Champion racehorses share some of the same qualities. The first is a big heart -- figuratively and literally. The heart of most horses weighs approximately 10 pounds. The heart muscle of a thoroughbred racehorse weighs, on average, double that to accommodate pumping enough blood and oxygen needed by the horse's muscles. A long stride and an innate ability to synchronize breathing with the estimated 150 strides per minute that a racing horse takes also is required.
He raced only two years, 1972 and 1973, yet Secretariat remains professional horse racing's most celebrated equine. The winnings from his races totaled more than $1.3 million. He won 16 of the 21 races he ran. His most impressive set of races were run during his second year as a three-year-old colt when he won horse racing's Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. In doing so, he set set new track records at each venue. Secretariat died in 1989 after siring 653 foals, 57 of which have been stakes winners.
He was the first horse to win more than $1 million. As the 1948 winner of the Triple Crown, Citation then won that year's Pimlico Special, a winner-take-all race, because no other stables dared race their horses against him. Citation raced four years - 1947, 1948, 1950 and 1951. The development of an osselet, a stretching of the joint capsule in the front legs of horses, kept him sidelined for 1949. Of his 45 starts, Citation took first place 32 times, came in second 10 times and was third twice.
His bounding leap remains the standard by which other race horses are judged even though Man o'War's post World War I running days are long over. Of his 21 starts, he lost only one as a two-year-old at the 1919 Sanford Memorial Stakes because his back was turned to the starting barrier. Man o'War is best known for winning even though he carried significantly more "handicap" weight -- in one race, an unheard of 130 pounds -- to even the odds than did other horses.
In 1977, Seattle Slew became the 10th horse to win the Triple Crown, but the first to do so in an undefeated season. His racing career almost did not happen. Considered an ugly horse due to being a plain, dark color with big floppy ears, Seattle Slew was ineligible for the more prestigious horse auctions. It took the insight of a veterinarian who studied his bloodlines to discover Seattle Slew, indeed, could be a strong runner. He had 14 wins in 17 starts, netting more than $1.2 million.
He was named American Horse of the Year five times in a row from 1960 through 1964 by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. His dominance as a consistent winner for five years itself is unusual in a sport whose equine athletes usually retire after only two years of competition. That he did it as a gelding, a male whose testicles and often competitive drive have been removed, also sets his accomplishment apart as most male racehorses are left intact.
He was named American Horse of the Year in 1980 when, as a four-year-old, he ran nine races undefeated. He won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1979, but faltered in the Belmont Stakes due to a hoof injury caused the morning of the race when the horse stepped on a safety pin. In 1980, he ran California's Santa Anita Park Grub Stakes mile and quarter in 1:57.8 -- a new world record for dirt track horse racing that still stands as of 2013.
In his three-year career spanning 1952 through 1954, Native Dancer lost only one race: The 1953 Kentucky Derby, thus costing him the Triple Crown. He had 21 wins from 22 starts in his nearly perfect career, which was cut short by a foot injury. Despite the 1953 Derby loss, he was named that year's Champion Three Year Old Colt by the thoroughbred racing association. T.V. Guide gave his second place to Ed Sullivan as the biggest attraction on television. Horse racing legend dictates his ghost still haunts Churchill Downs -- the home of the Kentucky Derby.
His lineage hints of racing royalty. He is the great-great-grandson of War Admiral, the 1937 Triple Crown winner, and great-great-great grandson of Man o'War. He had 22 wins from 29 starts, but he is best remembered for his neck-and-neck battles against Alydar -- especially the 1978 Belmont Stakes in which the two horses changed leads throughout the race, with Affirmed edging his competitor by just a nose's length in the end. He beat Spectacular Bid in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, but lost to Seattle Slew by three lengths in the 1978 Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap.
It wasn't just his 18 wins from 22 starts that allowed Dr. Fager to leave his mark on U.S. horse racing. As of 2013, he remains the only horse to hold four titles in one year. He did it in 1968 when he was named horse of the year, champion handicap horse, champion sprinter and co-champion grass horse. That same year, he set a still-standing dirt track record for the one mile length in his run in the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park while carrying 134 pounds.
In a sport where long legs mean covering more ground in each stride, his smaller than usual stature was no impairment for War Admiral. He was a mere 15.3 hands, significantly shorter than his champion father Man o'War at 16.2. While he didn't get height from his father, War Admiral did inherit Man o'War's fighting spirit and talent for running. He won 21 of his 26 starts, including the 1937 Triple Crown.
- Secretariat:: Secretariat History
- Spiletta: Citation
- Thorough Bred Heritage: Man o'War
- Belmont Stakes: Seattle Slew
- National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame: Kelso
- Spilletta: Spectacular Bid: 1980 Horse of the Year
- Danny Sheridan: Famous Horses -- Native Dancer
- Spiletta: Native Dancer
- Spiletta: Dr. Fager
- The Vault: Horse Racing Past and Present: War Admiral -- The Little Horse Who Could
- BloodHorse: Triple Crown Winner Affirmed Euthanized
- Regarding Horses: Thoroughbred Racing's Greatest Rivalry
- Google Books: Thoroughbred Champions -- Top 100 Racehorses Of The 20th Century
- New York Times: The Rail: Me and Dr. Fager
- Science Blog: Horse Racing: The Sport of Kings and the King of Sports
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.