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Question about Secretariat's Death

As we absorb the loss of Barbaro, even with the huge effort to save his life with the most modern veterinary technology available, I can’t help but think back to Secretariat.

I was not even born when he won the Triple Crown, and fairly young when he died. It wasn’t until I was older that I learned that laminitis was the cause he was put down.

My question is: what was the triggering event that caused him to develop laminitis? Was it something like eating spring grass too quickly, he was fed something inappropriate, or he broke into the feed room? I just wonder if 20 years later, new understandings of horse management and feeding would have prevented the trigger event, or if it had still occurred, new advances in surgery and corrective shoeing could have saved his life.

I am NOT trying to say that those who cared for him caused his death. I am wondering if his laminitis had developed today, could his life have not been tragically cut short because we would have had better tools and knowledge to save him?

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Not to second guess his vets, who were probably the best in the business then, but a vast amount of information on the causes of laminitis has been discovered just in the past few years. From just the look of his body condition in his later years, I would bet a $10 bill that he was insulin resistant–which nobody knew about at the time, at least in horses. Or he could have had one of several metabolic conditions that lead to laminitis; Cushings, for example. (That was one of, if not the only, cause of the laminitis/founder that took Coreene’s Willem.)

I have a big, beautiful Hannoverian, whose diet I have to strictly control in order to prevent laminitis and founder. While we’ll never know if diet or medication could have saved Secretariat, I expect that would have been the case. Of course, in Barbaro’s case, it was a case of too much weight on feet that weren’t designed to carry it; a cause, imo, that’s in the same category as road founder (too much work on hard surfaces).

In years past, a horse was thought to sometimes develop laminitis from grain or spring grass overload, retained placenta, excessive weight on one or more hooves, and/or poor shoeing. Now we know more about causes, but I’m pretty sure we don’t know it all.

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Secretariat had cushings disease which lead to the laminitis. I think there may have been enough advances in cushings research since then that things may have been different if it happened today. Once the laminitis sets in it either gets better or it doesn’t, so there is no way to know if that would have been different.

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Secretariat was examined by the best around in 1989 and frankly advances in medicine and/or shoeing haven’t change that much although detection of the disease has improved a little bit. I truly doubt however after it set in that the Hancock family would have changed their ultimate decision.

There are multiple causes and I don’t recall ever there being a determination as to “the culprit” for Secretariat. He suffered and was humainly euthanized due to complications from laminitis. The cause of laminitis

The cause of almost all laminitis is poor digestion. When food is not broken down properly in the hindgut of a horse, acids and toxins are produced which leak into the body and damage blood vessels and organs throughout the body. When blood vessels and cells that feed the feet are affected in this way the amount of blood flowing down to the sensitive laminae is reduced and they become swollen. (Some alternative theories also suggest that toxins more importantly affect horn growth and that these are the cause of most laminitis). Swelling or inflammation of laminae means that they cannot do their job of holding the pedal bone in place properly and this results in a lot of pain. As the situation gets worse and if the flow of toxins is not reduced then the laminae can be so damaged that the foot bone sinks right through the sole of the foot and the horse will have to be euthanased. When the foot bone sinks a little the pedal bone is said to have ‘rotated’.

The sort of food that causes laminitis is rich young spring grass with high levels of fructans. However rich grass can cause the problem at any time of year and even frosty grass in the winter can damage the digestion in the gut so much that the wrong sort of bacteria start to multiply and release toxins. Another cause of laminitis is the sudden ingestion of large amounts of cereal or concentrate feed. Large amounts of such rich food in the gut cause a lot of acid production and again encourage the growth of the wrong sort of bacteria

Food is not the only cause of laminitis however. An increasingly common cause of the disease is a hormonal imbalance called Cushings Disease. In addition any infection in the body might produce enough toxins to damage the blood vessels and thus cause laminitis. Womb infections after foaling are a particularly well-known example of this cause of laminitis. In addition pounding of the feet can cause sufficient damage to the laminae to cause laminitis. This form of the problem is called concussion laminitis. Stress can also make horses more likely to get laminitis and any other disease.

Dr. Ric Redden has been the foremost expert on the subject in the US. His clinc, Equine Podiatry Center in Lexington is pretty amazing. A close friend of a friend is a co-owner of it and I’ve had a chance to see their operations.

They offera Q&A on-line

Regarding Secretariat, Bill Nack his biographer perhaps one of his greatest admirers outside of Penny, wrote “Pure Heart” as well as other articles on him.

An excerpt:

Just before noon [11:45 am actually] Secretariat was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Ky., where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. …

Secretariat was buried at dusk on Oct. 4 in the horse cemetery at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky.


ok correct me if i’m wrong or just slap me one…but whne I remeber reading about his autopsy(sp) and it was stated that his heart was double the size of a regular horse heart…is this bs?

No, not BS.

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Glimmerglass, I think the article you referenced left out a significant cause of laminitis–endotoxemia–and it isn’t necessarily a feed issue.

The large heart syndrome, or X factor, is considered a really good thing for a racehorse. Oddly, I had a Hanoverian baby who fell out of a sale because he had a murmur. And the heart specialist said he had a heart the size of Secretariat’s. They joked about cosmetically removing his Hanoverian brand and puttin him on the race track. The vets really liked him, BTW, but it killed the sale.


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Secretariat appears to be obese in photos taken after his racing career ended. Maybe that had something to do with it as well.


Laurierace, was this a definite diagnosis made while he was still alive, or a diagnosis made post mortem based on his body condition as he aged?

Supposedly it is the largest seen at an estimated 22 lbs vs. the normal size of 8.5 lbs of a thoroughbred; the second largest heart disovered was Sham’s at 18 lbs; the great horse Eclipse had a heart clocking in at 14 lbs in 1789.

Source: The X Factor “Heart of the Matter”

Secretariat appears to be obese in photos taken after his racing career ended. Maybe that had something to do with it as well.

I’ve seen photos of Secretariat through the late 1980’s and I don’t recollect him being obese whatsoever in my view. Example: Secretariat at Claiborn Farm or how about him in the pasture in the late 1980s - by no means obese. He was a big boy not a fat boy :wink:

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I’d love to find out about the cushings diagnosis, as well. Kinda’ close to the heart right now for me, but that’s a totally different subject…

I have to be honest that I’ve never seen a cushings link/diagnosis with Secretariat before. That doesn’t mean I know everything but it isn’t cited on “his web site” or other resources on him either. Laminitis of course is but not the further diagnosis of cushings.

I got my information first hand through the vet who worked and traveled with him during his triple crown campaign. I don’t know if even they knew that was his problem at the time, so it may not be documented anywhere.

So, was it or was it not definitively diagnosed via bloodwork? I only ask because I’m not sure if the defining test for Cushings was even available at the time.

Secretariat didn’t really look like a Cushings Horse and this is the first I’ve ever seen it mentioned. I don’t think that was even thought of in connection with his death at the time. Back then they knew very little about Cushings or treating it. If he had it I doubt anyone would have known at the time. He was still sleek and shiney but he was OBESE and no doubt insulin resistant. That alone is enough to bring on laminitis. Pulpit is also obese and is headed down the same road if he isn’t put on a diet soon. Of course there are fat stallions all over. It’s like the stallion world hasn’t heard of the link between fat and founder.

Anyway they never found any “cause” except that he was fat. But causes are not always apparent. Even stress can bring on a bout of laminitis.


Secretariat was also much older than Barbaro at the time of his death. I’m sure that might have had something to do with a decision as well. I had never heard of him being “obese”.

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I had the pleasure of meeting Secretariat while on a private tour of Claiborne farm in 1988, less than a year before his death. His groom brought him out of his pasture for us to pet him, and he was a muddy happy horse. He was, however, not obese. Wide chested and muscular, but not obese. He was something special indeed.



Dr. Ric Redden has been the foremost expert on the subject in the US.

Ric Redden IS a great source of info…he has often been referred to in the Equine Cushings forum that I’m a member of in YahooGroups. If it’s an area of interest, you might enjoy Dr. Eleanor Kellon’s research related to the subject. Awesome, awesome lady who is happy to share her knowledge with us average folk. I lost my little mare last month to a non-Cushings crisis…irony after getting her sound again that it happened. Miss her terribly…
Although insulin resistance is frequently associated with Cushings, I don’t think that there’s a specific cause/effect relationship (meaning that a horse with IR will not necessarily develop Cushings). A horse can be IR without Cushings (at young ages), while a horse can also have Cushings and not IR. Basic philosophy is to be preventive and feed an IR appropriate diet to a Cushings horse as Cushings horses are more prone to IR (as well as other health issues).

As for Barbaro…any legitimacy to my theory that he stress foundered from compensating off his hind end? In the BloodHorse article online, they mentioned him showing signs up front too.
Wouldn’t wish founder on ANYBODY>

Dee. wecertainly we can consider stress,and weight bearing/unloading, poor circulation, the many drugs he was on, and, so much more :eek: , unfortunately horses often survive the initial insult, fracture , and surgery only to be put down due to laminitis, or colic, :frowning: as I sadly told a friend who watched th Preakness and its’ aftermath with me.