Phar Lap Vs Secretariat: Which One Was Better?

If you are into horse racing – and even if you’re not – chances are you will have heard about these two world famous face horses. Everyone has an opinion about which was the better horse, so let’s put the arguments to bed with a discussion about Phar Lap vs Secretariat.

Phar Lap

Phar Lap [Region 4]

Phar Lap was foaled on 4 October 1926. He was originally from New Zealand, but he was trained and raced in Australia, and the Aussies have well and truly adopted him into their hearts.

His sire was Night Raid (who also sired Nightmarch, the winner of the Melbourne Cup in 1929), and he was brother to seven other horses, none of whom ever won a principal stakes race. He was half brother to another four horses, of whom only two were ever able to win any races at all.

Phar Lap was a Thoroughbred, who was reportedly an unattractive colt whose owner refused to pay to have him trained. He grew into an impressive horse, who reached over 17 hands and retained his lanky looks, but was able to carry a large amount of weight and still win races seemingly effortlessly.

Phar Lap raced for four years of his life, and won 37 of his 51 races. These wins included the Melbourne Cup in 1930, and in that year and 1931 he won 14 races in a row. From his win at the VRC St Leger Stakes until his final race, he won 32 of 35 races, and in 2 of those that he did not win he still finished second.

His final race, at the Agua Caliente Racetrack in Mexico, was offering the largest prize fund ever offered in North American racing, and Phar Lap won in track-record time.

A great deal of controversy surrounds the death of Phar Lap; on April 5th 1932, he was found in extreme pain and with a high temperature and died within a few hours. It was suspected that he had been deliberately poisoned, possibly by US gangsters to protect their illegal bookmakers – but this has never been proven.

In those days, Arsenic was a commonly used tonic for horses, which may explain the large amounts that were found in Phar Lap’s system, but we will probably never know the truth behind the mystery of his death.

Phar Lap’s heart is on display at the National Museum of Australia, and it weighs 14lb (an average horse’s heart weighs 7lb). However, there is also controversy surrounding this – as apparently Phar Lap’s heart was cut up during autopsy, and that on display is actually the heart of a draught horse.

Secretariat

Secretariat

Secretariat was an American Thoroughbred, born on March 30, 1970, in Caroline County, Virginia. He was intentionally bred from racing stock – in fact his sire Bold Ruler was the leading sire in North America from 1963 to 69, and again in 1973.

Secretariat was a well-made, attractive colt who took his first steps at just 30 minutes old, and distinguished himself right from the start.

He grew to stand at 16.2 hands, and was an extremely well built horse. He was described as having “nearly perfect” conformation and stride biomechanics, and he was known for his powerful, muscled hindquarters.

His chest was so large that his girth had to be custom made, and this added to his success at racing – the large girth conceals a good heart-lung capacity, which helps greatly at running long distances very fast.

Secretariat had a long and prestigious racing career, winning 16 of his 21 career races, along with three seconds and one third. He won a lot of money for his owners, trainers and jockeys, and is one of 13 Thoroughbred millionaires.

He won the Triple Crown as a three year old, and set speed records in all three races – in fact his time for the Kentucky Derby still stands as the Churchill Downs track record for 1 1/4 miles. He won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, a race that is still widely considered to be one of the best horse race wins of all time.

Secretariat retired from racing to become a stud, and he officially sired 663 named foals. This crop includes 341 winners and 54 stakes winners – however he has been criticised as a stallion, because he did not leave behind a male offspring who shared his ability. His legacy continued through his daughters however, many of whom were racers and even more of whom produced excellent foals of their own.

Secretariat succumbed to laminitis in 1989, and was euthanized on October 4th of that year, aged 19. His heart was not weighed, but it was estimated to be about 22lb – 2.5 times larger than an average horse’s.

This is possibly due to the “x-factor” – a theory about unusually large hearts in Thoroughbreds contributing to their racing skill, which is traced to an ancestor on Secretariat’s dam line.

Phar Lap Vs Secretariat

Phar Lap and Secretariat shared successes, and they also shared the nickname Big Red. Both have been commemorated with statues, postage stamps, museum exhibitions, and firm places in the hearts of people. They are both remembered as kind, hard working horses with great temperaments.

Although Secretariat still holds some track records to this day and is arguably the faster horse, Phar Lap was a big weight carrier. They were never able to race each other, as there were more than 30 years between their respective careers, so we may never be able to put this debate down for good.

Would Phar Lap have gone even further had his life not been tragically cut short? Would Secretariat have gone on to win yet more races had he not been retired to father the next generation of racers?

Conclusion

Which was the better race horse? That all depends on who you ask, and the debate rages on. Is it based on races won? Track records set? Numbers of prestigious races? In the case of Phar Lap vs Secretariat, you will have to make up your own mind.

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Horses & Foals since 2017. Horses have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.


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