Frankel was great but Secretariat was the greatest

Time brings perspective. Throughout 2012 we had to listen to a racing press repeating the mantra that Frankel was the greatest horse ever.  The poignancy of this great horse arriving as Henry Cecil entered the final stages of his storied life transferred the story from the racing pages to the front pages.  As an unbeaten winner of 14 races, encompassing 10 group 1’s and 9 consecutive group 1’s there is no doubt about his greatness but I would be very slow to accord him the accolade of ‘the greatest’.  Now with the passing of time and the reduction in hype it’s easier to properly consider his place in the pantheon of the greats.

Firstly what constitutes greatness? For me it its firstly a matter of brilliance backed up by consistency, durability and versatility. To be the greatest ever you must demonstrate more of these qualities than any other racehorse in history. For me Frankel scores exceptionally well in terms of brilliance and consistency, he scores reasonably in terms of durability but he scores lowly in terms of versatility.  Is there a horse who can outscore him using these 4 criteria? I believe there is – and his name is Secretariat.

Frankel vs Secretariat for brilliance: Verdict = draw

Frankel had brilliance. His Guineas performance looked the most impressive since Tudor Minstrel although we subsequently learned that the form was moderate for a classic with only Roderic O’ Connor ever subsequently winning a Group 1.  As a three year old his Sussex win over Canford Cliffs was impressive (although Canford was injured) and as a four year old his performance in the Queen Anne was astonishing and his Lockinge and Juddmonte performances hard to fault. Frankel showed brilliance in abundance. However so did Secretariat. His two year old performances (eg his 8 length victory in the Laurel Futurity)made him not just champion two year old but horse of the year.  He was a better two year old than Frankel who was unimpressive in winning the Dewhurst.  At three his achievement in setting track records in the triple crown races and three other track records (one tied) is remarkable. And then there is his Belmont performance- it really is an extreme in terms of performance. Watch again to remind yourself of the horse who ‘ran a hole in the wind’ in  a time of 2:24 to win a classic by 31 lengths.  Frankel had time to mature to reach his peak at four, Secretariat wasn’t given that opportunity but he didn’t need to further prove his greatness.  I have attached videos of Frankel’s Queen Anne and Secretariat’s Belmont to remind readers of how great they were in their prime.

Frankel vs Secretariat for consistency: Verdict = Frankel

Frankel was unbeaten in 14 races, ten of them Group 1’s. His only slightly disappointing run was the 2011 St James Palace Stakes where he was all out to hold off Zoffany by three quarter’s of a length.  However that is only nit-picking in a perfect record.  Secretariat by contrast lost his unbeaten record on his first start. A disqualification in the Champagne Stakes meant his two year old record finished as 7 out of 9 wins.  His three year old career started with two victories before a defeat in the Wood Memorial (he was suffering from an abcess). After his triple crown he mixed the good with the bad and suffered surprise defeats in the Whitney Stakes and the Woodward Stakes.  His busy three year old season eventually finished with a record of 9 wins from 12 starts to give an overall career record of 16 wins and 5 defeats.

Frankel vs Secretariat for durability: Verdict = Secretariat

Frankel raced 14 times over three seasons.  Secretariat raced 21 times in two seasons and retired sound despite having 19 of his races on the less forgiving dirt tracks. Big Red had plenty toughness to go with his talent whereas Frankel was wrapped in cotton wool by comparison.

Frankel vs Secretariat for versatility: Verdict = Secretariat

In his first two seasons Frankel raced in distances that ranged all the way from 7 furlongs to…..8 furlongs. He waited until he was a mature four year old before finally stepping up to 10 furlongs.  He never left England and never had to cope with the demands placed on a horse by long distance travel. He was also unimpressive on his final run when tackling officially soft ground for the only time since his debut.

Secretariat won from 6 furlongs to 13 furlongs in the Canadian International. His final two races (the Man o’ War and the Canadian International ) were on turf. On dirt he ran on fast and he ran on sloppy tracks and he coped with all of these diverse conditions.

Conclusion-   Some horses like Hawk Wing in the Lockinge Stakes are capable of one extraordinary performance but incapable of reproducing it.  In contrast his stable mate and contemporary Rock of Gibraltar produced high class performances with great consistency but nothing extraordinary.  Sea the Stars produced very very high class performances with great consistency over a variety of distances but for me he never produced a breathtaking performance. Frankel and Secretariat both were capable of extraordinary performances and both did so with regularity. I scored the decision marginally in favour of Secretariat but would respect the views of any Frankel fans who think otherwise. Moving on to the next question- will Frankel prove to be a better sire than Secretariat? I would be certain he won’t be a better broodmare sire and I’ve a hunch that like Secretariat he might prove slightly disappointing considering the level of expectation that exists.

Enjoy Frankel in the 2012 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot

Watch Secretariat’s amazing win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes

47 thoughts on “Frankel was great but Secretariat was the greatest

  1. An excellent and well-balanced post.

    If one adds the criteria of “stamina” to the requirements of greatness, then I believe after Secretariat, there would be another four horses ahead of Frankel (in order from #2 to #5): Phar Lap, Sea Bird II, Man O War and Ribot. In an all-time invitation only 12f turf at the Arc or on dirt at Belmont, these great horses would be invited to challenge the legendary Secretariat. Frankel wouldn’t make the cut as he never raced at 12f, was withdrawn when favourite for the 12f King George despite being fully fit and also conceding 10 lengths in the straight to Zoffany after going hard early (the 3rd event being the very likely cause of the first two).

    If however there was an invitation only race on turf or dirt over 10f, then the above forces as well as Frankel, Dr Fager, Brigadier Gerard and Spectacular Bid should be added.

    Secretariat remains clearly the greatest overall horse of all time, with his consistency being tarnished due to poor trainer/owner and even starter judgment (running sick/unfit, harsh DQ in a race he won easily and going away) and not due to the horse himself.

    The more interesting question to me is who is #6 all-time horse: Frankel or Dr Fager? Both brilliant 8f specialists who could also last 10f. I believe Secretariat would deserve automatic favouritism for any 10f-12f race and probably any 9f-13f race.

    What would be interesting to consider is, who would deserve favouritism from the above 9 horses over 8f turf or dirt? Remembering that Secretariat set a world record over 9f despite running wide and being checked, which has since only once been bettered by 0.2s.

    1. Dr Fager is #1, his world record míle is beautiful and carrying 16lb more then Fort Marcy in the United nation Handicap a horse that ran a close second to Sir Ivor makes him the greatest in my book.

  2. frankel all time 6th best- ridiculous- sea the stars was a superb horse up there with frankel and secretariat- american fans – get used to it there has never been a horse like frankel- he beat better horses consistently that secretariat- all g1 winners- the standard he beat was infinately better and higher- no comparison- horse racing in the uk and europe is higher than the usa-

    1. In terms of competition, the quality of horses Secretariat faced were actually clearly above the average quality of rivals Frankel faced. Perhaps the single most devastating margin in horse racing is Secretariat’s 10.5 margin length victory of #8 US blood-horse legend Forego in the Kentucky Derby, after giving him a multiple length lead and running wide outside of him. Then there was Sham, still owner of the 2nd largest heart in all of racing history, behind only Secretariat (Mill Reed was 3rd on that score). Riva Ridge (Derby, Belmont), Big Spruce (Marlboro), Cougar (Chilean champ) and Tem Tam (US champion 4yo turf horse) were other worthy opponents Secretariat annihilated under hand rides.
      Sea The Stars lacked the explosiveness of either Frankel or Secretariat. And Frankel lacked the ability to hold that explosiveness all the way to the line: he could explode for 3f only, Secretariat could do it for 4f. That very last furlong is where Frankel’s 10th furlong of 14.0s on turf would expose him against a horse like Secretariat capable of closing in a 10th furlong of 11.5s on the slowest dirt track in America.
      Also this talk that UK horses being inherently better bred than USA horses is nonsense; 90% of modern champions feature both Northern Dancer (Canada) and Mr Prospector (USA), including both Frankel and Sea The Stars. Neither of these famous sires incidentally being British.

      1. Secretariat did not have the explosive speed or class that frankel showed. Secretariat first run against older horses ended in defeat NO EXCUSES. THEN GOT THUMPED BY PROVE OUT. How can you justify calling a horse all time great when he could not beat horses in his own period.

        1. FYI Mr. Pollard you better check your homework? Secretariat’s FIRST race against older horses was in the Marlboro Cup in September 1973 when he set a WORLD RECORD for 9F on a dirt track, running a blistering 1:45.4 and CRUSHING his older competition (only bested by 0.2 seconds since). His loss to Prove Out was twofold. 1) Secretariat was “thrown” into a 12F dirt track race at the 11th hour with ZERO dirt track training for over 3 weeks and virtually no training that entire week (he was trng for the 12F turf track MOW Stakes…his first turf race). This was a result of heavy rain whereby Tweedy scratched Riva Ridge because he was awful on a wet track. 2) 4-year old Prove Out ran the race of his life…running 12F in a magnificent 2:25.8, the second fastest 12F dirt track run EVER (hmmm…I wonder who holds that record?). As an fyi, Secretariat did manage to run a very formidable 2:26.3 time, which in virtually any other 12F race, would have been more than sufficient for victory (even with SEC tiring the final 1-2 furlongs do to his lack of training for the race). Anything else genius?

        2. Yes your absolutely right Frankel could only beat what was in front of him you cannot manufacture a horse or make one up like boxing people say Ali or Tyson that’s not the point Frankel is 14 out of 14 and we can argue all night but even then Frankel would come up on top so all this wish wash bish bish is nonsense. .Frankel is Frankel no equal

        3. Explosive speed go and watch Secretariat’s explosive speed in the Preakness which was one of the Triple Crown races. Look at Secretariat’s schedule he ran in more races in 3 years than Frankel’s entire career and he had to travel all over America to win while Frankel never raced outside of England. Frankel’s name does not belong on the same page as Secretariat.

        4. Gary, it is true, after thorough research, that Secretariat had a virus, fever and diarea
          When he ran in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga. When he ran against Prove Out he
          was a substitute in that race and was not trained up to it. Prove Out was well trained four year old, and ran a very good race. But just two weeks later Secretariat, we’ll trained for the Man O’War at Belmont, won it in a faster time than Prove Out ran in the the previous race.
          Human Beings do effect these great animals. All things being equal, over time, I believe
          Secretariat was the best. During the season, it was Secretariat’s tenth race that year.
          He still had two more.

    2. I’m an American and I am in LOVE with Frankel—the same way that I was/still am in love with Secretariat. Why bother to decide which racehorse is the greatest? However, Frankel is right up there with Secretariat in terms of greatness, and no others are in their ranks. I agree that Frankel competed against better horses than did Secretariat, but I am obsessed with both of them!!! Is there a Frankel fan club I can share my obsession with???

    3. Ridiculous haha I’m English mate and even I know frankel doesn’t have a mark on secretariat. Frankel would be eating secretariats dust from his feet

    4. Dr Fager easily had the toughest opposition, beating great horses over 10 furlongs a distance he did not quiet stay. No Buckpasser or Damasscus in Frankels or Secretariats fields. Frankel was great but the opposition was very poor. When you think about like that, Dr Fager in 1968 was up against racing legends and for me is the greatest.

    5. Frankel beat rubbish man. I am European and let’s face it excelbration is no Buckpasser or Demassicus. 1968 Dr Fager
      It’s really scarey stuff. The opposition was real, the weights were real, the world records were unreal. Man what a horse.

  3. Frankel is one of the Greatest for sure, but Secretariat was the Greatest , his speed and endurance combination is the Greatest the universe has ever seen. I love Man O war(my #2)but Secretariat was faster at every distance and some times were not even close. Not sure if Frankel is even the Greatest European horse.

  4. I say one thing for big red ,he was not handle very well.Race 2 times sick an was out there on the track some time whqen he shouldnt have been.I truely believe if he was handle like AP he would have never lost.Frankel hey what can i say a great superstar of a horse .To pick one over the other is crazy .I m a Big Red fan an i know if they ran him on turf it would have been the same probably setting track records every third or fouth time he would go out to run

  5. Frankel was great but that day at the Belmont, Secretariat did things that no horse has ever or will ever do again. Unique.

  6. Nijinsky riden by Lester Piggott was surely the greatest combination in flat racing? THEIR Derby victory was fantastic, and second in the Arc only by inches after coming from yards behind the leading pack!

    1. I think the greatest winner of the Arc in modern times has to be Dancing Brave who ran against one of the strogest Arcs ever. Nijinski was a horse of a lifetime but the 86 Arc had something like 9 G1 winners in the field & Brave gave them all a few lenghts till that last exceleration in the final furlong coming down lane 10 to win easy. And remember he ran a bit further than the rest of the field given he came widest of all. One of the greatest races i’ve EVER seen.

  7. Tough pick. I was there when Secretariat ran his last race (Can. International). He beat the “local boys” hands down. Was he the best . . . ? – For sure he was. No Need to talk about Belmont. Secretariat won the Triple Crown in a spectacular way! Is Franel a TC-winner? No he isn’t. – Still, Frankel was on fo the very best horses ever. – To throw in another Name: What about Zenyatta? She trailed in very singel race (20) the field, somethimes by quite a distance. She won every single one in a spectacular fashion . . . except for the last one (due to a mistake by her jockey).

  8. scholarship , disciplined homework technique and an open mind will always consider the following: physically, Secretariat was anotomically perfect, confirmed by every veterinarian
    And trainer whoever saw him. secondly and as already stated by others, if in fact Mrs. chennery
    Had not been pressured by syndicate and CBS she and Mr. Lauren could have made better
    Decisions long and short term,and certainly would not have entered Secretariat in the three race
    -Es he lost , knowing that he was in fact compromised. that statement is not an excuse it is
    A statement of fact. and thirdly, if the horse would have been properly taken care of and come
    Back as a mature and sound four and five year old, given that opertunity we know that , as
    JAy Hovdeay Said : “his career would have known no bounds.” IN reality & potentially Greatest!

    1. Should be remembered Secretariat was syndicated to bail out owner with proviso that he would not race as a 4 year old. Mrs C controlled his 3 year old season and no doubt wanted to max race earning$$$

  9. Maybe on the face of it, Secretariat does get the verdict. However, in actuality, the better horse was Frankel. Simply because everyone knew he’d stay 12f effortlessly, just as he stayed 10.5f effortlessly and took an eternity to pull up. Had he won over 12f, the majority of race fans would agree Frankel was the greater horse. One things for sure though, Frankels Juddmonte and Queen Ann are incomparable was any performance seen on dirt. Run-ups, lightening fast racetracks, rampant drugs culture, and racing against the clock, are variables alien to European Racing.

    1. Ok Joe so he was thrown in at the 11th hour but being the GREATEST he should be beating a horse of Prove Out quality even at 85%. But i have to agree with you, Big Red’s 2.24 FLAT was just jawdropping & for sure the best horse ive ever seen BUT Frankel over 6 to 8 furlongs on good ground Frankel i think would prevail but over the mile i dont see anything getting to Secretariat.

  10. What can be argued about a track and world record at 1.5 miles over 40 years and still stands. Game over greatest of all time. Big Red

  11. You have to win the Triple Crown to be considered the greatest, horses come from all over the world for this Crown Jewel of racing.

  12. Considering that champion horses have been injured and even ended up dying because of traveling half way around the world, I TOTALY disapprove of owners taking such a risk with a beloved horse just to compete in the Triple Crown!! It’s utterly foolish to say that unless a horse competes in and wins the triple crown he can’t be considered the greatest!! There are plenty of comparable race courses in the UK (and I’m an American so this is not patriotic favoritism).

  13. Frankel raced mostly over 8 furlongs and Secretariat mostly ran over longer trips. He did run a mile race though and clocked 1:35. Frankel’s fastest 8f time was 1:37.3. Not a favorable comparison for Frankel.
    Check this out too.
    Frankel ran most of his races over 7f or 8f. Over those distances his fastest times are slower than Winx’s slowest times, even allowing for the slight difference in distances between 7f and 1400m and 8f and 1600m. He is not even close.
    Don’t believe me check it yourself.
    Up to 8f, Secretariat and Winx’s times are pretty comparable, but Secretariat’s are quicker past that.
    Lots of variables and all truly great horses but over their careers – Secretariat then Winx, not by much, then Frankel.

    1. Sab?rl? is better than Frankel then as he made 1:34 in 8 furlong and many times finished with 1:35 degree. Turkish horse almost always ran 1600 meters. However you guys making a mistake why comparing 8f runner horse and 12f runner horse? In Turkey Sab?rl? was the best in 8f and Bold Pilot was best in 12f who won 11 g1-g2 mixed races in a row. But we guys never compare them as they were greatest in their distances

  14. American horses were drugged up on fast dirt tracks. Everyone knows this. Frankel was unbeaten against better opposition on an even playing field. Do the math.

  15. The greatest of all time does not lose. Frankel is king of the track. Winx is so overrated against inferior opposition. Citation is the greatest American horse even though lots of U.S. horses were doped at the time.

  16. Arkle, Arkle, Arkle.
    Beat the nearly great, frequently easily, giving them 35lb.
    Lost to the nearly great, giving them 42lb, in heavy going, AKA a morass.
    Jumping discussion over, probably all discussion over.

    Flat racing, sorry but I do not recognise any events not run on grass, YMMV.
    Secretariat is better than Native Dancer? I look forward to learning why.
    Most versatile European horse since 1935, Nijinsky, better than his two final losses suggest.
    Best European horse since 1948, Brigadier Gerard, raced against, and beat, arguably the best generation since Hyperion (1933). One loss to a Derby winner with a course record, nobody rates Roberto as superior to BG.
    Frankel, outstanding, the experts, that is those not contributing to this thread, are nearly unanimous. But not as versatile.

    So the verdict has not yet been reached by the jury.
    However, it seems to me that to be considered the GOAT you have to beat the best of your generation. Hence Federer is excluded.

    If the discussion included 5 and 6 furlong horses, we need another thread.
    Enjoyed the conversation.

  17. This is not a popular opinion, but Ghostzapper belongs in any discussion like this. Once he hit his peak he was unstoppable, never challenged, never broke a sweat when beating top competition, and Roses in May, who tailed him in the 2004 BC Classic, came back to win the 2005 Dubai Cup. Ghostzapper’s figures were other-worldly, and his most impressive race was actually the King’s Bishop at Saratoga, when he closed seven lengths in the final furlong on an insanely speed-favoring track to almost catch my winner. “He’ll never lose another race,” I said, and he didn’t.

  18. Great horses face great tests, distance going etc. Frankel was wrapped in cotton wool almost manufactured to be considered the best . He deserves to be up there but not the greatest, I believe he was champion in a time of very poor quality. Look at the 2,000 gns opposition. Very poor.

  19. I don’t know guys. To some extent it’s a silly comparison: two different eras, different racing conditions and very different competitors. But two things strike me…

    On the one hand, as others have noted, Secretariat ran against some really great horses. Especially the now almost forgotten Sham, who might well have been a Triple Crown winner himself if he hadn’t had the bad luck to be born that particular year. So I do think you can legitimately say that Frankel might have been a greater horse if he’d been pushed harder.

    But on the other hand I just cannot get my brain around Secretariat’s mind-shattering win in the Belmont. He broke the track record by over two seconds and won by 31 lengths with every fraction faster than the prior fraction. And he did that on a hand ride with no other horse anywhere in sight to challenge him.

    Also often forgotten: how despite the brutally hot weather in New York that day Secretariat wasn’t even lathered in the winners circle. It was obvious to everyone there that he had finished the race with plenty of gas still left in the tank. That’s a huge part of his legend — again forgotten when all you see is short clips of the actual race and not the aftermath that people actually on the track that day witnessed.

    Was Secretariat a perfect horse? No. He was a doofus in the starting gate and he sometimes just plain ran out of turf before he could catch the frontrunners. But once he finally got that big fat butt moving it was like you were watching a 747, not a flesh and blood horse. And the longer the race got the more dominating he became. Without exception. There was not one race in his entire career where he went to the bottom of the well.

    Psychologically there is something incredibly special about a horse like Secretariat who will leave the field in the dust and the KEEP pushing for another full half a mile racing purely against the clock for the sheer joy of running. A performance like that takes you out of normal horse racing territory and into Eclipse/The Black Stallion/fantasy horse territory.

    Real life horses won’t race the clock with no external pressure for a full mile and a half. That is not a natural horse behavior … and I say this as three day eventer who has trained and competed on Secretariat, Northern Dancer, and Nijinksy great-grand-babies.

    Do they love to run? Sure. But not after a mile and a half all alone with no “herd” to follow. By that time even a VERY competitive horse is usually like “Yeah dude I’m done now where’s my cold shower and my yum yums?”

    My verdict: Frankel was a timeless champion, absolutely one of the greats. But Secretariat is in a class all his own.

  20. Secretariat was a horse to capture the world’s imagination. Regrettably Frankel, like Winx in Australia, ran over much the same distances against much the same horses each race, So very hard to rank them tops. A really outstanding horse in Australia never gets mentioned but as a three year old might have beaten any horse in the world. He was odd the track for about eighteen months with a wasting disease, but returned to win many races at the highest level. Those who really want to expand their knowledge of the world’s great horses would gain by studying his record. Many of the old racing guys considered him equal to or better than Phar Lap.

  21. Bit silly not to include his name; that great horse was Tulloch, New Zealand bred and bought as a yearling by Australia’s leading trainer Tommy Smith. The horse won from six furlongs to two miles

  22. What a fascinating discussion. As a Yank, I never paid much attention to horse racing aside from the American triple crown races. Lately I’ve watched quite a few British races on youtube and, of course, have seen Frankel quite a bit. He looked brilliant!

    British race tracks look far more interesting than the simple dirt ovals in the U.S.

    I was twenty-four in 1973, and like much of America, was fascinated by Secretariat and the triple crown races. One of the things i’ve noticed in the videos of the old races that I hadn’t remembered, was Secretariat’s “Move” In the Preakness, going from last to first in about 200 yards as he entered the first turn. It was an astonishingly
    athletic burst.

    Watching the Belmont as Secretariat and Sham raced down the back stretch, then seeing Secretariat edging away from Sham was dramatic and hearing Chick Anderson’s call “Secretariat is moving liike a tremendous machine” (Absolutely one of the greatest sports call ever) was like watching a supernatural event!

    As his lead stretched out the the eventual 31 length margin, I had tears in my eyes at the sheer magnificence of his performance. At the time I was glad I was alone, thinking at the time I was way too macho for that sort of thing. (yeah, sure!) At over seventy now, I’ve come the realize that any moment that can move you to tears, but isn’t actually tragic, is likely a good thing!

  23. So many factors. Race record. Competition. Sheer brilliance, dominance, and style. Frankel has it. He is one of the special ones. For sure. Watched Secretariat run. Witnessed his Triple Crown wins. Experienced the out of body minutes of his Belmont Stakes flight. I guess if I had to choose one horse, one race, it would have to be Secretariat. Think God choose Secretariat that day. Decision over.

  24. I have seen many of the greats on both sides of the Atlantic in my 68 years – my favorites Europe – Sir Ivor, Nijinsky, Mill Reef, Brigadier Gerard, Dancing Brave and Frankel – USA – Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed – however the three greatest of all time in my opinion were Sea Bird II, Ribot and Secretariat – if I had to bet the house Sea Bird.

  25. Dr Fager was faster then these two donkeys over 7 to 9 furlongs, all Secretariates world record times are have been lowered. Dr fagers world record míle still stands on dirt makes Frankels 2000 guineas performance look horrible in the closing stages. On a line though Fort Marcy and Sir Ivory you could rate Dr Fager 151 over 10 furlongs.
    I am European, but Dr Fager at the end of his career was was unbeatable.

  26. Lately I’ve come to watch a lot of these horses and their greatest wins on YouTube. Citation, Man o war, Seattle Slew, Zenyatta, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian, Dancing Brave, Shergar etc. but the one horse, the one race, the one performance that gives me the most goosebumps is Secretariats win at the Belmont.

    I agree with other commentators that it was almost supernatural. I read that a lot of punters even refused to cash in their coupons just so that they could hold onto them.

    But I love all of these horses and their wonderful stories. Magnificent animals all of them. We are truly blessed.

  27. Good summary. Frankel clearly better over 6 – 8 furlongs. Secretariat clearly better over a mile and a half. Frankel raced for 3 seasons but was looked after very carefully. Frankel consistently beat some very good horses. In the 2000 guineas he only won by 6 lengths but the fourth horse was beaten 17 lengths. But that Belmont win by Secretariat was special, so he just gets the nod.

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