BIG RED (1970-89)
Secretariat was buried at dusk on Oct. 4 in the horse cemetery at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., and by the end of last week his grave was beginning to look like the final resting place of a celebrated war hero on Memorial Day. It was surrounded by red roses, chrysanthemums and carnations. Most of the flowers had been sent by people who were strangers to the Claiborne staff, "names we don't even recognize," said Annette Covault, manager of horse records. Over the next few days a steady stream of visitors, some bearing still more flowers, drove through the gates to visit the gravesite.
Famous stallions are buried every year in Kentucky, but in death as in life. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, set his own standards, evoking emotions as no other horse of recent times has. "I can't believe all these flowers," said Dell Hancock, one of the owners of Claiborne, as she stood near the cemetery. "You see all this, and you suddenly realize the impact he had on people."
No American racehorse since Man o' War, the fiery chestnut who won 20 of 21 races in 1919 and '20, has had Secretariat's mass appeal. In the 20th century three U.S. horses—Secretariat, Man o' War and Citation, the 1948 Triple Crown winner—are regarded as indubitable giants of their kind. Secretariat was, by consensus, the most gifted racehorse of the past 40 years, and he had a pedigree to match. He was a son of the preeminent American stallion, Bold Ruler, and the great broodmare Somethingroyal.
Secretariat was a picture horse with an extraordinarily deep shoulder, well-sprung ribs for heart and lung room, and well-developed hindquarters for propulsive power. As a 2-year-old he exploded on the scene as no juvenile had in years, winning seven of nine races. So overpowering were his performances that at season's end he was named the 1972 Horse of the Year, the only 2-year-old ever to be so honored.
Playful but poised, Secretariat sometimes behaved more like a puppy than a colt. One morning a reporter was standing in front of the horse's stall, writing in a spiral notebook, when Secretariat stretched his neck, seized the notebook in his teeth and retreated into the stall. Dropping the notebook on a bed of straw, he looked up at the reporter as if to say, "Well, dummy, are you just going to stand there?"
There was no clowning on the racetrack, though. Secretariat's quest for the Triple Crown was a tour de force. He won the 1�-mile Kentucky Derby in 1:59[2/5], still the fastest Derby time ever run, and the only one under two minutes. Two weeks later he won the Preakness at Pimlico—he was, in all probability, robbed of a track record because Pimlico's timing device went awry—and in the next three weeks, before the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat became a national celebrity as he sought to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. In the Belmont he put on what is widely perceived as the greatest performance in the history of the sport, covering the 1�-mile distance in 2:24 to win by an astounding 31 lengths. The time shattered the track record by 2[3/5] seconds. "His only point of reference is himself," Charles Hatton, the Daily Racing Form columnist, wrote afterward.
Secretariat sired 41 stakes winners; he was a disappointment at stud only to those who unfairly expected him to sire horses who were his equal. He lived at Claiborne for 16 years, and despite the illustrious gathering of stallions there, he remained unchallenged as the farm's central attraction. One day a few years ago, a stretch limousine pulled into the farm and out stepped a fashionably dressed woman. "May I see Secretariat?" she asked. For many minutes she watched him romp around his outdoor paddock. Finally, a groom asked if she wanted to see any of the other stallions. "No thank you," she said, then climbed back into the limo and sped away.
"Ten thousand people come here a year, and they don't give a darn about the more accomplished stallions," said Claiborne president Seth Hancock the day before Secretariat died. "All they want to do is see him. He's not a horse; he's a legend."
On Labor Day, Secretariat was diagnosed as having a mild case of laminitis—an inflammation of the inner tissues of the hooves—but he soon appeared to be recovering. Suddenly, on the morning of Oct. 3, he began experiencing extreme pain. The next morning, Hancock and the farm's resident veterinarian, Dr. Walter Kaufman, decided to put Secretariat down. At 11:45 a.m., groom Bobby Anderson loaded Secretariat into a van outside his stall, and Kaufman gave him a lethal injection. He died in less than a minute. He was buried in an oak coffin not far from the grave of Bold Ruler.