Secretariat’s Army Taught Jason Kelce a Valuable Lesson

The former Eagles star and incoming ESPN analyst aired half-baked assertions that the 1973 Triple Crown winner was on steroids.
Kelce later apologized for his assertion that Secretariat must have been on PEDs.
Kelce later apologized for his assertion that Secretariat must have been on PEDs. / Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports (Kelce); Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated (Secretariat)

Jason Kelce is an immensely popular former NFL star, incoming ESPN analyst and co-host of a burgeoning podcast with his brother, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. But his media learning curve is steep in a couple of areas: idle speculation about performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and besmirching the legacy of the most famous and beloved thoroughbred of all-time.

As someone who is Swiftie-adjacent, due to his brother dating Taylor Swift, Jason Kelce has now become acquainted with another passionate demographic that is not to be messed with. Secretariat's Army, and Secretariat's family.

A day after Kelce publicly aired half-baked assertions that the 1973 Triple Crown winner was on steroids—“Secretariat was juiced to the gills,” he declared on the New Heights podcast, then initially doubled down on social media—the daughter of the horse’s owner had some choice words to Sports Illustrated in response.

“My reaction was outrage,” says Kate Tweedy, whose mother, Penny Tweedy Chenery, owned the horse during his run to equine immortality. “Because he was talking through his hat, obviously, but also because it was so unfair.”

Kate Tweedy also passed along to SI a statement from her family on the subject. It read, in part, "We, the family of Penny Chenery, strongly protest the grossly inaccurate speculation recently posted by Jason Kelce about Secretariat racing while being ‘juiced.’ Kelce later admitted that he knows nothing about Secretariat and bases his opinions entirely on the fact that Secretariat belonged to an era when drug use in athletes was rampant.

“The fact is Secretariat was never given performance enhancing drugs. Indeed, both our mother Penny Chenery, who managed Secretariat, and our grandfather Christopher Chenery, who bred him, were morally committed to the rule that horses should only be given healthy feed, water and such medical treatment as is required to maintain health. It was a well-known rule among our trainers and handlers. … As a pro athlete, Kelce has a national platform, which places on him the responsibility not to assert facts he has no information about.”

The podcast conversation that was published Thursday between Jason and Travis Kelce centered on Travis’s trip to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby last weekend. From there it veered to Jason’s suspicions about Secretariat and his abnormally large heart, a leap that elicited a sharp response from the long-dead horse’s legion of fans. 

Jason followed up with a long post on X (formerly Twitter) that said, in part, “[Y]ou know who else has enlarged hearts. People who take copious amounts of steroids. I’ll admit I don’t know whether Secretariat was on steroids or not, it’s impossible to know, because in 1973 when Secretariat won the triple crown there was not adequate testing available to find out. But, the fact this horse had unparalleled muscular stature and died with an enlarged heart, and raced at a time when steroids were extremely prevalent, without adequate testing, raises flags in my book.”

About two hours later, after being assailed from multiple angles, Jason Kelce re-emerged on X and waved the white flag. 

“I’m sorry everyone, wasn’t trying to get people riled up,” he posted. “I really thought it was just known that in the 70s steroid use was rampant. I’m not trying to take away from Secretariat’s, or anyone from that era's legacy. You’re right, without proof it is unfair to assume these things publicly, I apologize.”

Kate Tweedy, for her part, says she accepts Jason Kelce’s apology. But she’s also taking the opportunity to fiercely defend Secretariat’s legacy and the care the horse was given by her family.

Secretariat after winning the 1973 Kentucky Derby.
“It was not chemically or pathologically enlarged—just a genetic gift of nature that enabled him to run farther and faster than any horse in the last century," Tweedy said about Secretariat's enlarged heart. / Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated

“The biggest misconception [Kelce] had is that the large heart had to be due to steroids,” she says. “It was not chemically or pathologically enlarged—just a genetic gift of nature that enabled him to run farther and faster than any horse in the last century. This large-heart trait has been researched by equine geneticists who have documented its occurrence in the bloodlines of both Secretariat’s forbears and his descendants. It has zero to do with steroids or any other drugs.”

The late William Nack, the former SI writer who chronicled Secretariat like no other, wrote about the results of Big Red’s necropsy. He noted that the heart “wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”

While plenty of people were rolling their eyes at the idea of a burning controversy over a horse that died in 1989 and last ran in 1973, this was a case study for a rookie media member on both the power of the spoken word and the peril of idly cast assertions of PED use. Conjecture about steroid use in Secretariat’s era is not completely baseless—it was happening in horse racing, as well as in human athletes. But when firing a specific shot at an American sporting icon, accuracy and care are strongly recommended.

 Or, as Kate Tweedy put it: “Just do your homework.”


Published |Modified
Pat Forde

PAT FORDE

Pat Forde is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, covering college football and basketball as well as the Olympics and horse racing. He co-hosts the College Football Enquirer podcast and is a football analyst on the Big Ten Network. He previously worked for Yahoo Sports, ESPN and The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Pat has won a remarkable 28 Associated Press Sports Editors writing contest awards; been published three times in Best American Sports Writing; and was nominated for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. A past president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and member of the Football Writers Association of America, Pat lives in Louisville with his wife. They have three children, all of whom were college swimmers.