Skip to Content

Was Secretariat the Fastest Horse to Ever Race?

Last updated: August 17, 2023

By: Miles HenryFact Checked

If a person only knows the name of one racehorse, it’s likely Secretariat. He’s the Elvis Presley, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali of horse racing. But what made him so famous? Was Secretariat the fastest horse ever?

He set speed records at multiple distances and on different racing surfaces, yet the Guinness World Record recognizes another horse, Winning Brew, as the fastest. Why this discrepancy? Secretariat is hailed as the greatest racehorse of all time; he annihilated his opponents and shattered course records.

Known as “Big Red” because of his deep crimson color and imposing body, his legend transcends mere speed. In the pages that follow, we’ll explore the complex factors that contribute to his fame and unravel the mystery of whether he truly was the fastest horse to ever race.

A Background on Horse Racing and Secretariat’s Triumphs

Horse racing has deep roots that span continents and millennia. From chariot races in ancient Rome to the more organized thoroughbred racing in 18th-century England, this sport has evolved to become a spectacle of speed, strategy, and endurance.

Modern horse racing can be divided into various categories, such as flat racing, steeplechasing, and harness racing, each with its unique characteristics. The pursuit of speed has always been at the heart of horse racing, making it an exciting and competitive sport.

By Jlvsclrk

The Glorious Career of Secretariat

Secretariat’s career is a vivid chapter in the rich history of horse racing. Born in 1970, he burst onto the racing scene with an imposing presence and a knack for winning.

  • Triple Crown Victory (1973): Secretariat’s crowning achievement was winning the Triple Crown, a feat that includes victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes. His performance in these races was nothing short of breathtaking.
  • Kentucky Derby: Breaking the two-minute barrier, Secretariat ran the 1.25 miles in 1:59 2/5, a record that still stands.
  • Belmont Stakes: His 31-length victory in this race remains legendary, showcasing his unmatched endurance and speed.
  • Additional Successes: Beyond the Triple Crown, Secretariat won other prestigious races, including the Arlington Invitational and the Man o’ War Stakes, solidifying his reputation as one of the greatest racehorses.

Understanding Racing Times and Measurements

Measuring a racehorse’s speed involves more than just a stopwatch; it’s a complex process influenced by various factors.

  • Distance and Surface: Racing times are closely linked to the distance of the race and the surface on which it is run. Different tracks have different characteristics, which can affect a horse’s performance.
  • Timing Technology: Modern horse racing employs sophisticated technology, such as photo-finish cameras and electronic timing, to measure a horse’s speed accurately to a fraction of a second.
  • Comparative Analysis: Comparing racing times across different eras, tracks, and conditions requires careful analysis. Adjustments must be made for variations in track conditions, weather, and the quality of the competition.

In the world of horse racing, speed is more than just a number; it’s a symbol of excellence and dominance. Understanding the nuances of how racing times are measured is essential to appreciating the remarkable achievements of horses like Secretariat.

How Fast was Secretariat?

Secretariat was fast enough to win the triple crown at record speed in each race. He could run off the pace or go wire to wire. And he could also win on any surface and any distance. His versatility and speed are why many racing fans consider him the greatest racehorse of all time.

Secretariat’s averaged 37.7 mph in Triple Crown races.

Secretariat’s average speed in Triple Crown races was 37.7 mph, fast enough to set a new record in each race. His accomplishments in these prestigious races still have not been matched.

To gain a true appreciation for Secretariats accomplishments compared to other racehorses, I recommend you read my article about the fastest horses in the world and the records they hold,

Secretariat ran the Kentucky Derby in 1:59 flat.

In 1973 he set a new standard for the Kentucky Derby. He ran the mile-and-a-quarter distance in 1:59 flat and became the first horse to complete the race in under two minutes. His winning Kentucky Derby time still stands.

Secretariat set a world record for 1 1/2 miles in 2:24.

Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 30 lengths and set a new world record for a mile and a half running it in 2:24. Of course, setting a new world record is phenomenal, but what is truly amazing is how he accomplished the feat.

“Big Red” ran each furlong faster than the previous one and broke the stakes record by 25 lengths and the track record by over two seconds. He still owns the one-and-a-half-mile record, and, likely, it will never be broken.

Secretariat was fast at all distances.

Secretariat was fast at any distance and on any surface. The following are his times at various lengths.

  • 6 furlongs      1:09 4/5 
  • 1 mile              1:33 2/5 
  • 1 1/16               1:42 4/5 
  • 1 1/8                 1:45 2/5 
  • 1 3/16               1:53 2/5 
  • 1 ¼                   1:59 flat 
  • 1 3/8                 2:12 1/5 
  • 1 1/2                 2:24 flat 
  • 1 5/8                 2:37 4/5 

“Big Red” was fast across the board and against the toughest competition. He possessed power, speed, and stamina. He could win by coming off the pace or win wire to wire.

Why was Secretariat so Fast?

Secretariat is said to have the perfect racehorse conformation; he was big, powerful, and straight. But that doesn’t account for his speed. There are a lot of racehorses with superb conformation that can’t win a race. So what made “Big Red” special?

Secretariat was so fast because he had outstanding conformation, an unusually large heart, and exceptional stride length.

Heart size

After his death, his body was examined, and it was noted that his heart was much larger than an average racehorse’s heart. The average weight of a Thoroughbred’s heart is eight and a half pounds, and “Big Red’s” heart is estimated to weigh 22 pounds.

Racehorse enthusiasts believe there is a relationship between the size of the heart and the speed of a racehorse. Marianna Haun, after learning the scope of Secretariat’s heart, decided to investigate how this phenomenon occurred. Her research evolved into a series of books on racehorse heart size.

Ms. Haun delves into the history of horses with large hearts and traces the genes that continue this trait to modern Thoroughbreds. Her first book is The X Factor, What it Is & How to find it: The Relationship Between Inherited Heart Size and Racing Performance. The book can be purchased here.

Ms. Haun’s third book is focused on Secretariat’s heart size and is aimed to help breeders develop horses with exceptional hearts. The book is appropriately titled, Solving the Mystery of Secretariat’s Heart, and can be purchased here.

Stride mechanics

Stride mechanics involves an analysis of a horse’s stride, stride rate, and stride angle. Stride is the distance a horse travels in a single leap. Secretariat’s stride is estimated to be 25 feet.

Stride rate is the number of strides over a given time, typically measured per minute. The average racehorse has a stride of 20 feet and a stride rate of 135 per minute. Fast horses can speed up their stride rate without reducing the length of their strides.

The stride angle is the distance between a horse’s front and back foot measured from the push-off point of the rear foot. The stride angle is used to determine how much a horse flattens out when racing.

The higher the stride angle, the longer the strides. Secretariat’s stride angle is the highest of any racehorse; his stride angle was calculated to be 110 degrees.

Secretariat had a long stride, great stride rate, and high stride angle coupled with a huge strong heart, excellent muscle tone, and a solid frame. All the components needed for setting incredible horse racing records.


Comparing Secretariat to Other Legendary Horses

The sport of horse racing has given rise to many legendary horses, each with its unique blend of speed, skill, and charisma. Comparing Secretariat to these legends involves considering various factors like records, racing times, and the conditions under which they raced. Let’s delve into a comparison that goes beyond mere numbers.

Overview of Other Historical Racehorses

The pantheon of great racehorses is vast, and several names stand out as contenders for the title of the fastest horse:

These and other legendary horses have shaped the sport and offer intriguing comparisons to Secretariat.

Comparison of Records and Racing Times

Analyzing the records and racing times of these horses against Secretariat’s accomplishments reveals an intricate picture:

  • Man o’ War vs. Secretariat: Though racing in different eras, both horses displayed dominance. Man o’ War won 20 of his 21 races, while Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory stands as a pinnacle achievement.
  • Seattle Slew vs. Secretariat: Seattle Slew’s perfect season and Triple Crown win place him in close contention with Secretariat, though differences in tracks and competition add complexity to the comparison.
  • Winning Brew vs. Secretariat: Winning Brew’s speed record makes for an interesting debate, but comparing a short-distance record to Secretariat’s longer races is not straightforward.

Differences in Tracks, Conditions, and Racing Technologies

Comparing horses across different eras requires understanding the changes in the sport over time:

  • Tracks: The design, maintenance, and surface of racing tracks have evolved, affecting how horses perform.
  • Conditions: Weather and seasonal variations can impact a horse’s racing time, adding another layer to the comparison.
  • Racing Technologies: Advances in timing technology, training methods, and veterinary care all play a role in assessing a horse’s speed and performance.

Comparing Secretariat to other legendary horses is a fascinating but complex task. The fastest horse is not simply determined by clocked time; it’s an intricate interplay of records, racing conditions, and the ever-evolving nature of the sport itself.

Secretariat’s place in this illustrious lineage is secured by his awe-inspiring victories and timeless legacy, but the debate over the fastest horse ever continues to intrigue and inspire fans and experts alike. The quest for speed is, in many ways, the heartbeat of horse racing, and these legendary horses all contribute to that thrilling pursuit.

Contemporary Comparisons to Secretariat

In the ever-evolving sport of horse racing, new talents continually emerge, challenging the records and reputations of legends like Secretariat. Modern racehorses, benefiting from advancements in training, breeding, and technology, have put forth impressive performances that invite comparison to the greats of the past. Let’s explore this exciting dynamic.

Introduction to Modern Racehorses Challenging Secretariat’s Records

Several contemporary racehorses have exhibited remarkable speed and skill, raising questions about how they stack up against Secretariat’s historic records:

  • American Pharoah: The 2015 Triple Crown winner captured imaginations with his fluid running style and tenacity.
  • Arrogate: Known for his extraordinary ability to accelerate; Arrogate won some of the most prestigious races, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
  • Justify: Winning the Triple Crown in 2018, Justify’s undefeated career places him among the elite racehorses of the modern era.

These horses, among others, represent the pinnacle of contemporary racing and offer an intriguing comparison to Secretariat.

Comparison of Times and Achievements

The achievements and racing times of modern racehorses showcase an incredible level of competition:

  • American Pharoah vs. Secretariat: While American Pharoah’s Triple Crown victory was historic, his times in individual races did not surpass Secretariat’s records.
  • Arrogate vs. Secretariat: Arrogate’s acceleration and strategic victories provide a unique contrast to Secretariat’s more dominant running style.
  • Justify vs. Secretariat: Justify’s unbeaten streak adds a fascinating dimension, though a head-to-head comparison of times reveals differences in their performances.

These comparisons illustrate the thrilling diversity of talent and strategy in horse racing, both past and present.

Examination of Advances in Training, Breeding, and Technology

Understanding the differences between contemporary racehorses and Secretariat’s era requires an examination of the significant advancements in the sport:

  • Training Methods: Modern training techniques, including personalized fitness regimens and data-driven performance analysis, have refined the way racehorses are conditioned.
  • Breeding Practices: Selective breeding, utilizing genetic insights and careful lineage tracing, has contributed to the development of faster and more resilient racehorses.
  • Technology’s Impact: From superior track maintenance to advanced veterinary care, technology plays a vital role in enhancing a horse’s performance and well-being.

The comparison between Secretariat and today’s top racehorses is a testament to the enduring allure and complexity of horse racing. While the legendary “Big Red” continues to loom large over the sport, the achievements and potential of contemporary racehorses highlight an ongoing evolution in speed and performance.

This rich tapestry of history and innovation ensures that the question of who is the fastest horse remains as captivating as ever, a thrilling chase that reflects the very essence of horse racing.

secretariat, racehorse, big red, horse racing, race,
By Calstanhope

The Speed Debate: Secretariat’s Standing as the Fastest Horse

The question of whether Secretariat stands as the fastest horse is more than a matter of numbers and records. It sparks lively debates and stirs emotions among fans, historians, and experts alike. Differing opinions, potential biases, and controversies related to cross-era comparisons contribute to an ongoing and multifaceted discussion.

Exploration of Differing Opinions

Opinions about Secretariat’s standing in horse racing history are as varied as they are passionate:

  • Supporters of Secretariat: Many argue that Secretariat’s unparalleled Triple Crown performance and charismatic presence make him the fastest and most remarkable horse of all time.
  • Critics and Skeptics: Others contend that while Secretariat’s achievements are significant, newer generations of horses with advanced training and technology might surpass him in raw speed.

These differing viewpoints make for a rich and often heated debate that goes beyond mere statistics.

Discussion of Potential Biases

In analyzing Secretariat’s standing, several biases might color perceptions and judgments:

  • Sentimentality: The nostalgia and admiration associated with Secretariat’s era may lead some to idealize his performances, sometimes overlooking other equally remarkable horses.
  • Regional Biases: Geographical loyalty and cultural influences can sway opinions. For instance, American audiences may have a strong bias towards Secretariat, while other regions might favor their local legends.
  • Media Influence: The portrayal of Secretariat in films, books, and media might accentuate certain aspects of his career while downplaying others, shaping public perception.

Understanding these biases adds complexity to the evaluation of Secretariat’s legacy and the definition of speed in horse racing.

Examination of Controversies Related to Comparisons Across Different Eras and Conditions

Comparing Secretariat to horses from different eras opens Pandora’s box of controversies and challenges:

  • Technological Advancements: Changes in timing technology, track materials, and training methods can make direct comparisons tricky and often inconclusive.
  • Racing Conditions: Variations in track length, surface, weather, and competition rules further complicate cross-era comparisons.
  • Subjective Judgments: The criteria for evaluating the “fastest” horse may differ among experts, leading to disagreements and inconsistencies in ranking and assessment.

The debate surrounding Secretariat’s status as the fastest horse transcends the realm of sport and enters the territories of culture, emotion, and philosophy. It raises questions about how we measure greatness, what biases we may hold, and how we navigate the complex interplay of facts and feelings.

The controversy, in many ways, adds to the allure of horse racing, fueling discussions that keep the sport vibrant and engaging. In the end, the debate may be as endless and captivating as the pursuit of speed itself, reflecting the enduring magic of horse racing and the legends it creates.

Conclusion: Was Secretariat the Fastest Horse Ever?

The pursuit of determining the fastest horse, especially when centering on a legend like Secretariat, has led us on a fascinating journey through history, technology, passion, and debate. Whether Secretariat indeed holds the title as the fastest horse is a question laden with complexities and nuances. Let’s recapitulate our exploration.

Summary of the Evidence for and Against Secretariat Being the Fastest Horse

  • For Secretariat: His Triple Crown victory, with record-breaking times that still stand, is a testament to his extraordinary speed. The raw power, grace, and sheer dominance he displayed in his races are unassailable evidence of his greatness.
  • Against Secretariat: The emergence of contemporary racehorses and advancements in training and technology has challenged his records. The recognition of other horses like Winning Brew for their speed further muddles the determination of the fastest horse.

The evidence paints a picture rich in contrasts and affirmations, reflecting the dynamic nature of the sport.

Recognition of the Complexities Involved in Making Such a Determination

  • Comparative Challenges: Comparing Secretariat’s achievements to horses from different eras and conditions introduces numerous variables, from track surfaces to timing technologies.
  • Subjectivity and Bias: Emotions, nostalgia, media portrayals, and regional loyalties play a significant role in shaping opinions, adding another layer of complexity to the debate.

These intricacies remind us that the question is far from simple, and perhaps there’s beauty in its enduring ambiguity.

Final Thoughts on Secretariat’s Legacy and His Place in the History of Horse Racing

Secretariat’s place in the history of horse racing is undisputed. Whether or not he holds the definitive title of the fastest horse, “Big Red’s” contributions to the sport extend beyond the stopwatch. His charisma, his trailblazing performances, and his impact on the culture of horse racing are etched into the very soul of the sport.

Secretariat’s legacy transcends records; it’s woven into the tapestry of horse racing, inspiring generations of fans, jockeys, trainers, and horses. The debate over his speed is a testament to his lasting influence and the eternal quest for excellence that defines horse racing.

In the end, the question may remain unanswered, but the magic of Secretariat and the allure of the sport continue to captivate and thrill. The fastest horse may be a title, but the essence of horse racing lies in the chase, the struggle, the triumph, and legends like Secretariat that make it an enduring spectacle.

Additional resources

Miles Henry