The greatest athlete of my time...was a horse. I have followed many sports--my beloved baseball, football (college and professional), basketball (college and NBA), hockey, golf, boxing, tennis, the Olympics, and horse racing. For many, a horse couldn't possibly count as a great athlete, but fifty years ago this year, a horse did the unimaginable. To deny Secretariat his place as an athlete is to put unfair restrictions on what constitutes athleticism.
I started watching the Triple Crown races with my family in the late 1950s. Unfortunately, no horse was good enough to take all three titles--the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont--throughout my youth. None had since Citation in 1948. It seemed almost an impossible task, and even when horses won the first two races, at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, they invariably faltered in the daunting mile-and-a-half final leg at Belmont, befitting the race's nickname "The Test of Champions". But the three-year-old Secretariat had proved a possible champion as a two-year-old, winning many races and copping Horse of the Year honors, an unusual distinction for a two-year-old.
Peggy Tweedy (eventually Penny Chenery) was the breeder of Big Red, a massive beast sporting a chestnut coat and white socks. A white star and stripe bedecked his forehead, appropriate for royalty. In 1973, horse racing was still a major cultural event, as it had been in America for most of the Twentieth Century. People waited in great anticipation for the Triple Crown races. Almost from the start, Lucien Lauren was his trainer and Ron Turcotte his jockey. On May 5, the largest crowd ever to attend a Kentucky Derby sardined their way into Churchill Downs to see Secretariat win comfortably by 2 1/2 lengths over a mile and a quarter. The odd thing about the race was not that Secretariat broke the record time for a Derby but that each quarter mile was run faster than the one before! Even at the end of the race, Secretariat was gaining speed while the other horses were exhausted. Sham, the second-place horse, ran a terrific race, but it wasn't enough given the competition.
Following this triumph, the public interest in the Preakness, two weeks later, was fervid. Secretariat was all the buzz. At a mile and 3/16, the Preakness is the shortest of the three races, so a fast thoroughbred without staying power always has a chance. Secretariat broke dead last at the beginning of the race and was asked by jockey Ron Turcotte to make up ground quickly. As you will see below, he did! At the time, the timekeepers did not register Secretariat's performance as the fastest Preakness, but there was always talk for years after the race that the timer was faulty by as much as a full second. In 2012, the State of Maryland hired a team of experts to undertake a forensic review of the race, matching the video to the stopwatch. The commission declared that Secretariat had, indeed, won the Preakness in record time. Sham, the second-place horse, ran a terrific race, but it wasn't enough given the competition.
Following this race, the whole country was ignited by its interest in the magnificent chestnut colt. Everyone wanted to attend the Belmont Stakes to see an historic event--a horse winning the Triple Crown. Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated all placed the "Super Horse" on their covers. On June 9, in front of another enormous throng, Secretariat was listed as a 1-10 bet. You were not going to make any money betting the favorite, and only four other horses, including Sham, even entered the stakes. What was the point? Secretariat's win was a foregone conclusion. Secretariat and Sham broke away from the also-rans fairly quickly, and it seemed as if a good match race might develop, but midway through the race Secretariat started to pull away, pounding the dirt with such ferocity that he prompted announcer Chic Anderson to describe him as "moving like a tremendous machine". Soon, all the other horses were tiny specks in Secretariat's rear-view mirror, and he crossed the finish line, shattering the previous record time. He had won the Test of Champions!
Secretariat beat Sham, once again, by 31 lengths--obliterating the long-standing record of the greatest distance between the first and second-place horse. Sadly, for Sham's owner, trainer, and jockey, had Sham been a year older or a year younger, he might very well have been a Triple Crown champion, but it was not to be in a year when Big Red was running. As great as Secretariat's performance was, you might wonder why I think of the horse as the greatest athlete of all. Well, one of the truisms of sports is that all athletes grow bigger, faster, and stronger than their predecessors. It's just the way it is. The four-minute mile in track was once a pipedream. The record now is 3:43:13. When I was a boy, the best high jumpers approached 7 1/2 feet. The high jump record is now over eight feet! I have witnessed the progression of pole vaulters from 16 feet to more than 20 feet in my lifetime. The most remarkable single performance I witnessed prior to Secretariat was a long jump by Bob Beamon in the 1968 Olympics. In a sport in which records were broken by a quarter of an inch or a half an inch, Beamon leaped so perfectly, at just the right angle, and with the lowest possible wind resistance that he shattered the old record by two feet with a jump of 29 feet and 2 3/8 inches! He actually outjumped the measuring mechanism, so his record had to be confirmed by hand measurements. I never thought this record would be approached in my lifetime--probably in my children's lifetimes.
But in 1991, long jumper Mike Powell actually eclipsed Beamon's record. It stood for 23 years--a remarkably long time for a track record, but not forever.
I am sure Secretariat's three Triple Crown race times will be broken someday. But it is fifty years later. Horses now have far superior diets. They have scientifically derived training regimens. They have enhanced breeding techniques. They are bigger, faster, and stronger. But Secretariat still holds all three track records. That is astounding to me.
There is a striped pole on the infield at Belmont Park where the second-place horse was when Secretariat crossed the finish line as victor. It is 253 feet away from that finish line.
Secretariat had to be put down at age 19 after a long career at stud. But his memory is still vivid for track enthusiasts. He is the greatest athlete ever!