October 8, 2010

Remembering … Secretariat

The legend began on July 4, 1972. It was in the 2nd race at Aqueduct, a maiden special weight at 5 ½ furlongs for the youngsters. The best horse would not win the race, but on that Independence Day 38 years ago, a beautiful reddish chestnut colt announced himself to the world. He would run fourth, beaten 1 ¼ lengths after breaking slowly, being blocked a few times, and finishing full of run on the inside. It would prove to be the only time any horse would finish in front of Secretariat in his first eleven races.

Barely older than the great horse myself, Secretariat represents my very first memories of thoroughbred racing. My strong feelings for him are honestly an amalgamation of a little boy’s hero worship, and of the way my father saw and talked about him. The two-year-old Virginia bred colt would not take long to show everyone how special he was. Secretariat broke his maiden easily in his next start, eleven days later, winning another special weight at Aqueduct by six lengths. After winning his third start impressively at 2-5, Secretariat would make his stakes debut in Saratoga’s Sanford Stakes, where he faced off with the highly regarded Linda’s Chief. It would be my first opportunity to see Big Red in person. Secretariat would not disappoint. Linda’s Chief ran a big race that day, but still was little competition for the budding star. Years later, I would study the pristine program, with my Dad’s perfectly round circle around his number, and reminisce that it was my first encounter with true equine greatness.

In a Preakness precursor, the Hopeful Stakes would take Secretariat’s fantastic Sanford performance to a whole new thrilling level. On that August afternoon at the Spa, Big Red walked out of the gate and fell far behind the rest of the nine horse field. Four furlongs from the wire it looked like it would not be his day. A quarter of a mile later, Secretariat was on the lead and at that moment, everyone knew. The move from last to first was pure electricity, and as completed the formality of cantering down the Saratoga stretch, Secretariat was already a superstar within the racing world. The rest of the world would join in due time.

Left in his wake in the Hopeful was a colt named Stop the Music, who became good enough that Fall to become a juvenile champion, if only he had been born a different year. Stop the Music would run a marvelous race in both colts next start, getting within a 1 ¾ lengths of Secretariat at the finish of the Futurity. But in what had become the norm, Secretariat was only toying with his foe. The Champagne Stakes would be next at Belmont, and my father likes to tell his story of the best laid plans, where him and his racing pals had seen enough in the Futurity to think Stop the Music actually had a shot against Secretariat at much higher odds. Apparently he was not alone, as only minutes before post time, the two colts were practically the same odds. Dad changed his mind and put his money on the better horse. Rightfully so, as the powerful chestnut roared off the final turn to prove much the best in the prestigious stakes race. In an ironic turn for my father, Secretariat was disqualified and placed second for impeding second place finisher Stop the Music early in the stretch. If there were thoughts of an emerging rivalry between the two colts, Secretariat dispatched them rather rudely with an eight length runaway in the sloppy Laurel Futurity. Secretariat would finish off his first season by hitting my home state for an easy score in the rich Garden State Futurity.

The official record may say that the son of Bold Ruler, out of the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal, ran 9 times, with seven wins as a two year-old, but those who saw him knew he was something very special. The troubled trip debut loss, and the questionable DQ in the Champagne could not detract from his sheer brilliance. The Meadow Stable homebred of Penny Tweedy Chenery would be rewarded when the Eclipse Awards were handed out, by not only winning Champion Juvenile award, but also becoming one of the few horses in history to win the Horse of the Year title at just two years old. For trainer Lucien Laurin, and regular rider Ron Turcotte, it was validation of what they believed since early on … this horse was destined for greatness.

For a thoroughbred race horse, the three-year-old season is the glamour year. The world tunes in for the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes that make up America’s Triple Crown. It is racing’s Holy Grail. A horse can become immortalized if he is outstanding enough to somehow sweep all three races. The problem was, it had not been accomplished since Citation dominated back in 1948. The early part of the sophomore season boils down to only a series of preps designed to have your horse peak for the First Saturday in May. For Secretariat, the pressure was on after his superlative juvenile season and news that he had been syndicated for stallion duty for an unheard sum of $6 million.

Secretariat’s first race at three was the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct, and he was quick to show the form that had made him a star in 1972. He powered past the field in the stretch to win by nearly five lengths. His next start was the Gotham Stakes in which he was tested a bit by Champagne Charlie, before pulling clear to win by three, and setting a track record of 1:33 2/5 for the mile. The Wood Memorial was now the only race that stood between Secretariat and a glorious run for the roses. In the Wood he would be introduced to a new challenger. Sham had developed late in his juvenile season for trainer Pancho Martin and had been very impressive early that Spring in California. Secretariat, unbeknownst to most, was suffering from an abscess below his lip. The Wood proved to be completely un-Secretariat like, as the big horse struggled home in third, while his speedy entry mate narrowly held off the rally of Sham. Heading to the Derby there were many worries for the Secretariat camp. He had been beaten in the Wood, while his sire, Bold Ruler, was a great one, but questions of his ability to father a horse who could run a distance persisted, and groom Eddie Sweat was fretting daily over the condition of his star’s mouth. These worries would seem silly a few weeks later.

I now choose to let the video replays of Secretariat’s amazing run through racing’s most important series of races speak for themselves, for my mere words can not do him justice. Suffice it to say, In becoming our first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, he ran the greatest Kentucky Derby ever, ran even better in an electrifying last to first jaw-dropper in the Preakness, and then in the Belmont, Secretariat ran a race that will forever be held as the gold standard for which all great thoroughbreds will be judged.

I was lucky enough to be in the stands that fateful day at Belmont Park, and when Secretariat sprinted down the Belmont stretch, I still remember the awesome energy and feeling of the stands rocking beneath my small feet. After what I consider far and away the finest performance by a race horse in my lifetime, Secretariat did have a few setbacks, when he finished a dull second to Onion in the Whitney, and was second best to a great effort by Prove Out in the sloppy Woodward Stakes. For the most part, however, Secretariat was sensational. He took the road show to Chicago for the Arlington Invitational and won for fun. After the shocking loss in the Whitney, he ran won of his best races in winning the Marlboro Cup. It was my final opportunity to see Secretariat in person, and it was awesome. The field included Secretariat’s wonderful older stablemate, Riva Ridge, who had won the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, and had been begun the revival of Penny Tweedy Chenery’s struggling Meadow Stable. Riva Ridge proved much the best of the all-star field save one, as he offered little resistance against the speed and power that was Secretariat. In winning the Marlboro, Big Red smashed another world record, running the 1 1/8 miles race in 1:45 2/5. When trainer Lucien Laurin decided to try the big horse on grass a little later that Fall, race fans were once again treated to something extraordinary. Secretariat defeated a top class field of turf horses in the Man O’ War Stakes by five lengths, in track record time of 2:24 4/5 for the 12 furlongs.

Secretariat’s last race came against older horses in the grassy Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine in Toronto, Canada. It was his second career turf start and the first time he was asked to go the demanding distance of 1 5/8 miles. It proved to be vintage Secretariat, as Big Red rolled home by 6 ½ lengths. The ease of the victory made it seem as if he could have won that day by twenty. It was a fitting way for the champ to end his career. To the surprise on no one, Secretariat was once again named Horse of the Year, as well as collecting Eclipse Awards as the Champion Three-Year-Old Male and the Champion Male Turf Horse.

Because of the syndication deal, there would be no older racing career for Big Red. After retirement, Secretariat was sent to Seth Hancock’s Claiborne Farm where he worked towards rewarding those eager backers who made him the richest syndicated horse ever, after the completion of his juvenile season. As a sire, Secretariat could not possibly live up to his superhero like racing feats, and he did not. He did, however, become a very good sire who had many top horses both here and abroad, and two of his most fabulous offspring, Lady’s Secret and Risen Star, were the ones who most closely displayed flashes of their father’s greatness. Unfortunately the great horse’s life was cut short by the debilitating disease laminitis. Secretariat was put down, to the dismay of a nation, at the age of 19 on October 4, 1989. Adding insight to what made Secretariat tick, was an autopsy that revealed that his heart weighed close to 22 pounds, more than double the size of a normal thoroughbred. With his place in history safe, the only debate is whether he was the greatest that ever lived. In reliving the Belmont Stakes, it is hard to argue against him.

My remembrance of the great horse was decidedly geared towards his racing career. For more information on the colorful people that cared for Secretariat, and the coin toss which ultimately decided his ownership, I urge you to run, not walk, to your local movie theatre to see Disney’s Secretariat. As of today, Big Red is a motion picture star. I know I will be one of the first on line. I remember you Secretariat.


Mike Dorr said...

I never realized Forego was in the 1973 Kentucky Derby as well. Key race, you might say.

Michele Hope said...

Beautiful piece on Big Red, Brian. That Belmont victory still makes my jaw drop. What a powerhouse he was. Can't wait to see the movie this weekend.

Anonymous said...

Great article Brian!! Well done. Cannot wait to see the movie and see on the big screen how incredible Big Red really was.

Ernie said...

Great stuff, Brian. I'm surprised you're so open-minded - and so pumped about - the movie, given the historical contradictions. But I know the love of the game trumps all hardcore grumpiness. Maybe we'll get a few race fans.

Brian Zipse said...

Yes Mike ... pretty solid field, eh?

Thanks Michele and Annonymous!

I appreciate that Ernie ... I am ready for a heady mix of Secretariat and the suspension of disbelief. What's not to love?

william said...

watching secretariat was purely amazing.....thank you brian for reminding everyone about how great he was....the kentucky derby and belmont stakes times remain the best ever(the preakness also if the clock was working properly)...the greats he defeated(riva ridge, tentam, lindas chief, stop the music, cougar 2nd)thank you for remembering my favorite horse....and i too remember him

NetworkEmpowerment said...

When at his best you have to wonder could any horse run with him? Could even Man o War, Bid, Native Dance or anybody keep with him when he was at his best. It's hard to imagine they could.

Unknown said...

TY Brian, for remembering The Great Red.
I'll never forget when I went out to Claiborne to see him in the summer of 83. The stallion manager brought him out for me to pet & talk to. Having just started working with thoroughbreds, I knew enough to know how racehorses - and especially stallions - can be; and I remember being very impressed that Red didnt try to bite, kick or anything; never pinned his ears, never got antsy; He was just a very regal gentleman. He'd always been a bit of a mythical hero to me til then, and his kindness and patience that day just made it kind of personal for me.

darlene said...

As you all leave the theater after seeing "Secretariat" I urge you to pick up a copy of the book "Secretariat" by William Nack that the movie was based on Although it is a horse biography it is also a love story Mr.Nack's love for this horse comes through on every page This book was first published in '73 but I kew nothing of it til now A deep debt of gratitude to Disney for making me aware of it The new editions contain additions by Mr Nack including the beautiful piece "Pure Heart' that he wrote for "Sports Illustrated when Big Red was put down Everyone should read this loving obit to the "greatest horse to ever look thru a bridle" Kudos to you Brian for a moving rememberance Enjoy the movie

SaratogaSpa said...

Nice Recap Brian, especially the mention of Riva Ridge, who is not even mentioned in the Disney flick

Anonymous said...

If anyone is interested in Charles Hatton article "Secretariat Rates All Superlatives" from Derby Day 1973....http://kdl.kyvl.org/drf/....click 1970s...1973....May 5(calendar)...page 4.

During Derby Week 1972 in an interview Penny Tweedy made no distinction between All or None and Secretariat when discussing Meadow Stable's 2yos. All or None never did win so I'm curious to see the movie and when they say she knew that Secretariat was the real deal.