The two greatest American thoroughbred racehorses of the twentieth century are considered to be Man o’ War and Secretariat. Both had many similarities which may have helped them become the champions that they were. There will probably never be any racehorse that will come close to the accomplishments of either of these two horses. This is because the thoroughbred breed is highly inbred. Thoroughbreds from today are just not as physically strong as thoroughbreds from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Man o’ War raced in 1919 and 1920. He was retired because no one would race their horses against him. Secretariat raced from 1972 to 1973. He was also retired because there was no other horse left for him to beat. Even though both are considered the best thoroughbreds America ever produced, neither had perfect race records. Both horses raced 21 times in their careers. Man o’ War lost only one race which may have been fixed (Ours, 2007) while Secretariat lost five times.
Both horses had the same nickname – Big Red. This is because both were red chestnut in color and were large, even by thoroughbred standards. Both horses had white stripes down their nose called blazes. Secretariat also had three white socks, which means he had white located from his hooves to just below his knees. However, a horse’s coloring had nothing to do with a horse’s speed. It is just an incredible coincidence that the two best American thoroughbreds ever were both red chestnuts with blazes. Thoroughbreds come in many colors, but the most common color is bay, or a brown horse with a black mane and tail. Chestnut comes in many shades, from light gold to dark liver chestnut. Chestnut is the second most common color in thoroughbreds. Although some horse breeders such as the influential Italian breeder Federico Tesio believe that some colors make better racehorses, this has never been proven. Tesio, for example, hated gray horses and claimed they were inferior (Tesio, 2005, p 105.) This is one reason why gray thoroughbreds are rarely seen.
Both developed very early for horses. Horses are not physically mature until they are five years old, but both Man o’ War and Secretariat had the build of an adult horse when they were only two years old. Since thoroughbreds are made to race at two, this gave Man o’ War and Secretariat a physical advantage.
Both horses had large chests that horsemen call “deep chests.” This large chest housed hearts that turned out to be exceptionally large for a horse, let alone a thoroughbred. Although many horses are not given necropsies at the time of their deaths, these two were. Their hearts were not weighed, but the veterinarians performing the necropsies both stated that the hearts were about the largest they had ever seen. The veterinarian for Secretariat’s necropsy estimated the heart weight at 22 pounds (Scanlan, 2010.) Man o’ War died of a series of heart attacks while Secretariat died from a disease called laminitis. Secretariat was overweight most of his life. He was overweight when he contracted laminitis. His overly large heart might have given him health problems if he had survived his attack of laminitis. Large hearts are able to give the horse’s body enough oxygen even when they have been racing for miles (Young, 2002.)
Secretariat was not given much hope of ever being a good racehorse when he was two years old because he was fat and had difficulty losing weight. Man o’ War was also originally not considered much as a potential racehorse. He was originally bought at auction by Samuel Riddle in the hope that Man o’ War could be a hunter, or a horse used in foxhunts. Both horses loved to eat, which may have helped their careers. Thoroughbreds are very nervous animals that do not like changes. Traveling is one of the most stressful events that can happen to horses. When horses are anxious, they do not eat and get sick as a result. Both Secretariat and Man o’ War had healthy appetites even during or after travel. Man o’ War traveled often by train while Secretariat mainly traveled by roads in trailers specially made for horses.
Both horses were also difficult to train. Man o’ War was difficult to hold back during his training runs. His trainer worried that Man o’ War would burn himself out before a race, but he never did. Secretariat also was difficult to train, but for another reason. He hated his workouts and would only put forth his best efforts during his actual races. Even a whip could not get Secretariat to run hard in the mornings.
Both horses also had exceptionally long strides. This helped the horses to travel further with less effort than most other horses. Man o’ War’s stride was measured at twenty-eight feet while Secretariat’s was measured at 25.2 feet. Experts argue over what is the average length of a racehorse’s stride, but all agree that it is less than 25 feet.
Why did both horses become legends? It was not that they just won races – it was how they won races. Man o’ War rarely had to race his hardest against his opponents. When he was three, he set eight speed records for different distances (Ours, 2007.) He won one race by a remarkable 100 lengths – or at least the huge gap between Man o’ War and the only other horse in the race, Hoodwink, was estimated to be 100 lengths. Secretariat not only won the 1973 Triple Crown, but he broke the stakes records each time. His Belmont Stakes victory was done in world record time. He won that race a full eighth of a mile ahead of the other horses. Man o’ War also won the Belmont Stakes back in 1920 and also set an American record for the distance which was not broken until 1961. Secretariat’s world record set in the 1973 Belmont Stakes has yet to be broken.
After retirement, both horses became breeding stallions. Both were considered successes at stud, even though both had limited access to mares. Samuel Riddle was very choosy about which mares could breed to Man o’ War, so the stallion sometimes bred only a few mares a season. Man o’ War lived to be 30. Secretariat’s breeding career was stopped when he died from laminitis at the age of 18. Man o’ War’s influence is most strongly seen in his influential son War Admiral, the winner of the Triple Crown in 1937. Secretariat’s influence has mainly been through his daughters, which have foaled champions such as 1990 Preakness winner Summer Squall and Storm Cat. Storm Cat is considered one of the most influential stallions in the latter half of the twentieth century and in the first years of the twenty-first century. Secretariat’s sons include 1988 Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star. Many pedigrees of today’s thoroughbred champions trace back to Man o’ War, Secretariat, Fair Play (Man o’ War’s sire) and Bold Ruler (Secretariat’s sire.)
Man o’ War and Secretariat raced decades apart and yet shared many similarities. Some similarities were entirely coincidental, such as their coloring, but some were due to their physical build, such as their unusually large hearts. Both set records during their careers. Both became prominent stallions in the breeding shed. Both horses became two of the best equine athletes America ever produced. Both have been honored with the title “legend.” Both have been featured in art and film. The likes of both will never be seen again.
Ours, Dorothy. Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2007. Print.
Scanlan, Lawrence . The Horse God Built: The Untold Story of Secretariat, the World’s Greatest Racehorse. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010. Print.
Tesio, Federico. In His Own Words. Neenah: Russell Meerdink Company, 2005 edition. Print.
Young, L. E., et al. “Heart size estimated by echocardiography correlates with maximal oxygen uptake.” Equine veterinary journal 34.S34 (2002): 467-471.