Secretariat - Wins His Last Race

It was a very cold October day, in 1973, when Secretariat took the track at Woodbine.  Because of a syndication deal, Penny Chenery would not be able to race Secretariat after this third year.  Woodbine would  therefore be the champion's last competitive appearance.

Running a mile and five-eighths, Secretariat turned in a very impressive performance.  Move the cursor forward - to 8:17 - to view the race.  Because his normal jockey, Ron Turcotte, was out on a five-day suspension, Secretariat cruised to victory with Eddie Maple aboard.  He won by 6½ lengths.

A star attraction at Claiborne Farm, where he lived after winning the Triple Crown (and defeating Canada's Horse of the Year, Kennedy Road, at Woodbine), Secretariat developed a painful disease called laminitis in September of 1989. 

Bill Nack happened to be at Claiborne, where he was planning to interview Seth Hancock, when he learned that Big Red's life was in jeopardy:

...sitting at his desk, Hancock appeared tired, despairing and anxious, a man facing a decision he didn't want to make.  "What's the prognosis," I asked.

"Ten days to two weeks," Hancock said.

..."Ten thousand people come to this farm every year, and all they want to see is Secretariat.  They don't give a hoot about the other studs.  You want to know who Secretariat is in human terms?  Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world.  The greatest.  Now make him six-foot-three, the perfect height.  Make him real intelligent and kind.  And on top of that, make him the best-lookin' guy ever to come down the pike.  He was all those things as a horse.  He isn't even a horse anymore.  He's a legend."  (Secretariat:  The Making of a Champion, by William Nack, page 359.)

Laminitis causes intense pain in a horse's hooves.  Secretariat was experiencing extraordinary pain which dramatically worsened even quicker than Seth Hancock had originally thought. 

When Bill Nack returned to his hotel - on the 5th of October, 1989 - he knew the blinking message light on the phone in his room meant bad news:

Secretariat was euthanized at 11:45 A.M. today to prevent further suffering from an incurable condition.  (Nack, page 360.)

The great champion who broke last at the Kentucky Derby, in 1973, won that race.  Last out of the gate at the 1973 Preakness, he won that, too.  How could a horse, who often started last, become a Triple-Crown winner?  What made this superb colt such a tremendous athlete?

After Secretariat's death, at age 19, Dr. Tom Swerczek (who conducted the autopsy) made an astonishing discovery.  Big Red's heart was at least twice the normal size of an equine heart:

Secretariat's "great heart" was not just a turn of phrase to explain his many dramatic come-from-behind wins on the racetrack, but an anatomical fact.  The horse's heart was twice the normal size and a third larger than any horse's heart the veterinary surgeon had ever seen.

Dr. Tom Swerczek, research and diagnostic pathologist at the Gluck Equine Research Center at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, did the autopsy on Secretariat.  "The heart was perfect," he said at the time; "there were no defects.  It was simply the largest heart I've ever seen.  We didn't weigh it but we visually estimated it at between twenty-one and twenty-two pounds."  (The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, by Lawrence Scanlan, page 288.)

Sham - Secretariat's great rival and a likely Triple Crown winner in any other year - also had a very large heart.  Dr. Swerczek performed that autopsy, too:

In 1993, Dr. Swerczek did an autopsy on Secretariat's old rival Sham from the 1973 Triple Crown races.  Sham had died on April 23 of that year in his stall, the victim of an apparent heart attack.  This time, Dr. Swerczek did weigh the heart.  At eighteen pounds, it was the second-largest equine heart he had ever seen.  Said the pathologist, "I thought it was ironic that Sham was still finishing second to Secretariat."  (The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, by Lawrence Scanlan, page 288.)

After the autopsy, Secretariat was buried - with his entire body intact - at Claiborne Farms in Paris, Kentucky.  People still leave flowers at his grave.

See, also:

Video - Secretariat Wins the 1973 Derby and Preakness

Video - Secretariat Wins the 1973 Belmont by 31 Lengths

Video - Secretariat's Last Run

Media Credits

Clip from "Secretariat - Big Red's Last Race" - a documentary filmed in October of 1973.  The entire documentary, plus two additional videos about Secretariat, are available from Secretariat.com.

Quoted passages from Secretariat:  The Making of a Champion, by William Nack, online courtesy Google Books.


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"Secretariat - Wins His Last Race" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Feb 19, 2020.
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