A Cool Discovery During Horse Racing Season

Secretariat had an exceptionally large heart, a condition that is linked to a genetic trait called the X-factor, carried by the X chromosome.

During the recent horse racing season, I was fortunate to discover an incredibly wonderful, electrifying and riveting movie. Yet some viewers would consider it boring. After all, there are no explosions, no special effects and no sex scenes.

The movie is “Secretariat” (Disney, 2010), named after one the greatest race horses ever. The American Thoroughbred was only 16’2 hands tall and 1,200 pounds. In 1973, Big Red, as he was nicknamed, became the first U.S. Triple Crown champion in 25 years. Incredibly, some of his records still stand today, almost 40 years later.

Secretariat’s specialty seemed to be that he started races rather slowly and sped up to beat his competitors toward the end. Among others:

  • In the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga Race Course (New York, 1972), he passed eight horses in a quarter mile and ended up winning by five lengths.
  • In the Laurel Futurity (Maryland, 1972), he won by eight lengths.

Then came the 1973 Triple Crown, which consists of three races:

  • In the Kentucky Derby, Big Red broke last, but won by 2 1/2 lengths.
  • In the Preakness Stakes (Maryland), he again broke last, and won by 2 1/2 lengths.
  • The Belmont Stakes (New York) may be where he made history, and anybody watching (in real time or during the movie) had to be in complete awe. After Secretariat took the lead, he went on to win the race by an amazing 31 lengths.

Whether you are in the horse world or not, surely you’ve heard of a horse beating another by one nose, one head, one neck or one length. But Big Red won the Belmont by 31 lengths!

During the Belmont, he broke all kinds of records, including the fastest 1.5 miles on dirt in recorded history (2:24), which still stands today. This comes out to an average speed of 37.5 mph.

Along the way, Secretariat became a celebrity coast-to-coast, and appeared on the cover of three national magazines—Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated—just like a movie star or an Olympic athlete.

Secretariat was euthanized in 1989, at age 19, after a difficult bout of laminitis. According to Wikipedia, “Usually only the head, heart, and hooves of a winning race horse are buried, and the rest of the body is cremated.” But Big Red “was given the rare honor of being buried whole.”

Well, actually, he only received this honor after being necropsied. This exam revealed that he had an exceptionally large heart, possibly more than twice as large as the average size.

This condition is linked to a genetic trait called the X-factor, carried by the X chromosome. This may explain why out of the 600 foals he sired, Secretariat was not known for the talent of his male offspring. He was, however, a good broodmare sire, likely because of this X-factor.

Incidentally, one of my colleagues and referring vets owns a grandson of Secretariat. Muddy Sneakers has features and a personality that are remarkably similar to Grandpa’s.

One of the many amazing features of this uplifting story is that Secretariat was taken over by Penny Chenery, a housewife and a mom who initially didn’t know much about horses. This is especially impressive in the male-dominated equine world. One of her memorable quotes was: “I will not live the rest of my life in regret.”

More of us should think that way.

** For more information on Secretariat, you can visit a web site entirely dedicated to him: www.secretariat.com.


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