“He was emphatically great: overwhelmingly fast, game, enduring and consistent,” Hillenbrand explained of War Admiral. “He was magnificently beautiful, a glittering creature. His biggest hook was his hell-for-leather personality: He was so impatient to run that he dragged his handlers to the track, delayed starts endlessly by spinning and plunging, trying to break free and run, and in the Belmont Stakes, burst from the gate so hard that he tore off a chunk of his hoof and ran the entire mile and a half with blood spraying over his belly, yet still won with ease, capturing the Triple Crown and setting an American speed record. People saw that and shivered. This was greatness.”
War Admiral also benefited from perfect timing, Hillenbrand notes, arriving when racing was the country’s fastest growing sport, the only legally sanctioned form of gambling and covered intensely by daily newspapers, radio broadcasts and newsreel documentaries.
“Perhaps most important, America was in the depths of the Depression,” Hillenbrand added. “People wanted to escape through sports heroes, and this glamorous creature was a natural sell. War Admiral was everywhere, he had everything, and he was irresistible. Thus, he transcended racing and became a cultural phenomenon.”
Nearly four decades later, Secretariat did, as well.
In 1973, America was riven by the Vietnam War and mired in the Watergate scandal when Secretariat arrived at Belmont Park in pursuit of the Triple Crown. A strapping and handsome 16.2 hands, Big Red, as the chestnut colt was called, had a personality every bit as large.
He sulked after his rare defeats then stormed back to shatter track records in his next outings. He loved the spotlight, famous for stopping and posing whenever he heard camera shutters click. And he had a heart that was twice the normal size—a fact discovered during his necropsy, which explained his exceptional lung capacity and something about the soul within.
A half-century later, veteran Newark Star-Ledger sportswriter Jerry Izenberg, 81, one of three journalists to chronicle every Super Bowl, describes covering Secretariat’s victory at the Belmont, in which he crushed the field by a record 31 lengths, as one of the greatest thrills of his career.
“You hadda see it!” Izenberg gasps, recounting Secretariat’s unfathomably lead: first 15 lengths, then 20 lengths, then so far ahead that jockey Ron Turcotte turned around in his saddle in disbelief and the TV broadcast went to a split screen to prove there were other horses in the race.