On Secretariat, the G.O.A.T.: A Response to Jason Kelce

Secretariat is largely acknowledged as the G.O.A.T. when it comes to horse racing. He set the bar against which we measure all race horses. On a recent podcast and in social media posts, Jason Kelce indicated that the horse “was being juiced.” HorseDoc Gregory Beroza replies.

Secretariat, 31-lengths ahead at the Belmont Stakes. Photo by Bob Coglianese, and part of the G. Beroza collection.

As many who follow horse racing — and football! — know, former Eagles center Jason Kelce recently made comments that he believes the G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time, for not in the know) of horse racing, Secretariat, was “juiced.” The comments were first made on the podcast “New Heights,” which he co-hosts with his brother, Travis Kelce (Taylor Swift’s boyfriend). But he also made the same claims on social media.

When receiving pushback for the comments, Kelce somewhat defended his statement, tweeting that he thought steroid use in race horses at that time was just “common knowledge:”

Dr. Gregory Beroza, a contributor to Horse Nation, worked with Secretariat as a veterinary assistant at Belmont Park in 1973. He offers this response to Kelce’s comments:

Although it has made for interesting discussion, it’s a shame that someone who didn’t experience Secretariat’s spectacular performance chose to make unsubstantiated allegations relating to medication abuse. I am one of only a few people still alive who had a hand in the veterinary care of Secretariat in 1973 and herein offer my own observations.

I’ve heard these allegations before as well as the discussions about Secretariat’s large heart as an indication steroid use. It is true that, at necropsy after passing away at the age of 19, Secretariat had a heart that weighed 22 pounds. It was substantially larger than the average Thoroughbred. However, there are other pertinent factors. Another horse named Sham, Secretariat’s nemesis throughout the Triple Crown series, also had a heart larger than average. It weighed 18 pounds, or theoretically about twice the size of the average Thoroughbred. Sham holds the record for the second fastest performance in Kentucky Derby history only to have finished second that day. Sham’s record is faster than all other finishers in the Kentucky Derby to date except for Secretariat. The Secretariat vs. Sham battles were like the Muhammed Ali vs. Joe Frazier classic battles. Each of that year’s exceptionally talented athletes drove the other to record-breaking superior performances. In fact, Sham broke down in the 1973 Belmont Stakes trying to keep up with Secretariat’s exceptional pace.

So are we to assume that all horses with larger hearts will have superior performance? I say not. There are humans and other animals with enlarged hearts (cardiomyopathy) which impede their performance and normal life. Also, we do not regularly do post-mortem examinations on a significant number of high-performance racehorses, especially during their performance years, to determine what is normal for them.

Must all horses with large hearts have been on steroids? Again, I say no. Athletes in most venues of larger stature and greater performance often have larger hearts, which are muscles appropriately sized to pump blood throughout their greater body mass. Aren’t most organs, including hearts, proportional in size to the body they are in? Secretariat was a heavily muscled athlete with a larger than average frame. Knowledgeable cardiologists recognize that superior athletes, especially of larger stature, often have more muscular hearts.

Further, since racehorses aren’t regularly necropsied, we can’t entirely be sure whether the size of the heart was the determining factor in Secretariat’s performance. There may be superior performing racehorses that have smaller than normal hearts, but they nonetheless rise to be superior performers.

When Secretariat raced at Belmont Park, I had the privilege of working with his veterinarian as an assistant. Secretariat was under the greatest private security of any racehorse that I have ever worked on since 1973. Penny Tweedy had three private security guards surrounding the barn of Lucien Lauren (Secretariat’s trainer) at Belmont Park to make sure no one interfered in any way with the horse’s training or performance.

We had to sign written logs just to touch Secretariat, and I can only attest to what I know and saw.  Based on my observations, he was super-hydrated with routine intravenous fluids with vitamins before the Belmont Stakes, as was common at the time for many other horses competing that day. Secretariat raced out-of-town without his regular veterinarian being present, and he consistently performed well.

Despite allegations to the contrary, there was drug testing during that time period and Secretariat never came up with even a suspicion of illicit medication.

As a professional football player, Jason Kelce had to know or have seen therapeutic treatments used to keep such human athletes healthy and competitive – both in football and in all other professional sports. Will Kelce next speculate that Tom Brady or Michael Jordan or other G.O.A.T.s were juiced because they are superior in performance to the average athlete? Has anyone examined their hearts or made speculation about such?

Are we to historically speculate about Mohammed Ali or Babe Ruth, Citation, Seabiscuit, or Man o’ War?

Secretariat was sired by Bold Ruler, a super-stallion that had a reputation as a ‘speedster,’ a gene he passed on to his progeny. While his dam, Somethingroyal, had and passed on the attributes of her family’s genetic stamina. Is it not possible that Secretariat’s performance was a result of the positive traits passed down through his lineage, as was intended through that breeding?

Also of importance is that Secretariat was extraordinarily durable and campaigned heavily without major performance impairments. From the moment jockey Ron Turcotte got on Secretariat, he knew he had an exceptional mount

Jockey Eddie Maple rode Secretariat in his final race in Canada and declares Secretariat to have performed well that day and to have retired completely sound. It is documented that another performance factor was Secretariat’s stride of 24 feet, 11 inches. It surpassed that of almost all other racehorses, thereby giving him a distinct advantage.

Does not a basketball player with talent equal to his competitors have an advantage if he is just as fast, just as agile, has just as much ball control and stamina, but he is six inches taller and can jump 10% higher than his competitors? I appreciate Jason Kelce subsequently walking back his comments after he realized that his remarks were ill-informed.

I hope that years from now no one questions the unprecedented success of the Kansas City Chiefs or the Kelce brothers, especially not due to performance enhancers.

Even many great jockeys who rode against Secretariat admitted that his performances were spectacular. He usually beat most of his challengers. Can’t we put other inappropriate speculations to rest and continue to declare as, Tom Brady so appropriately commented, that Secretariat was the TRUE GOAT that we judge all racing thoroughbred performance against.

Historically, many G.O.A.T.s have had their records challenged by hypothetical allegations of foul. Horse racing insiders positively characterize Secretariat as a freak. At home, in his stall, he was a gentleman to work on. Once on the track, especially upon entering the starting gate, when he smelled competition, he turned into a monster racehorse. He loved the challenge and wouldn’t be denied the win.

One of our G.O.A.T. Hall of Fame jockeys, Angel Cordero, says that one of his favorite legendary mounts, Triple Crown Champion Seatle Slew, similarly became a freak once inside the starting gate. “He blew up like a Monster.” Secretariat’s sire Bold Ruler was also the great-grandsire of Seattle Slew.

Like the great Mohammed Ali, the fight was in Secretariat’s blood and in his heart, regardless of its size. In my mind, the medication issue is an unsubstantiated one. Let’s not tear down all our heroes. “Isn’t the size of the dog in a fight less important than the size of the fight in a dog?”

Dr. Gregory Beroza has continued his coverage of Secretariat over the years. You can view his 50th remembrance video below:

Dr. Gregory A. Beroza, DVM, DACVS, DABVP has been a practicing veterinarian and consultant for 42 years; and HorseDoc® ‘Talking Horses’® media host, author, and consultant since 2007. Dr. Beroza is a multimedia host and broadcasts his productions, including a new Podcast, via his WuzUpDoc Media website: www.WuzUpDoc.com. He can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other social media sources.

Thanks to ‘HorseDoc’ Sponsors:  Alex Nichols Agency; BMB IT Solutions, Chestnut Vale Feed, Cosequin Joint Health Supplement, Douglas Elliman Real Estate, Great American Insurance-Equine Division; Hopscotch Air Taxi; Jaguar; JSR Farriers-Equine Transport; Land Rover; Nutrena; Oheka Castle Hotel & Estate; Ramard Nutraceuticals; Range Rover; Supporting Strategies; Ultravet Medical Devices