So explains the many mysteries of this world, indeed the universe, and the possibility that some of the answers are there for us to uncover.
In the world of sport, the search for answers has led to breakthroughs in nutrition, equipment design, training techniques, playing surfaces, and the like.
However, not every mystery will be solved this side of eternity.
Yet we persist in digging, probing, and excavating tons of information in hopes of finding the ounce of truth: who is the fastest, the strongest, the greatest?
Jesse Owens or Carl Lewis?
Pele or Maradona?
Babe Didrickson Zaharias or Jackie Joyner-Kersee?
No definitive answer will ever come, given the disparity of eras, conditions, circumstances and information. We’re left with finding solace and satisfaction only in the pursuit of facts and in our final subjective opinion.
In that vein, one of the most cruel yet tantalizing of mysteries arises from the sport of kings: who was the greatest racehorse of all time?
We may have our personal favorites such as Affirmed, Seattle Slew, Citation, etc., but the consensus top-two equine champions of all time are none other than Man O’ War and Secretariat . The fantasy match up of these two superb athletes makes for one of the most exquisite quandaries one could imagine.
Separated by decades, there may be only a handful of humans still alive who were witness to the incredible feats of both horses. Even so, because the constantly-evolving sport was so different for both horses, an accurate comparison is impossible.
Nevertheless, allow this writer to provide some pertinent facts concerning these two front runners in the race for the title, Greatest Racehorse of All Time. Then, if you haven’t already made up your mind, you may decide.
Man O’ War and Secretariat’s uncanny similarities were more numerous than their differences. Both were big, strong, imposing stallion thoroughbreds. Chestnut in color, each was known affectionately as “Big Red.”
Secretariat was blessed with refined features and chiseled musculature, pleasing to the eye. Man O’ War was half-a-hand taller and slightly more bulky in frame…ruggedly handsome. Neither horse would have met rejection in the presence of an amorous filly.
War was foaled on March 29, 1917; Secretariat on March 30, 1970. Each had 21 races and competed only as 2 and 3-year-olds. Part of the mystique surrounding these two specimens is the speculation as to “what might have been” had they continued racing as 4 and 5-year-olds.
What separates these two subjects from all other outstanding horses is their total dominance during their racing years. Man O’ War’s record was 20 wins, 1 place. Secretariat had 16 wins, 3 place and 1 show.
If happenstance had placed the two stallions in the same era, it would have seemed as if twins were sent to thrill the sporting world for a few brief, magical years… and settle the issue once and for all. But it was not meant to be, and we must look at each horse individually, on his own merits.
Man O’ War
Out of Mahubah and sired by Fair Play , Man O’ War was foaled before the introduction of European bloodlines. He was truly “All American.” He raced on tracks far inferior to the fast surfaces of today.
He so dominated his competition, he was handicapped regularly with weights of 130 pounds as a two-year-old and 138 pounds as a three-year-old. This meant – above the weight of the jockey - giving up over 30 pounds to his rivals…an incredible disadvantage by modern standards!
Testifying to his brute strength and willful heart, he was still able to set three world records, two American records and three track records in his career. His only loss was a controversial race where poor horsemanship by the jockey cost him a perfect record.
In the Sanford Memorial, before starting gates were implemented, Man O’ War was caught facing the wrong way when the barrier fell. Giving the field a huge head start, and in spite of several jockeying errors, War still managed to finish second by a half-length to a horse named Upset .
As a three-year-old, the rugged chestnut easily won the Preakness and the Belmont before they were regarded as jewels in the Triple Crown. His owner, fearing the Kentucky Derby came too early in the year for a young horse to run a mile-and-a-quarter, opted out of that race. Thus, what later became known as the Triple Crown was denied Big Red.
The champion stallion was Horse of the Year in 1920 and entered horse racing’s Hall of Fame.
Man O’ War was retired to stud as a four-year-old, siring the likes of Crusader , Battleship, and War Admiral . His grandson, through Hard Tack , was the legendary Seabiscuit . He produced 64 stakes winners.
The great Man O’ War died in 1947 of an apparent heart attack.
Sired by the famous Bold Ruler and out of Somethingroyal , Secretariat was foaled one day after Man O’ War’s birthday anniversary.
His racing career lasted only 16 months but the standard he set during that time has been unequalled since.
At a time when television sports coverage was exploding, Secretariat acquired the phenomenon known as “star power.” After his two-year-old successes, expectations which would have crushed a lesser athlete, seemed to fuel the stallion’s fire.
Like the greatest two-legged athletes, Secretariat always seemed to come through in the big races. As a three-year-old, he set track records in the Preakness and Belmont which still stand. Of course, he had earlier won the Kentucky Derby in record time, and went on to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown.
In 21 races, the big colt set two world records, three track records and one American record. He was Horse of the Year in both his competitive years, running against some of the best horses in racing history. Of course, an induction into horse racing’s Hall of Fame followed his brilliant career.
Secretariat retired as a four-year-old, eventually siring 57 stakes winners. At 19 years he developed laminitis, a painful and incurable hoof disease, and was put down in 1989. His most noted offspring were Lady’s Secret, A.P.Indy , Storm Cat and Smarty Jones .
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Man O’ War and Secretariat: each dominated their half of the 20th century. They stand so obvious in their position as the best of the best…it seems a pity that the world will never witness a match race.
But perhaps someday, on the other side of eternity, (after waiting for the right moment of course) I’ll propose a best-of-seven match race series – on differing surfaces, at differing distances to settle this thing once and for all.
I have a feeling it will be a standing-room-only event.
But wait – on second thought, there won’t be a bad seat in the place.