It is difference of opinion, they say, that makes horse races, and even the greatest of champions are sources of endless speculation and argument. It is a measure of Secretariat’s singular brilliance that on one warm June afternoon in 1973, he laid all the questions to rest. It was the day of the Belmont Stakes, the third jewel in racing’s Triple Crown, and if the big chestnut colt were to win, he would be the first to take the Crown since Citation, a quarter century earlier. In the Kentucky Derby he had become the first winner ever to run each quarter mile faster than the one before, gathering speed like some dark force of nature and taking the race in a record time that still stands. Two weeks later, a clocking malfunction had kept him from posting another record in the Preakness, but he won that race too—by 2½ lengths. Then came the Belmont. Secretariat set the pace in sprinter’s time, and when his top rival, Sham, buckled going into the final turn, Secretariat poured it on. He entered that turn about seven lengths in front and came out of it 20 lengths ahead, as cynical horseplayers cried themselves hoarse. He broke the track record by more than two seconds and, in a sport measured in noses and necks, won by a stunning 31 lengths.
Earlier this month, suffering from a painful hoof inflammation, Secretariat was humanely destroyed at 19 at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. He was born at Meadow Stud, the stable founded by C.T. Chenery, and in 1972 became the only two-year-old ever named Horse of the Year. When Chenery died a year later, his daughter Penny was faced with an enormous inheritance tax, but Secretariat came to the rescue: Penny syndicated him in return for a then record $6.08 million and kept her stable. Secretariat was retired at Claiborne after his triumphant ’73 season.
Though Secretariat’s career at stud was not unsuccessful, none of his 507 offspring came close to matching his record. Some critics carped that he was not a great sire, since he failed to duplicate himself. But surely they asked the impossible, for that was a task for the gods.