Big Red and His Belmont

Secretariat's superstar quality evidenced the excellence still valued by Americans. The post Recalling Big Red and His Belmont appeared first on The American Conservative.

Secretariat was the winner of the Belmont Stakes fifty years ago. He won by an incredible 31 lengths. It was a remarkable feat in and of itself. But it also marked the end of a 1973 Triple Crown sweep, in which the copper colt broke records in all three races: Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont stakes. In addition to his rare talent, “Big Red” also had charisma and an inspiring backstory.

Secretariat became the unlikely hero Americans were looking for in the aftermath of Watergate and inflation. He also helped them through the Vietnam War. He was both magisterial, and sporting at the same moment–and played his exultant fan base. His handsome face wore a checkered 1970s-chic mask in royal and white colors, which are the colors of Virginia Meadow Stable. Penny Tweedy acquired Meadow’s champion in 1969 after losing a coin-toss with fellow breeder Ogden Phipps. Phipps, who won the coin toss, was awarded first choice of foals that would be sired by Bold Ruler, a leading stud, in 1969, while Tweedy came second. She named her imposing consolation prize Secretariat after the League of Nations Secretariat at Geneva. The Jockey Club had previously rejected her first five names.


Tweedy had to face more than just a difficult decision about naming her horse. Meadow Stable was struggling financially so Tweedy took a risk and syndicated a promising colt of two years old for future breeding rights. Over six million dollars poured in. Secretariat was able to save his stables even before his historic Triple Crown campaign.

Many experts believe that Man o’ War was the superior horse. His racing career spanned from 1919-1920. His longer stride translated into more speed and his impressive record on inferior tracks are cited by many experts. He was undoubtedly the best stud. His progeny included 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral and other champions. Secretariat’s 600-plus descendants were mostly mediocre.

Secretariat, however, is the horse that has given the most impressive performance in modern racing history. He and his valiant rival Sham, in front of some 69 000 spectators during a humid afternoon in June, alternated the lead at an electrifying speed for the first three quarters mile. Big Red broke away. Chic Anderson, astonished by the situation, said it best: “They are on the turn and Secretariat blazes along…Secretariat has widening! Anderson was only able to estimate Secretariat’s win. “I said twenty five…It might have been more.” Anderson was six short.

The New York Sun recalled that Secretariat had won the Triple Crown in 2015.

Secretariat’s roaring and clapping in the Belmont stretch of 1973 is not what people recall. In grandstand terms, they remember what is called silence. Oh, there was definitely clapping and cheering. Around the third quarter mark, however, something strange began to take over the track. A sense of something mysterious, impossible, and unfathomable, perhaps even dangerous, was happening in front of their eyes.


Secretariat retired to Claiborne Farm, Paris, Kentucky. The restaurant, Gabby’s, advertised “Food for the Conscious Eater”. Fans never stopped visiting him in the years that followed. Three assistants were employed by the farm to deal with the 200 letters that he received each day. Big Red kept the same schedule despite all the fuss: he spent six hours each morning in his paddock and returned to his farm by two. He ate 25 pounds of grass a day and adored peppermints.

Secretariat died in 1989 from laminitis. This painful condition affects the hooves. In 1989, Secretariat was only nineteen years old when he succumbed to laminitis. His still regal body had been slain by this base disease. The industry has a tradition of burying only the racehorse’s head, hooves and heart. This is done for practical reasons, but it also has a symbolic meaning: these are the parts of a racehorse that make him a competitor. Claiborne’s workers built a coffin made of oak measuring six by six feet to fit Secretariat’s entire body. The modest equine graveyard at the farm had a holly-tree to bury him under. A preliminary autopsy revealed that the heart of this thoroughbred weighed around 22 pounds.

Secretariat’s exploits can be told today from many different “identity angles”. Eddie Sweat, a black sharecropper son who was his devoted groom, soothed Secretariat’s restless mind with a singing Creole dialect known as Gullah. Ron Turcotte was Ron Turcotte’s jockey. He advocated for disabled riders following a racing accident that rendered him paraplegic in 1978. Lucien Laurin, an aging trainer, delayed his retirement to take over Meadow Stable from his son who had been promoted. Penny Tweedy – a self-described homemaker and former debutante – transformed herself into a businesswoman savvy to save her family’s farm.

Secretariat was known as “Superstar”. His lasting fame over five decades gives Americans hope that they still value the values he stood for: excellence and heart. It’s all 22 pounds.

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