Secretariat – The Big Red Machine

Secretariat 1

Secretariat has been called the horse of the century, the greatest horse of all time, the most perfect Thoroughbred to ever race, high praise indeed. He was a magnificent animal, a muscular bright red chestnut with three white socks standing 16.2 hands, and many expert horsemen say he had the perfect conformation and temperament to become a superior racer. His ground devouring action when running was absolutely breathtaking to watch, as was his incredible bursts of speed and iron will to be the first to cross the finish line. He was nicknamed “Big Red” after another turf legend some fifty-three years prior, Man O’ War, which whom Secretariat has always been compared to.

His sire was Bold Ruler, Champion three year old in 1957 and Horse of the Year in two out of three polls, a year in which he raced against one of the strongest three year old crops of horses ever seen. Round Table, Gallant Man, Dedicate, Nearctic, Iron Liege, Clem, Better Bee, Gen. Duke and Barbizon were just some of the exceptional three year olds of that particular year. Bold Ruler faced them all and won his share of big events such as the Preakness Stakes.

Bold Ruler was by Nasrullah, the son of Nearco who Bull Hancock purchased from the Aga Khan III to stand as a sire at Claiborne Farms. Bold Ruler was a strong willed character much like his sire and grand sire and would become an eight time leading sire in North America. Bold Ruler was noted for his ability to pass on his blazing speed to his offspring.

Somethingroyal was the dam of Secretariat. Her sire was Princequillo, the great Claiborne Farms sire who would be one of the most influential sires of broodmares in the past century. Princequillo and his daughter Somethingroyal were very even tempered easy to get along with horses and this trait along with the hotter blood of Bold Ruler gave Secretariat his nice guy off the track, competitive tiger on the track personality. The staying ability of Princequillo’s blood was also a major factor in Secretariat’s breeding as the Bold Ruler offspring were always noted as speedy sprinter to miler types.

Secretariat was bred by Christopher Chenery at his Meadow Farm, Virginia. He was the result of an agreement between Chenery and Ogden Phipps, of Wheatley Stable fame, who owned the largest share percentage in Bold Ruler. The agreement was that Chenery would breed two of his best mares to Bold Ruler for two consecutive seasons, and then after the mares were certified in foal during the first year they would then decide as to which owner got which resulting foals via a coin toss conducted by Bull Hancock. However Hasty Matilda, the second of the two mares bred did not come in foal for the second breeding, which meant that by the agreement, if the coin toss winner won and chose the Somethingroyal foal of 1969, then the loser would have the 1970 foal as well as the Hasty Matilda foal born in 1970. Phipps won the toss and elected to take the Bold Ruler foal of Somethingroyal, a filly later named The Bride, produced in 1969, leaving the Somethingroyal foal to be foaled in 1970 to the Chenery family.

Chris Chenery was suffering from ill health during the time when Secretariat was foaled and raised, leaving his daughter Penny Tweedy to take over the helm of the family stable. Penny would assess the deteriorating decline of the farm, which had been losing money for a few years due to her father’s decline into senility from his condition, and then sold off a few mares and racing prospects and fired the trainer which she felt was not operating in the best interests of the farm. She hired French Canadian trainer Lucien Laurin to train the Meadow Stable herd and they had success in 1972 when Riva Ridge, a home bred colt by First Landing, won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, before Secretariat made his first start. Ron Turcotte, also from Canada, was the first choice jockey for Laurin and the Meadow Stable.

Secretariat would win Champion two year old honours in 1972 and the Horse of the Year Award as well. However his first race was not stellar, as he would only finish fourth in a maiden race at Aqueduct, Turcotte was not in the irons for this race. Secretariat then proceeded to win his next eight races as a two year old. He was disqualified and placed second for interference in the Champagne Stakes, however. He was made the overwhelming winter book favourite for the upcoming Kentucky Derby.

Penny Tweedy with the help of Seth Hancock, heir to the Claiborne family farm, syndicated Secretariat for a then record $6.08 million for stud duty upon completion of his three year old season, after the death of Christopher Chenery. The syndication was to help pay for the estate taxes on the farm, but part of the agreement was that Secretariat would still run under the Meadow Stable banner and in the now famous blue and white silks, with all purse money won to go to the Meadow Stable coffers.

Secretariat came out all guns blazing in his first three year old races winning the seven furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct and then the one mile Gotham Stakes at the same track three weeks later. However he gave his connections and his syndicate members a huge scare when he could only finish third in the Wood Memorial to Angle Light and Sham. An abscess was found and he resisted the bit during the race causing him a great deal of pain and an excuse for the poor performance.

Then came the Kentucky Derby. Because of his dismal showing in the Wood and the fact that Bold Ruler was his sire, many pundits were picking the very in form Sham to win, not aware of the abscess problem.  Secretariat broke last from the gate and then steadily moved through the field of twelve other would be challengers to take command at the top of the stretch from Sham, pulling out to a two and one-half length victory in the record time of 1:59 2/5, a record that still stands today. He ran each successive quarter mile faster than the previous quarter mile as he accelerated throughout the race.

The Preakness at Pimlico Racetrack would be the next demonstration of his superior athleticism as he broke last again but took command earlier at the first turn and never looked back, winning by another two and one-half length margin. He won in a time of 1:53 2/5 setting another track record.

The Belmont Stakes was next and a chance at immortality which he was to achieve in a manner that has never been duplicated. Secretariat’s performance in the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 1973 is considered the greatest single performance by a Thoroughbred horse in history. Only four other horses started with him as both he and Sham broke from the gate as one and hooked up in a blazing speed duel through the first six furlongs. Sham would briefly head Secretariat a couple of times only to have “Big Red’ retake the lead each time Sham tried to take command.

At around the six and one-half furlong mark, Sham began to tire and Secretariat would just keep on accelerating and increasing his lead. By the top of the far turn he was ten to twelve lengths ahead and in the words of television race caller Chic Anderson; “Secretariat is widening now, he is moving like a tremendous machine!” At the middle of the far turn Sham had had enough as Secretariat just kept up his relentless pace. He powered around the turn and through the stretch eventually winning by thirty-one lengths, or more than half a furlong, in front. It was the most jaw dropping performance ever witnessed anywhere. I still get chills watching the race again and again. Even to this day it is still hard for many to wrap their heads around such a display of sheer domination and believe that this really did happen. The final time of 2.24 was and still is a world record for any horse in a flat mile and a half. The famous picture snapped by Bob Coglianese of jockey Ron Turcotte looking back over his shoulder as he and Secretariat neared the finish line is one of the most iconic racing pictures ever printed.

Secretariat became a living legend that day.

The praise and adulation from the public towards Secretariat and his connections was unprecedented. He would appear on the cover of Time magazine. Collectable memorabilia such as un-cashed winning betting tickets from the race, the June 9,1973 Belmont Stakes program,  photos, drinking glasses, toys, pillows, hats, tee-shirts and any other conceivable manner of clothing or linen that could have Secretariat’s image depicted on. It was Beatlemania for the equine.

Penny Tweedy would also become a national celebrity as her boundless enthusiasm and sheer joy of her marvellous horse would be beamed to the public during the television broadcasts of the big races. Her charming manner and endearing smile during interviews would also add to the public’s infatuation of Secretariat. Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte and Secretariat’s groom Eddie Sweet also became media personalities. Combined they would make horse racing a cool and in vogue sport to follow.

Secretariat would make his next start three weeks later in the Arlington Invitational at Arlington Park in Chicago, winning easily over My Gallant and Our Native, two rivals from the Belmont. Then he would make more headlines with his second place finish to Onion in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, a track noted for famous upsets of champion horses.

He would rebound and redeem himself six weeks later in the Marlboro Cup defeating a stellar field which included stable mate Riva Ridge, Cougar II, Kennedy Road, Annihilate ‘Em, Key To The Mint and his Whitney conqueror Onion. The Woodward Stakes at Belmont run on a sloppy track would be another loss this time to Prove Out, but he would then capture the Man O’ War Stakes over Belmont’s turf course beating turf specialists Tentam and Big Spruce among others. This was his first start on a grass surface.

The decision to run one last race was made and Penny Tweedy selected the Canadian International as the final race for Secretariat. This was her way to honour Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte by entering the top weight for age race in their home country. His arrival in Toronto was greeted like the arrival of royalty and was covered by local TV and print media. His workouts on the Woodbine turf course were filmed and broadcasts on news and sports reports as well as countless interviews with the Secretariat team. Unfortunately Turcotte could not ride Secretariat as he had been handed a five day suspension for a minor infraction in a race at Aqueduct earlier in the week. Eddie Maple was given the honour to steer Secretariat in his last start.

The race was run in misty dark chilly conditions but this did not take away from the enthusiasm of the record crowd who had come out to see “Big Red” in his final race. Track announcer Darryl Wells had the honour to call Secretariat’s final race and as the champion was coming down the home stretch some ten lengths clear of his next challenger he would say; “Ladies and gentlemen here he is, Secretariat, he is all yours”.

Secretariat was all ours. He transcended greatness and brought many new fans to the wonderful world of Thoroughbred racing. Now he was to prepare for the next chapter of his remarkable life, that of a stallion, and was headed for Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. His first progeny would be the most anticipated foals in the next few years.

From his first crop of twenty-eight foals born in 1975 came a big red chestnut that looked very much like Secretariat. Bred by Nelson Bunker Hunt, the colt was out of Charming Alibi by Honey’s Alibi, thus making him a half brother to the great race mare Dahlia. Hunt consigned the colt to the 1976 Keeneland yearling sales and he became the first yearling to break the $1 million price barrier, eventually being sold for $1.5 million to John Sikura and Ted Burnett, two wealthy Canadian Thoroughbred owners. They named him Canadian Bound and then sent him to France to be trained by master trainer Maurice Zilber.

However, Canadian Bound did not have any success at the races as he would be unplaced in three starts as a three year old, having been unraced at two. He was sent to Hollywood Park as a four year old and finished fourth in his only North American start. He was retired to begin his stud career but was not successful as a sire.

Dactylographer also from the first crop of foals by Secretariat would be the first stakes winner sired by Secretariat. Dactylographer would win the G1 William Hill Futurity in 1977 run at Doncaster. Such was the unreasonably high expectations for the progeny of Secretariat that Dactylographer was considered as a minor horse. He won an important G1 race and still did not get a decent level of respect.

Secretariat was a successful sire but not in the manner that was expected. He sired six-hundred and fifty-three named foals of which fifty-seven became stakes winners, many of which in major stakes races around the world.

Lady’s Secret was the Horse of the Year in 1986. Nicknamed “The Iron Lady” the grey daughter of Secretariat won the Breeder’s Cup Distaff, the Beldame Stakes twice, the Whitney Handicap against the boys, the Maskette Stakes and the Ruffian Stakes twice each, all G1 races, among her twenty-five victories. She is one of a select few females to ever be awarded the Eclipse Award as the Horse of the Year and is a very worthy member of the US Racing Hall of Fame.

General Assembly was a big red chestnut in his sire’s image. He would win the Hopeful Stakes and the Saratoga Special at two and then the Travers Stakes, the Gotham Stakes and the Vosburgh Handicap at three. He ran second to the great Spectacular Bid in the Kentucky Derby. General Assembly would stand at stud in Ireland, Kentucky and Germany getting thirty-one stakes winners before his death in Germany at the age of twenty-nine due to heart failure.

Risen Star would be Secretariat’s best son on the track. He would be in the money in all eleven races in his career winning eight. Of the eight wins the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes were his biggest prizes as he would be named the Champion three year old in 1988. His fourteen and one-half lengths victory in the Belmont evoked memories of his sire’s devastating performance fifteen years earlier. Risen Star was a powerful dark bay and other than his colour, he resembled his dad very much in conformation and size. His sire record is not stellar but then again he was cut down early in life at the age of thirteen due to severe colic. He did sire German Champion Risen Raven and Star Standard, a G1 winning millionaire.

Kingston Rule was bred in the US by Australian David Hains. Hains subsequently sent Kingston Rule to his homeland to be trained by renowned Australian conditioner Bart Cummings. Kingston Rule would win the prestigious Melbourne Cup in record time. His other victories of note are the Moonee Valley Cup and the Tommy Woodcock Handicap. Kingston Rule was not a success as a sire however.

Tinner’s Way was from the last crop of foals sired by Secretariat and was bred by Juddmonte Farms. Tinner’s Way would win the City of York and the Milcars Temple Fortune Stakes in a four race two year old season in England. Brought to the US for his three year old campaign, he was now put into the barn of Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame trainer. He would race on dirt and turf for four more years with his major victories coming in the G1 Pacific Classic twice, the Californian Stakes and the Arcadia Handicap. He was retired to stud in 1997 and was moved around throughout his stallion career without much success. He was retired from stud duty in 2010 to Old Friends farm in Kentucky.

Secretariat would have other stakes winners like Six Crowns, the full brothers D’Accord and Medaille d’Or, Secrettame, Weekend Surprise and Terlingua. The latter three daughters of Secretariat along with Six Crowns would go a long way to establish their sire as great sire of broodmares. Not only would he sire broodmares capable of producing good stake winners but also broodmares that produced top ranking sires as well.

Six Crowns was the dam of Chief’s Crown by Danzig, Secrettame was the dam of Gone West by Mr. Prospector while Terlingua was the dam of Storm Cat by Storm Bird. All three were top ranked sires of varying degree but were also very influential in the pedigrees of future champions.

Betty’s Secret would be the dam of Secreto by Northern Dancer (Epsom Derby) and Interrex by Vice Regent (Sir Barton Stakes); Athyka would produce Atticus by Nureyev (G1 Oaklawn Handicap); Lady Winbourne is the dam of Al Mamoon  by Believe It (Citation Handicap, then a G1 race, the G2 Eddie Read Stakes and the G2 American Handicap); Partygoer would produce the good grass runner Go Deputy  by Deputy Minister(G1 Sword Dancer Handicap); Ball Chairman is the dam of Perfect Soul by Sadler’s Wells (G1 Keeneland Turf Mile Stakes).

Sister Dot was bred to Deputy Minister four times and the 1991 foal was a bay colt named Dehere. Dehere would become the Champion two year old in North America winning the Sanford, Hopeful, Saratoga Special and the Champagne Stakes. He would win the Fountain of Youth Stakes as a three year old but would then fracture his right hind cannon bone ending his racing career. He was purchased by Coolmore Stud and then sent to Ashford Stud, Kentucky in 1994, standing five years shuttling between the American and Australian Coolmore Stud Farms. Sold to Japanese interests in 1999, he was reacquired by Coolmore in 2005 but then resold four years later to the Jockey Club of Turkey. Dehere has sired over seventy stakes winners including G1 winners Graeme Hall, Take Charge Lady, Belle De Jour, Natural Blitz, and Defier.

Secretariat’s daughter Celtic Assembly would produce the six time leading New Zealand sire Volksraad by Green Desert. Volksraad was bred in England and won two of three races before a career ending injury.  He was sent to New Zealand for his sire career and became a sensation there. He sired many G1 winners including Sir Slick, Military Move, Torlesse, Clifton Prince, Volkaire and One Under.

Weekend Surprise produced two first class runners who would go on to become top sires. Her first such son was Summer Squall (Preakness Stakes etc). Summer Squall, by Storm Bird, would sire 1999 Eclipse Horse of the year Charismatic (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes etc) and the Champion two year old filly Storm Song (Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Fillies) as well as G1 winners Summer Colony and Summerly among his thirty-seven stakes winner. The other son of Weekend Surprise to have an impact on championship pedigrees was the sensational A. P. Indy, the 1992 Eclipse Horse of the year Award winner. (See separate article on this site)

Secrettame is a prominent member of the rich family of her dam Tamerett, by Tim Tam. Secrettame would earn black type in her own pedigree when she captured the Shirley Jones Handicap as a five year old. She won six of ten races lifetime, but will be forever known as the dam of major sire Gone West, who I have examined in a separate article.

Terlingua had a very solid racing career winning seven of fourteen races with four second place finishes as well. She won four stakes races as a two year old including the Hollywood Lassie Stakes, Del Mar Debutante, and Hollywood Juvenile Championship against colts. Terlingua’s daughter Chapel of Dreams, by Northern Dancer, won the G2 Palomar and Wilshire Handicaps. However Terlingua produced a dark bay, almost black colt named Strom Cat the year before Chapel of Dreams. Storm Cat would win four of eight races with three second place finishes on the track. His biggest win came in the G1 Young America Stakes.

Storm Cat would take the breeding world by storm to become one of the most influential members of the Northern Dancer tail male line in the world today. I will have a feature in-depth article on this very productive sire on a future post, stay tuned.

Secretariat can be considered as perhaps the most famous horse in history. His name is known to people who do not even follow the sport. There are so many books, on-line articles, such as this one, photos, art prints, and collectables telling his story and or depicting his image. There is even a major feature movie.  When the name Secretariat is spoken everyone knows exactly who Secretariat is. There are only a handful of horses who can claim that honour.

Claiborne Farm would receive countless visitors during Secretariat’s stud life on the farm. Secretariat would always greet his admirers with warmth and the dignity befitting of the equine royalty he was. He passed away on October 4, 1989 due to the incurable and dreaded laminitis. He went too soon, as he was only nineteen. His contribution to Thoroughbred breeding predominantly through his grandsons Storm Cat, Gone West and A.P.Indy is of major importance as there are many champions descending from this superstar horse still winning the most prestigious races of today.

The legacy of Secretariat is his brilliance as the greatest horse to ever race, to multiple generations of Thoroughbred fans. This legacy is un-faded in the hearts and minds of all those who witnessed his power, speed, courage and unrelenting will to win. He was absolutely breath taking to watch, and through the marvels of modern technology, can be viewed over and over again.

Secretariat was a once in a lifetime marvel, the epitome of the supreme race horse. He is the standard by which all great horses are compared.

(Photo courtesy of Claiborne Farm)


  • secretariat my favourite racehorse of all time the reason I got into horse racing. Secretariat also has the largest recorded heart weighing 21lbs

  • I love Secretariat, I first learned of him from the movie. I had never watched Thoroughbred horse racing and am now addicted. I watch his races over and over and always am in awe of him. He really was The Super Horse.

  • Yes He was and still is the greatest race horse ever !look who just proved it and look who is still proving !They might be three generations past but the blood of the greatest is still in them!yes,I am proud to have seen and touch this fantastic guy!Thank you!

  • The most incredible horse i ever saw or ever will see. nice article and easy to read. thanks

  • “Simply the best- better than all the rest.” A truly remarkable horse, whose name will resound through the ages.

  • We were showing horses in 1973. Knew his only Appalooas son, First Secretary, up close and personal. As close as I ever got to the the legend himself.

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