Secretariat still flying on his own

May 09, 1998|By John Eisenberg

He won his Triple Crown a quarter-century ago and died in 1989, but Secretariat is still running.

As a matter of fact, as weird as it sounds, he hasn't lost a race since he retired.

"Secretariat is the yardstick that every horse that comes along is compared to," said Tim Capps, executive vice president of the Maryland Horse Breeders Association, "and no one has beaten him yet."

Not even the two subsequent Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, matched his ability to dominate and astonish.

All of which begs a simple and very large question: Will there ever be another horse as awesome as Secretariat?

If he has gone undefeated for 24 years, will he go undefeated forever?

Changes in the racing and breeding industries have lessened the chances of another horse of his caliber coming along, that much is certain.

But forever is a pretty long time.

"Somewhere down the line, invariably, there will be another horse that compares," Capps said. "Remember, people thought no horse could possibly compare to Citation [who won the Triple Crown in 1948], and then Secretariat came along."

But as yet another crop of 3-year-olds passes by without any threats to Secretariat's legend, it's fair to wonder if the odds are getting so long that they're almost off the board.

"There's no doubt it's getting tougher" for such a horse to come along, Capps said.

Why? You can point to a series of factors.

For starters, there are just far more horses now than in Secretariat's day. He was one of 24,361 foals registered in North America in 1970. That per-year number more than doubled over the next 15 years before backsliding to 35,400 last year.

Yes, more horses does mean more chances of a super champion emerging -- but it also means much more competition at the races, a factor that weighs more heavily.

"Larger [foal] crops definitely make it more difficult for any horse to dominate," Capps said. "That's just pure mathematics."

As well, there's more emphasis now on the Triple Crown, which holds the last traces of real renown in a sagging game. Any horse who shows any ability as a 2-year-old is pointed toward the spring classics. High-profile trainers such as D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito and Bob Baffert organize their entire operations around producing horses for the Triple Crown series.

"Again, more competition," Capps said. "More horses to beat, more horses to try to dominate. More obstacles, basically. They just didn't have that kind of competition in Secretariat's day."

The breeding industry also is far different than a quarter-century ago. Wealthy private breeders have been replaced by huge commercial operations intent on producing horses to sell for a profit more than run well. As well, breeders focus now on speed more than stamina, for the simple reason that races are shorter now.

The result? Fewer horses capable even of running the longer, classic distances, much less dominating.

It's endlessly debated whether the population boom of the '80s diluted the overall quality of the thoroughbred breed.

But even if it has -- and Capps doesn't buy the theory -- a general overall dilution doesn't necessarily impede greatness.

L If major-league pitching is so bad, what about Mike Mussina?

"You tend to hear old-timers talk about horses today not being as sound or whatever," Capps said, "but the same things were being said 30 years ago. And now we know much more about the science of breeding and the care of horses. The argument that we're producing a poorer horse now just doesn't make sense."

In other words, the next Secretariat is still out there in theory, if not yet in reality.

Several horses have come close enough in the past decade to disprove the theory that Secretariat's level simply won't be reached again. Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, who produced maybe the most stirring Preakness ever in 1989, were of high caliber.

"If they hadn't had to run against each other, they might well have dominated [like Secretariat]," Capps said.

Risen Star also was a powerful colt who ran third in the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness and dominated the Belmont in 1988, conjuring memories of Secretariat.

But all such comparisons ultimately fail somewhere, leaving Secretariat undefeated.

"Of the horses in my lifetime, he's certainly the one you remember," Capps said. "He's the one that gave the impression that there was almost nothing he couldn't do. A lot of people who have been in this game a long time will tell you that, when he was at his best, he was the best they ever saw."

Breeding is such an unpredictable business that there'll always be a chance of another Secretariat coming along, no matter how long the odds grow against it. The whims of genetics are anything but absolute.

But we're celebrating the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown this year, and we're still waiting for another horse like him to come along.

The way things are going, we might still be waiting 25 years from now.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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