Secretariat – Competitiveness
“You could say, ‘Hey, it’s nothing but a horse race.’ I’m sorry, this horse was an athlete… His heart was well over twice as large as any horse’s heart that we’ve ever seen, which is a fitting metaphor for him.”
When we decided on the most competitive male athlete of all time, Michael Jordan was the obvious choice. When we selected the most competitive female of all time, there was no doubt that Babe Didrikson Zaharias ranked at the top of the list. In fact, every person that we ranked second or third in that category paled in comparison. So, to select a third role model that represented “competitiveness,” we had to go outside the box. Perhaps the most competitive athlete of all time was not a human being. It was a horse by the name of Secretariat. Indeed, when ESPN counted down the 25 most significant accomplishments in sports, Secretariat’s 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes — securing the third leg of the legendary Triple Crown — in 1973 was rated the second best performance by an athlete in the 20th century.
This story begins with a coin toss. Penny Chenery was the owner of Meadow Stables in Virginia. She arranged to have two of her mares breed with a champion sire named Bold Ruler from a neighboring stable for two consecutive years. Per the agreement, the two stable owners flipped a coin to decide which year each stable would receive the offspring from these horses. Penny lost the coin flip, which meant that Meadow Stables would have to wait for the second breeding. Penny would then receive the offspring from 1969. The result was only one foal and this was a horse that would be known to all as Secretariat.
Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970. He had an unusually large stature and possessed a bright-red chestnut coat of hair. Within 45 minutes the young foal was able to stand on his own. When experts examined his measurements, they said he was the “perfect horse.” According to historian Bill Nack, “Not only did he have natural phenomenal ability, anatomically he was almost without flaw.” This horse also loved to show off. If the press were around, he was aware: “First click of the camera, the ears would go up. He’d swell up and pose, like ‘look at me, I’m The Man.’ And he was. He knew it. He put on a show.”
When they began riding this young stallion, everyone agreed that they had a real racehorse on their hands. So, Penny hired a team that might guide Secretariat to the top. The list included groomer Eddie Sweat, trainer Lucien Laurin, and jockey Ron Turcotte. With his champion pedigree, near-perfect measurements, and this competent team behind him, Secretariat began his racing career in the summer of 1972 as a 2-year-old.
Secretariat got off to an unpromising start. Coming out of the gate at his first race at Aqueduct Racetrack, he got sandwiched between two horses. He immediately went to the back of the pack before managing a 4th place finish. It would be the only time he finished out of the money. This initial race shaped his racing career in two significant ways. First, Secretariat would prefer to start most races in the back of the pack to avoid similar bumps with other horses. This frequently made him a come-from-behind horse. Second, his handlers noted that Secretariat hated losing. He was a competitor. “Every time he’d get beat, he’d go in the back of the stall,” stated groomer, Eddie Sweat. “He wouldn’t want to be bothered. He’d be thinking about it. Every time he got beat, he would come back and set a track record in the next race.”
In fact, Secretariat finished that first racing season with seven wins and one second, and was named “Horse of the Year” by the Daily Racing Form. It was the first time in history that a two-year-old had received such an honor. Why was this so rare? Because in the world of horse racing, all eyes are placed on the third year of life. This is the time that horses typically are their fastest.
Only three-year-old horses are allowed to run in the iconic Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes — the three races that make up the triple crown of horse racing. Fair or not, to be considered one of the greatest racehorses of all time, a horse must win all three in the same year. To date, only 13 horses have achieved this illustrious feat. And, before the 1973 season, no horse had won the triple crown since Citation did so 25 years earlier, and experts began to speculate that it would never happen again.
Then, on May 5, 1973, 134,476 spectators — then the largest such crowd in history to watch a horse race — gathered to watch the Kentucky Derby. When the bell went off, Secretariat broke last, as usual. Jockey Ron Turcotte set a decent pace and gently guided Secretariat through the traffic. When he rounded the final turn, Secretariat made his move and went head-to-head against Sham, the horse in the lead. Down the stretch, Sham proved to be no match. Secretariat set the course record with a time of 1:59.2, a record that still stands today.
Two weeks later at the Preakness, Secretariat once again broke dead last. However, this time he decided not to wait until the final turn. On the first turn, Secretariat put on a tremendous burst of speed. He went from last to first in about 180 yards. “It was far too early for him to have been moved strategically,” said owner Penny Chenery. “Ronnie wouldn’t have asked him to run that early in the race. It had to be what the horse wanted to do.” Secretariat easily won by three lengths over Sham, once again setting a course record of 1:53.2 that still stands today.
1973 was a tumultuous time for the United States. Think Watergate Scandal and Vietnam War. Therefore, Secretariat was serving as a pleasant diversion from the ugly news of the day. Sports Illustrated reporter George Plimpton noted: “He was a huge, magnificent animal that wasn’t tied up in scandal. He wasn’t tied up in money. He just ran because he loved running.” As such, America fell in love with Secretariat who subsequently appeared on the cover of Time Magazine, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated as the final leg of the triple crown approached.
Now, the Belmont Stakes is the longest of the Triple Crown races. It is 1.5 miles and is known as the graveyard of speed horses because most don’t have the endurance necessary to win it. Folks were wondering if Secretariat had the stamina to pull off his characteristic closing speed. However, at the start of this all-important race, instead of moving cautiously up from the back, Secretariat decided to go straight to the lead and challenge Sham to an early duel. A surprised Jockey Ron Turcotte decided to let Secretariat run his own race, and Sham and Secretariat reached the three-quarter mark at a blazing 109.2 seconds. Everyone was in shock, including Penny, the horse’s owner, and Lucien, the horse’s trainer. Reporters in the press room couldn’t believe what they were seeing. Reporter William Nack was cursing under his breath: “You moron! What are you doing? You’re going to kill the horse.” He then turned to the reporters in the room and asked them what they were thinking. And every one of them agreed, “He’s going too damn fast.”
When Secretariat entered the final straightaway he led by an incredible 18 lengths, and he just kept widening the gap as he increased his speed toward the finish line. As mystical as it might sound, Ms. Penny knew the athlete just wanted to shine: “He said (with his performance), I’ve won your race, now I’m going to show you what I can do and on a mile and a half track!” Secretariat ended up winning the Belmont by a record-setting 31 lengths and a record setting time of 2:24. Some 50 years later both of these records still stand.
By winning the triple crown and setting course records that still stand today, Secretariat did something that no one thought was even conceivable. It’s the very reason that ESPN ranked Secretariat as the top-ranked non-human (#37) on the list of greatest athletes of the 20th century. Indeed: Secretariat was a supreme athlete, and he was a supreme competitor. And, with each passing of the triple crown, fans have come to understand just how special he really was.