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Heart of a champion

Everything about Secretariat in 1973 was big, including a heart twice the normal size.

By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published April 29, 2007


Of all the great thoroughbreds, 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat can lay easy claim to his share of best of all time.

Nicknamed Big Red, the amazing colt won the 11/4-mile Kentucky Derby in 1:592/5 - a mark that still stands (Sham's 1:594/5 is the second fastest time recorded).

After 21/2-length victories over Sham in the Derby and Preakness, Secretariat pulled off a Triple Crown tour-de-force - setting such a blistering pace in the Belmont that he wore out Sham at the halfway point, then pulled so far ahead of his four challengers that wide-angle TV cameras had trouble keeping him in the same frame as his pursuers.

Secretariat won by a mind-boggling 31 lengths June 9, setting a world record of 2:24, a mark that still stands for 11/2 miles on a dirt track. He clocked the fastest quarter-mile, half-mile, three-quarters mile and 11/4-mile splits in Belmont Park history - all still records.

So what made the horse - 35th on ESPN's list of the top 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century - so invincible? It wasn't only his impressive size: 16.2 hands (with a hand measuring 4 inches) and 1, 200 pounds.

"Secretariat set track record after track record, " says Seattle Slew trainer Billy Turner. "In his time, they were tightening up those tracks and making them super fast on the days Secretariat would run. But don't get me wrong - he could run.

"He had what we call a perfect gait, which means every stride that he took required a minimum of energy compared to the other horses. If he had to go a long distance, he'd use less energy to get from Point A to Point B. And the farther he went, the more devastating he became. The other horses simply couldn't keep up."

Then there was his heart - not just his symbolic, competitor's heart. The average thoroughbred's heart weighs between 10-12 pounds. When Secretariat's necropsy was performed in 1989, his heart weighed 21 pounds and still was in perfect condition.