Triple Crown head-to-head: Citation vs Secretariat

Apr 27, 2020 Vance Hanson/

In anticipation of the virtual Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown, we're analyzing several intriguing head-to-head match-ups. This installment of the series pits Citation against Secretariat.

Why Citation vs Secretariat?

Generally cited as the two greatest Triple Crown winners of all time, Citation (1948) and Secretariat (1973) were endlessly compared both during and after the latter's career in the early 1970s. Horsemen and observers of long standing held Citation as the gold standard among Triple Crown winners until Secretariat came along.

The case for Citation

Citation, and his late-developing but hot entrymate Coaltown, scared off all but four other rivals in the Kentucky Derby. Although Coaltown was expected to be a serious threat given his early speed, Citation won with ease and was never threatened during the rest of the Triple Crown.

In fact, Citation was never seriously challenged the rest of the season. He won 19 of 20 starts, including 16 stakes. The latter is still widely assumed to be the record for most stakes wins in a single season by a division champion.

Citation beat older horses in February, in the 7-furlong Seminole Handicap, and continued to beat them from mid-summer through fall. In all he won seven stakes open to older horses as a 3-year-old, one of which was a walkover in the Pimlico Special.

Although it's widely believed he 'lost a step' at ages of five and six after missing all of his 4-year-old campaign due to injury, Citation still continued to perform strongly at the highest level while racing over hard, fast California tracks that might not have been totally to his liking.

Secretariat's rebuttal

While Secretariat couldn't match Citation's near-perfect 3-year-old record when losing several races he perhaps shouldn't have, he was facing a quality of opposition Citation could only have dreamt of.

It required two track-record performances for Secretariat to beat Sham in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, his Derby being the first run in under 2:00. He then established an American dirt record of 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles winning the Belmont by a mind-boggling 31 lengths. The next-fastest clocking at that distance in Belmont Park history was 2:25 4/5 in the 1973 Woodward, in which Secretariat finished second when wheeled back on unexpectedly short rest.

Secretariat showed a versatility at the end of his career Citation did not attempt, winning the Man o' War and Canadian International on the grass. The former was achieved in 2:24 4/5 for 1 1/2 miles, a course record which stood for nearly two decades.

Secretariat beat what must be considered one of the all-time great fields in the inaugural Marlboro Cup in 1973. Among the vanquished were champions and/or Hall of Fame inductees Riva Ridge, Key to the Mint, and Cougar II; Canadian Horse of the Year Kennedy Road; and his surprise Whitney conqueror Onion. All this in world-record time of 1:45 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles.

The verdict

While Citation was never put under serious pressure to break speed records, Secretariat destroyed them time and again under his own volition. The algorithms conducting the virtual Kentucky Derby are unlikely to reflect the fact, except perhaps when recognizing these records, but a post-mortem held in 1989 found Secretariat to have had a heart twice the average size. This 'bigger motor' undoubtedly enabled Secretariat to achieve what he did and should make him a heavy favorite to win this virtual classic.

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