On June 9th, 1973, during the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes - the third and final leg of the American Triple Crown - Secretariat gave us something so magnificent, something so sublime and something so remarkable, that we’re still trying to interpret and express what we experienced.
With every one of his impressive strides, people knew they were witnessing the greatest performance in all of Belmont’s history. Secretariat was the new Man O’ War, and we didn’t realize then, that his message would echo for years to come.
With one quarter of a mile left in the race, he was 14 lengths in the lead. Coming out of the turn for home, he was 18 lengths in the lead. People watching on television heard the race caller ‘Chic’ Anderson’s words infused with unmitigated awe: “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!”
And we wept. We wept long before the race was over because of his courage, his pride, his freedom. His statement to all of us: ‘I never give up, I never give in, and I do my best every Moment of my Life…’
“The splendid animal seemed to feel all that was expected of him. He made a still greater effort, though no spur or lash had touched his glossy hide…” - Prentiss Ingraham. 1923. Buffalo Bill’s Best Bet, or, A Sure Thing Well Won. New York: Street & Smith.
Secretariat swept across the finish line an astonishing 31 lengths ahead of his competitors in a world record time of two minutes and twenty-four seconds. He didn’t hurt, harm or cut anyone else down, nor was he shy or ashamed of winning.
It was phenomenal. Awesome. Indelibly etched in our consciousness, and an instance that has not been duplicated... ever.
Secretariat was born on March 30, 1970, and died on October 4, 1989. There were hopes the world would see many more horses just like him, but that dream never materialized. He was enigmatic and unique. He was a singular equine superstar, and thus, a ‘horse of the people’.
While he conquered tracks in the USA and Canada with his blazing speed, his image dominated iconic publications like Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine. Movies and documentaries flourished, all inspired by that special something he possessed.
He had that undefinable, indefatigable courage and grace, powered by the Almighty. He fired the imagination of cynical experts, fans and common-folk alike.
Just how did he run so fast, typically coming from the back of the pack and annihilating the field of runners that opposed him?
One of the reasons was plainly expressed by Dr. Thomas Swerczek DVM, PhD, who preformed his autopsy.
“I've seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I'd ever seen compared to it (Secretariat’s heart). […] All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.” - William Nack, Pure Heart: The thrilling life and emotional death of Secretariat, https://www.si.com/horse-racing/2015/01/02/pure-heart-william-nack-secretariat, accessed 10-10-2020.
A Thoroughbred’s heart weighs approximately one percent of their total body weight (other breeds vary). Secretariat was 16.2 hands high, weighed 1175 pounds and had a 75 inch girth. An average heart for a horse his size, would then weigh around eleven and three-quarters pounds… but Secretariat’s heart weighed twenty-two.
Imagine the arteries leading away from it to supply the body, imagine the size of the veins bringing blood back to it. Imagine the extra room in the body cavity needed to house such a ‘super heart’ and imagine the added opportunity for lungs and tissues. Imagine this heart muscle was strong; its walls thick, and its size giving it twice the capacity of a normal heart. Just one beat of Secretariat’s heart was worth two beats of another.
But. It also takes tremendous skill to set a Soul like this free; knowledge combined with love and patience to nurture and coax the horse into an understanding of imposed requests… it should be authentic and flawless, so that he takes everything into his own heart. He willingly masters the lot that has been thrust upon him and excels without reservation… without doubt… while every nuance is scrutinized on the world’s stage.
He accepts the confines of human rules and becomes our hero. He humbles and inspires us with his indefatigable Spirit; his humble and outspoken power. This Legendary Heart shows each of us how to thrive, telling us not to live in a dream world, but in a real world; a hard world. To dig our deepest without fear. Then - and only then - will you find out who you really are, and know what you are really capable of…
Clearly, this wonderful horse was surrounded by people who taught him their system respectfully; leaving his Spirit, his willpower, his eccentricities, and his determination intact. For Secretariat’s part, it is safe to say that he was nurtured from the day he was conceived, and brought to his full potential by careful, compassionate, and knowledgeable people.
But how was it he had such a big heart?
Following Dr. Swerczek’s remarkable discovery, equine cardiologist Dr. Fred Fregin, and researcher Marianna Haun investigated the heartbeats and pedigrees of many other Thoroughbreds. Their work was (at least) twofold: first, compile a database of horses and record their statistics using ECGs and ultrasound technology, and second; combine that with extensive pedigree research.
They theoretically determined that the trait for the equine large heart was carried on the X, or female, chromosome, which is why it is called the ‘X-Factor’.
Following this gene to its possible roots, their ‘X factor trail' led to a very interesting horse in Secretariat’s pedigree; a horse who had a very large heart and a story of his own.