Horse Racing / Bill Christine : Secretariat Was Champion of the People, Both Young and Old

Dear Secretariat: How is it in the stallion barn? Who all do you know there? I wish I could meet you, but you see I don’t live anywhere near you. I live in Lincoln, Neb. Please send me a picture of you. I’m sending you a picture of me so you will know what I look like. --Letter from a girl to a horse

The first time I saw Secretariat at stud, at Claiborne Farm in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky, he was in a big paddock next to Riva Ridge.

What a sight and what a contrast they were: The horses that won the Kentucky Derby in successive years, Riva Ridge in 1972 and Secretariat in 1973.

Riva Ridge was wearing a muzzle. His groom said that he was so ornery that he was capable of savaging himself. Riva Ridge looked like an equine Darth Vader.


In the next paddock was Secretariat, Mr. Personality. At the sight of the cameras he galloped over to the rail. There he stood and looked his visitors in the eye and posed, his near-red coat glistening in the bright morning sunlight. He came close enough for some of the people to hug him.

Trainer Lucien Laurin, the gray-haired French-Canadian who trained both Derby winners, went to see Secretariat at Claiborne every spring, including the last one. A former jockey, Laurin fidgeted his way through those two Derbies, and went all the way with Secretariat, who gave racing its first Triple Crown champion in 25 years when he also won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1973.

Early Wednesday morning, Don Grisham of the Daily Racing Form called Laurin at his apartment near Arlington International Racecourse in the Chicago area, telling him that Secretariat was very sick. A month ago, the 19-year-old stallion was diagnosed as having laminitis, a circulatory hoof ailment that is frequently fatal.

Laurin, who is still training horses in his late 70s, later got a second call, telling him that Secretariat was given a lethal injection because he was in so much pain.


“This is a very sad day,” Laurin said. “Believe you me, this is a very sad day.”

Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat, saw him at Claiborne in the spring and was shocked at how heavy he seemed. Laurin, however, thought that the horse looked fine.

He was the first--and only--horse to be voted horse of the year as a 2-year-old, and his Triple Crown conquest the next year was beyond convincing, it was devastating. He broke the time records for both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, and he probably also ran the fastest Preakness in history, but Pimlico’s timer malfunctioned that day.

His Belmont time of 2 minutes 24 seconds for 1 1/2 miles was a world record and obliterated the stakes record of 2:26 3/5 that Gallant Man had set in 1957.


Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths, jockey Ronnie Turcotte looking over at the tote board as they flashed through the stretch, because he couldn’t wait to see how fast they were traveling.

Several years ago, at a dinner in San Francisco, Turcotte sat in a wheelchair, victim of a spill at the same Belmont Park in 1978 that left him a paraplegic. Turcotte was asked how good Sham was, Sham being the horse who finished second to Secretariat in both the Derby and the Preakness, before breaking down trying to catch the chestnut comet in the Belmont.

“We’ll never know, eh?” Turcotte said. “We’ll never know, because Secretariat was so great. He won the Belmont without me urging him until we were 70 yards from home. The only reason I urged him was because there was a patrol judge on a platform in the infield wearing red pants, and I didn’t want my horse to get spooked.”

On Wednesday, Laurin was asked to analyze Secretariat’s talent.


“He had no faults,” Laurin said. “He could run on dirt, run on mud, run on grass. He was a perfect gate horse. The good Lord just sent such a fantastic horse our way,” he said. “And for racing he came along at the right time, because racing was going down the road at that time. This horse helped a lot of tracks get people interested in racing again.”

There hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. Laurin remembered Secretariat’s final workout, a few days before his last race, the Canadian International Championship on grass at Woodbine. It turned out to be his 16th win in 21 starts.

“I was nervous, because we had to get that work in, and it was important,” Laurin said. “It was so foggy that you couldn’t see 10 feet in front of your face. But there was about 10,000 people out there that morning, just to see him work.”

Turcotte always pointed to Secretariat’s incredible strength.


“He really had a mild temperament, and that was a good thing,” Turcotte said. “Because if he hadn’t been that way, he was so strong that there wouldn’t have been a jock alive that could have held him.”

Secretariat made the covers of national news magazines and was so popular that he became a client of the William Morris Agency. Years later, Joe McGinness, the writer, took on the assignment of tracking down the vanishing American hero, and concluded that Secretariat was one of the last genuine heroes in the country.

“I don’t think there’s been a horse in the world, living or dead, who had the popularity that Secretariat had,” Laurin said. “There was a lot of pressure, because he was always expected to win, but I wished to God that they had brought him back to race as a 4-year-old.”

Instead, a $6.08-million syndication deal was cut--unheard of at the time--and Secretariat was sent to stud, where his career was good but not sensational. He was expected to reproduce himself, though, and even for Secretariat, that was impossible. Risen Star, a son of Secretariat, won the Preakness and Belmont last year, and Lady’s Secret, one of his daughters, was voted horse of the year in 1986.


Before Riva Ridge and Secretariat, Laurin’s training career ebbed more than it flowed. His son, Roger, was training for the Chenerys in 1971, when Eddie Neloy, the trainer for the Ogden Phipps family, died after suffering a heart attack. The Phippses hired Roger Laurin and he recommended his father to the Chenerys.

Lucien Laurin thought about that for a moment on Wednesday. “You know, people are always saying that their sons never give them anything,” he said. “My son sure gave me something in Secretariat.”

Horse Racing Notes

Six or seven horses will challenge Easy Goer Saturday in the $1-million Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, including Prized, who has beaten Sunday Silence in the Swaps and won the Molson Million in his last two starts. . . . Sunday Silence, back at Santa Anita after winning the Super Derby, won’t run until his expected showdown with Easy Goer in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park on Nov. 4. Sunday Silence has had a skin rash since his return from Louisiana Downs, but it hasn’t caused him to miss any training.


Steinlen, winner of the Arlington Million and the high weight at 126 pounds, will be opposed by Equalize in Saturday’s Kelso Handicap at Belmont. . . . El Senor is the probable favorite in the Turf Classic on Sunday at Belmont. . . . At Santa Anita, Rahy will be the high-weighted starter, at 121 pounds, in Saturday’s Ramser Handicap and Mill Native, carrying top weight of 123 pounds, may run Sunday in the Koester Handicap. . . . . Rue de Palm, winner of the Del Mar Debutante, fractured a bone in a lower leg in a training injury. A pin has been inserted and she’ll be out for the year. . . . Two of last year’s Eclipse Awards winners--Sunshine Forever, the male turf champion, and Winning Colors, the Kentucky Derby winner and best 3-year-old filly, haven’t done much this year. Last weekend, Winning Colors, ridden by Chris McCarron for the first time, won the Budweiser Breeders’ Cup at Turfway Park for her first stakes win since the Derby, but Sunshine Forever, running for the first time in five months, beat only one horse at Belmont.