the likeness of Ogden Phipps as “embittered.”
What happened to Secretariat after the Belmont Stakes?
Secretariat raced six more times after the Belmont and recorded four more wins. He finished his career with 16 wins in 21 lifetime outings, and earned Horse of the Year honors in both 1972 and 1973.
Prior to his 3-year-old season, Secretariat was syndicated as a stallion prospect for a then-record $6 million. While he did sire Hall of Fame runner Lady’s Secret, his most profound influence in the breeding shed came by way of his daughters as broodmares. Secretariat’s bloodlines are carried through many prominent males thrown by those mares, including Storm Cat and AP Indy.
Secretariat passed away in 1989 after a battle with laminitis. Famously, an autopsy of the great horse revealed a massively enlarged heart, one that almost certainly contributed to his on-track exploits and records still celebrated 50 years later.