Greatness in a Race Horse

With this weekend’s completion of the Triple Crown, I thought I would mention the horse I regard as the greatest race horse of all time: Secretariat. If one is interestest in greatness, then the Secretariat is your horse. Secretariat was, of course, a Triple Crown winner in 1973 – the first triple crown winner in 25 years.

But the truly amazing thing about Secretariat is that he set records in all three Triple Crown races – and those records still stand today, more than 40 years later. In the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat ran a 1:59:40, the only horse to run the race in less than 2 minutes except for Monarchos’s 1:59:97 in 2001. Aside from Monarchos, no horse has ran below 2:01 and this year’s winner, California Chrome, ran a 2:03.66 – more than 4 seconds slower.

In the Preakness, Secretariat ran a 1:53, a whole second faster than any horse prior to that running and still the record in that race. By comparison, California Chrome’s time was 1:54.84. The story here is a bit more complicated, however, due to timing problems. According to Wikipedia:

The time of the race was controversial. The infield teletimer displayed a time of 1:55. The track’s electronic timer had malfunctioned because of damage caused by members of the crowd crossing the track to reach the infield. The Pimlico Race Course clocker, E.T. McLean Jr., announced a hand time of 1:54:40. However, two Daily Racing Form clockers claimed the time was 1:53.40, which would have broken the track record (1:54 by Cañonero II). Tapes of Secretariat and Cañonero II were played side by side by CBS, and Secretariat got to the finish line first on tape, though this was not a reliable method of timing a horse race at the time. The Maryland Jockey Club, which managed the Pimlico racetrack and is responsible for maintaining Preakness records, discarded both the electronic and Daily Racing Form times and recognized 1:54:40 as the official time. However, Daily Racing Form, for the first time in history, printed its own clocking of 1:53:40 next to the official time in the chart of the race.

On June 19, 2012, a special meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission was convened at Laurel Park at the request of Penny Chenery, who hired companies to conduct a forensic review of the videotapes of the race. After over two hours of testimony, the commission unanimously voted to change the time of Secretariat’s win from 1:54:40 to 1:53, establishing a new stakes record. The Daily Racing Form then announced that it would honor the commission’s ruling with regard to the running time.

The finale was the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont is a different, much longer, race, with a distance of 1.5 mile as compared to 1.25 mile and 1 3/16 mile distances of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Could Secretariat run the longer distance?  Of course, he could – in fact, he was more dominant there than in the other races.

Secretariat again won the race, outdistancing his closest rival by 31 lengths and setting the record of 2:24, which continues to hold. No Belmont Stakes winner has even come close, with the next fastest time being 2:26:00. In fact, Secretariat’s time was the fastest 1.5 miles on dirt in history.

What does all of this have to do with law and politics? I am not sure, but I think greatness is an important value and recognizing greatness – even in a horse – is worthy of the occasional mention.

Mike Rappaport

Professor Rappaport is Darling Foundation Professor of Law at the University of San Diego, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism. Professor Rappaport is the author of numerous law review articles in journals such as the Yale Law Journal, the Virginia Law Review, the Georgetown Law Review, and the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. His book, Originalism and the Good Constitution, which is co-authored with John McGinnis, was published by the Harvard University Press in 2013.  Professor Rappaport is a graduate of the Yale Law School, where he received a JD and a DCL (Law and Political Theory).

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  1. James W Cotter says

    The sculptor who was contracted to do Secreteriat did all the measurements and calculations necessary and is reported to have said, “It’s as if God said, ‘You think you’ve seen horses, I’ll show you a horse.’ And then he made Secretariat.”

  2. djf says

    To be sure, Secretariat was a great racehorse, but even that noble beast could not compete with the current occupant of the White House in the output of the end-product of equine digestion.

  3. says

    One would be hard pressed to understate Secretariat’s greatness. The 1973 Belmont speaks for itself: . I agree with Prof. Rappaport that recognizing greatness is really a good in itself. Perhaps recognizing that which is great in Secretariat can serve as an object lesson to recognizing great accomplishments in the pursuit liberty? That said, it is hard to recognize greatness in the politicos of today (but perhaps that is as it should be).

  4. Haflings Harrison says

    Secretariat was a once-in-a-100-years horse. But many great ones came before and after. Sadly, after Saturday’s Belmont the casual race follower will no longer be interested in the Triple Crown since they view the race as “rigged” in favor of elite east coast owners/trainers. The letter of the law was followed, which is better than how our current political class operates at least. But for me there is a serious question about the last minute entry of the Belmont winner whose owner just happens to be a member of New York Racing Association’s Board of Trustees.

  5. Peter Stiefel says

    If you want to see speed in a thoroughbred, watch Secretariat pass the entire Preakness field on the first turn. Big Red is the greatest ever.

    It is a little unfortunate for Sham to have been a three year old in 1973. In any other year here very well may have won the Triple Crown and most certainly would have recorded two of the fastest times in the Derby and Preakness. As one author said regarding Sham: in 1973, greatness was only second best.

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