In ESPN’s list of the top 50 athletes of the 20th century, 49 of them relied on two legs to help them achieve their athletic glory. Only one — ranked 35th of the 50 — relied on four legs, which is usually the case with horses.
But this was not your usual horse. This was Secretariat, “Big Red” as he was called, arguably the greatest racehorse of all time. In 1973, when this son of Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal won the Triple Crown, he was the first horse to do so in 25 years, and he set a world record in two of those three races (a malfunctioning clock in the other race, the Preakness, prevented him from setting a record there as well). In the Kentucky Derby, which he won by 2 and 1/2 lengths, Secretariat crossed the finish line in 1:59.25, becoming the only horse ever to break two minutes.
But it was in the Triple Crown’s final leg, the Belmont Stakes, that Secretariat became a legend by winning in a world-record time of 2:24 and finishing an astonishing 31 lengths ahead of his nearest rival. The gap between Secretariat and the second-place horse, Twice A Prince, was so wide that CBS Television, which broadcast the race, had to use its widest-angle lens and even then it barely was able to fit the two horses in the same shot.
And history was made. The following week “Big Red” was on the cover of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. That year he earned “Horse of the Year” for the second year in a row. “Big Red” fever became so widespread, the William Morris Agency was hired to oversee his personal appearances. Not since Seabiscuit in the 1930s had a horse so captured the imagination of America, and the speculation over which of those two magnificent animals would prevail in a head-to-head duel is debated in bars and race tracks even today. Most give the nod to “Big Red.”
After the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat raced six more times, winning four and finishing second twice. In November of ’73 he was retired and put to stud at the Clairborne Farm in Kentucky, and although he sired more than 600 foals in a stud career spanning 16 years, including the 1988 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner, Risen Star, none of his offspring could ever match the standard he set.
Suffering from the terrible pain of laminitis, a hoof disease, Secretariat was given a lethal injection and died this week (Oct. 4) in 1989. An autopsy revealed that his heart was more than twice as large as that of the average horse, which only confirmed medically what Secretariat’s legions of fans instinctively had known all along.