The Return of ‘Big Red’

Legends
1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat in retirement. (BloodHorse Library)

In 1920, they hadn’t yet started calling the Triple Crown the Triple Crown. Back then, the Kentucky Derby wasn’t thought to be much of a race, and it was just a few days before the Preakness. That’s the race that the owners of the horse folks called “Big Red,” a red chestnut that stood 16 hands, one and five-eighths inches, targeted for their horse to make his first start as a 3-year-old.

“Big Red” won that race, and went on to win all 11 of his starts that year. With a combined record of 20 wins and one second-place finish, he was retired at the end of that year. For more than 50 years the horse, whose actual name was Man o’ War, was considered the greatest racehorse of all time. None would dare compare their horse with that big, red chestnut. None would dare call their horse by Man o’ War’s nickname. There could be only one “Big Red.”

In a poem written in 1937 by the editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse, Joe Estes, some 17 years after Man o’ War was retired, Estes wondered if ever another horse could match Man o’ War’s talents.

The poem was titled “Big Red” and it finished:

We watch the heroes parading,

We wait, and our eyes are dim,

But we never discover another

Like him.

A foal is born at midnight

And in the frosty morn

The horseman eyes him fondly

And a secret hope is born.

But breathe it not, nor whisper,

For fear of a neighbor's scorn:

He's a chestnut colt, and he's got a star-

He may be another Man o' War.

Nay, say it aloud—be shameless.

Dream and hope and yearn,

For there's never a man among you

But waits for his return. 

And so it remained for more than 50 years after Man o’ War’s final race. The world waited for his return. In 1970, on a farm in Virginia, the wait finally ended. A bigger, redder chestnut was foaled. The first five names submitted for the horse were rejected by The Jockey Club, before they finally settled on Secretariat. It mattered not to Penny Chenery, the horse’s owner. She always just called him “Big Red.”

Secretariat followed in Man o’ War’s large footsteps, racing at many of the same tracks and races, including the New York circuit and winning the only race that Man o’ War ever lost - the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga. It may have seemed like blasphemy to refer to Secretariat as “Big Red,” to talk about him in the same manner as the legendary Man o’ War. But by the end of his 3-year-old season, which saw him capture the first Triple Crown in 25 years, the ninth in history, folks knew that Secretariat was something special, a once in a lifetime racehorse who broke records in all three legs of the Triple Crown.

He went on after winning the 1973 Triple Crown to race six more times, winning four of those starts. For his penultimate race, Secretariat’s connections chose to enter him in his first-ever start on grass. The race was named the Man o’ War Stakes, in honor of the original “Big Red.” After Secretariat won it by five lengths, turf writers accepted that Secretariat was indeed worthy of the “Big Red” moniker. In fact, they would do him one better. The day after the Man o’ War Stakes they took to calling their champion “Super Red.” No longer did they whisper. No longer did they fear their neighbor’s scorn.

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