The Heart that Wears the Crown: Secretariat

September 28th, 2023

Fifty years and 31 lengths ago, Secretariat sailed into the history books as the ninth horse to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes, our American Triple Crown. He ended a 25-year drought amidst a tumultuous moment in this country’s history, sealing his place in the hearts of fans everywhere and ensuring his enduring place in the sport’s collective memory. 

Secretariat remains possibly the best horse to ever complete this triple, yet this equine immortal, this “tremendous machine,” was also flesh and blood, with a personality that endeared him to the people who cared for him and a heart that was as big as that legendary margin of victory.

An Easy Start

Long a nursery for champions, Meadow Stud near Doswell, Virginia was facing an uncertain fate when the chestnut colt with three white socks and a star with a stripe made his appearance. Its founder and patriarch Christopher Chenery was in failing health, and his three children were contemplating what was next for the farm that had produced champions like Hill Prince, Cicada, and First Landing. In 1969, Chenery decided to send Somethingroyal, the mare that had already produced a stakes winner in Sir Gaylord, to leading sire Bold Ruler, and on March 30, 1970, that chestnut colt was born. 

He stood out from the start, his conformation as promising as his gorgeous reddish chestnut coat, and grew even more attractive as he celebrated his first birthday. Now named Secretariat, he played with his fellow yearlings, bumping and running with playmates as they ran through the Meadow’s paddocks. The colt also had a boundless appetite, and as he continued to grow, that combination of looks and pedigree imbued hope into everyone at Meadow Stud, including Chenery’s daughter Penny Tweedy. She had taken over the breeding and racing for her ailing father and hoped that both Somethingroyal’s colt and his elder stablemate, Riva Ridge, were what they needed to keep her father’s farm going. 

As a yearling, Secretariat was a good pupil as he learned to be a racehorse. At the Meadow, Meredith Bailes helped prepare the farm’s yearlings for their careers; he was the first to put a saddle on the future champion and the first to put his weight on the back that would soon carry a jockey down the stretch. The colt “behaved sensibly, Bailes recalled, with poise and equanimity,” as Bill Nack shared in his book on Secretariat.

As they progressed to workouts on the farm’s training track, the son of Bold Ruler seemed to enjoy running with his companions, absorbing the bumps and brushes and even playfully doling a few himself. He was easy to ride and manageable, even before his debut, but also seemed confused about what to do when the speed picked up. He would learn soon enough.

Growing Pains

At two, Secretariat was growing into his promising physique, the potential athlete beneath evident when he stepped off the van at trainer Lucien Laurin’s base in Florida. He was still a baby, though, and needed work to get him racing ready. The colt took to his lessons with aplomb; during an early workout with Ron Turcotte in the saddle, they ran in company with two other colts, Secretariat absorbing his workmate’s bumps with a grunt and finding stride once again, impervious to the contact. He was "a big clown," as Turcotte told Nack later, “likable and unruffled among crowds, a handsome colt who relaxed while on the racetrack, who behaved himself, going as kindly as if out in the morning for a playful romp in the Florida sun.”

He might have been professional in the mornings, but it took a couple of starts for the big colt to figure out his job. In his first start, as they broke from the gate, another horse slammed into Secretariat from the inside, which caused him to bump into another horse and almost go to his knee in the process. Once he straightened out, he still seemed unsure of what he was supposed to be doing, yet he came on strong at the end to finish fourth. 

Unaffected by his experience, he cleaned his feed tub that night. Laurin put him in another maiden race a few days later. By race’s end, the colt had put it all together, jockey Paul Feliciano sitting chilly as Secretariat found his stride and put himself in the race. He broke his maiden by six lengths. 

Later, in the Sanford, with Ron Turcotte aboard, the pair were blocked in by two horses in the early stretch. The veteran jockey decided to test the colt’s mettle; when a hole between horses opened up, Turcotte chirped to Secretariat and the future champion dove forward, unfazed by the close quarters, and then powered by Linda’s Chief to win with ease. It was a stunning performance and one that marked this two-year-old as something special. On the strength of his seven wins in nine starts, Secretariat won both Champion Two-Year-Old Colt and Horse of the Year for 1972.

He was still a horse, though, even with his easy-going nature. Exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney noticed that the colt disliked motors, ducking sharply at the tractors harrowing the track after morning workouts. One morning at Belmont Park, they headed for the gap to the backside when Gaffney heard a van door slam nearby. Secretariat stiffened and eyed the van nervously. Gaffney tried to shout at the driver not to start the engine but was unsuccessful. When the van started, the colt bolted, dumping Gaffney, and took off through the gap. With his hand still on the bridle, the exercise rider was dragged through the backside, finally letting go as the colt picked up speed. It took 10 minutes to catch the future Triple Crown winner.

“He’s quick,” Gaffney told Laurin after the escapade was done.

A Season to Remember

At three, Somethingroyal’s colt came into his own. In early 1973, he was already larger than both Man o’ War and Gallant Fox, outpacing both in girth, height, and weight. He still liked to eat and enjoyed his work, often still as frisky after exercising as he was before going out on the track. The colt was also rather fond of his groom Eddie Sweat and seemed to even respond whenever Sweat spoke to him. During one grooming session, Secretariat curled his lip and even frowned as the groom worked on his coat; at one point, he took the brush out of Sweat’s hand, grabbing the bristles between his teeth, and then holding on to it. The groom took it back and continued his work. Later the colt harassed Sweat as he tried to fasten the feed tub to his stall’s wall, pushing into Sweat’s shoulder as he fumbled with the latches. Sweat shouted and glared at Secretariat, who nickered as if responding to the admonishment. 

Sometimes his surroundings tested the colt’s amiable nature. After he ground down the field in the Kentucky Derby, after setting the record that still stands, Secretariat walked onto the turf course to enter the winner’s circle, Eddie Sweat clipping a lead shank to his bridle to lead him in. As the blanket of roses was laid over his withers, someone touched the colt’s flanks and he jumped, driving Sweat into the hedge.

Even through his Triple Crown run, setting records along the way, Secretariat remained affable even as Tweedy and Laurin wrestled with the expectations for their superstar. Anytime he heard the click of a camera shutter, the colt would turn toward the sound and prick his ears; even Turcotte knew that the colt enjoyed the attention, allowing him to stop and pose. “He was a little proud of himself,” Turcotte told Bill Doolittle. “He carried his head high. […] He knew he was something special.” 

If he got beat, though, which did happen three times during that wondrous season, Secretariat would stand at the back of his stall and put his head to the wall with his rump pointed toward the door. It was as if he were contemplating what to do next; indeed, each time he got beat, he would come back in the next race and run big. The ninth Triple Crown winner did the same thing the day of the Belmont Stakes, and look what happened in that crowning moment. 

In the end, though, the people around him like Bill Nack and Eddie Sweat remembered a playful horse that loved his work. Nack recalled a day when Secretariat grabbed the reporter’s notebook with his teeth and ducked behind the stall webbing. When Sweat admonished him, he dropped the notebook onto the straw bedding. Another time, the groom leaned a rake against the stall webbing and the colt picked it up and started scraping the ground in front of his stall. “Look at him rakin’ the shed,” Sweat laughed. 

Twenty-one starts, 16 wins, and a Triple Crown later, Secretariat went into the hearts of racing fans and the sport’s Hall of Fame as an immortal, but as time would prove, even the greats are mortal.

An Immortal Heart

When laminitis claimed the life of this beloved racehorse, the sport mourned with tears and tributes apropos to this second Big Red. After his death, veterinarian Dr. Thomas Swerczek found that the son of Bold Ruler and Somethingroyal had a heart that was almost twice as large as the average Thoroughbred’s, adding to the perfect physical gifts that had defined Secretariat’s life. He was a once-in-a-lifetime horse whose only peer was the first Big Red, Man o’ War. Fifty years on, Secretariat remains a beloved figure to fans everywhere. 

On my desk sits my favorite photograph of the ninth Triple Crown winner, taken by Hall of Fame writer and author Steve Haskin. Set against the backdrop of his paddock at Claiborne Farm, Secretariat holds a stick in his mouth, his pose inviting the people standing nearby to take it from him. It is a horse at play, an equine friend inviting his two-legged companions to be silly with him. Inside the wooden frame is a moment that lives on long past Secretariat’s own life, a reminder that the heart that wore the crown was a special one indeed.