If you are looking for Secretariat in the picture, he is not there in the flesh. But he is in every horse picture I see. Staring back at me, looking for another who can take his crown and find himself in the image.
Not to shortchange fillies. They are also coming along. But the pure size and brute strength of horses at the peak of their athleticism is measured today against Secretariat.
Some believe that Man O'War is the greatest horse that ever lived. Thoroughbred Champions: Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century, a book that resulted from a list of the top 100 racehorses lists Man O'War number one and Secretariat number two. The book stems from a list compiled by Blood-Horse, Inc., a publication that claims to be the oldest publication on horse racing in the world.
And perhaps Man O'War is the greatest. However, there is little video or other evidence that his competition was anywhere as close to that of the horses in the 1970s and his only really solid basis for being number one is his record of being defeated only once in his career. His competition arguably was not as good as that faced by Secretariat, since his era included much less competition and far fewer breeding technologies. So that debate cannot be resolved very easily in favor of Man O'War. In my view, assessments by many others makes Secretariat the best of all time.
Seabiscuit lives on in the minds of many, largely due to the fact that he was the subject of a very popular movie Seabiscuit, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. The Seabiscuit story, while very Hollywood, captured the essence of a horse who became the first truly popular horse throughout the United States.
By then, radio was in full bloom and news was transmitted far more widely than in Man O'War's day. While critics of Seabiscuit said the film could have been more realistic in the horse racing scenes, it was inspirational and very well received.
But to those at the end of the 20th Century, the all-time champion of horse racing was Secretariat. By his day, everyone could watch the Kentucky Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown. The visual images of these races, the sheer dominance of Secretariat, the awesome calm, and obvious intelligence of the horse were the stuff of dreams.
Secretariat won all of his Triple Crown races in record time.
He won the Kentucky Derby in track record time.
Then came the Preakness at Pimlico in Maryland. Much controversy surrounds the Pimlico timer, which malfunctioned. The Maryland Jockey Club decided that the right time was even more than the handheld timer available to the Club. The Club could have easily had some bias involved because of its Maryland roots. The Daily Racing Form prints the official time and the race track record that it determined he set during the Preakness. Given the evidence that it saw, the Daily Racing Form and many others believe that Secretariat set the track record when he raced the Preakness.
Secretariat's Belmont, the final race in the Triple Crown, ranks as ESPN's second greatest individual performance of the 20th Century, after Wilt Chamberlain's 100 point game. So it was received by the public. Sports Illustrated, Time, and Newsweek had the future Triple Crown winner on their covers the same week before the Belmont. In the words of Sports Illustrated about his record-smashing Belmont:
Secretariat began drawing away, first by two lengths, then seven lengths. He covered the six furlongs in 1:09[4/5] and the mile in 1:34[1/5]. The time, by racing standards, was supersonic; and Secretariat still had not exerted himself. Turning for home after a mile and a quarter in 1:59, his margin increased to 20 lengths over Twice a Prince. Sham rapidly fell back. Ron Turcotte caught a quick glimpse of the fractions flashing on the infield board as he charged by the eighth pole 28 lengths in front and he knew he could break the track record. "Then I set my horse down for the only time in the race," he said later. "We both must have wanted the record—and we got it." The final time was 2:24, the fastest mile and a half ever run on a dirt track anywhere in the world (the record on grass is 2:23 set by Fiddle Isle in 1970 at Santa Anita over a course that is partly downhill).
For those of us who watched this huge colt run this race, it will forever give us goosebumps.
Just thinking of his achievements, during the aftermath of Vietnam, brings tears to our eyes. Whether it was the psyche of the country at the time, similar in ways to the Depression Era Seabiscuit's arrival, or the force of the moment with few other events and fewer competitors, will be left to others to figure out.
What we do know is that track records, much less world records, are a way to determine excellence. And the distance of a win in horse racing is one of the better guides.
Out of all the athletes to choose from, Secretariat ranked 35th out of 100 chosen in ESPN's 100 Greatest Athletes of the Twentieth Century, far outdistancing Man O'War who ranked 84th and Seabiscuit. While you may quibble as to why horses should be included, if you saw Secretariat race, he seemed human in many ways. In fact, pictures capture Secretariat staring at a plane after he was retired. And his calm before races, watching the crowds rather than the crowds watching him, was like the greatest human athletes. He was so ready to race, so prepared mentally, and so superior that you knew he would win.
And so we come to the movie to be released this October on Secretariat. The movie is certain to improve on the racing sequences. After all, we have real video of Secretariat's races. And if popularity of any athlete translates into box office success, this film could be a true blockbuster.
And that is the real truth.