‘It Was Like He Was Flying’ : In Five Weeks in 1973, Secretariat Went From a Potentially Great Horse to a Racing Legend
Howard M. Gentry was midwife at the birth of a legend, hunkering down in Barn 17-A at the Meadow Farm, a 6,000-acre gem of greenery tucked into the Virginia countryside 22 miles north of Richmond.
As he had hundreds of times before, the old man took the measure of the broodmare, then gently reached for this miracle of life, pulling and prodding, but mostly watching until the chestnut foal with the three white feet emerged 10 minutes past midnight, March 30, 1970.
Even then, Gentry saw something special in the foal.
“Within 45 minutes, he was up kicking me and looking for his first meal,” he said. “He was a very well-made foal. He was as perfect a foal that I ever delivered.”
The foal would grow, of course, weighing more than 1,100 pounds in his prime. He would race, too, punching holes into the wind and fulfilling all the promise of the bloodlines passed down from the broodmare Somethingroyal and perhaps the greatest modern American sire of them all, Bold Ruler.
And he would be given a name that, at first glance, wasn’t regal, but which, in time, would stand for all the romance and greatness horse racing could create.
Twenty years after winning racing’s Triple Crown and 3 1/2 years after his death, Secretariat remains the most famous thoroughbred of a generation.
As another batch of 3-year-olds prepared for the opening of the Triple Crown season in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the sport looked back longingly to another era and another animal.
Secretariat was the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century, following the path of Citation. Yet even that accomplishment never could explain Secretariat’s popularity, then or now. Quite simply, this was the story of a horse as television star, of an athlete as people’s champion.
“There has to be something colorful or attractive about the horse itself to capture attention,” said Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery. “A, its performance. B, something about the horse lets you dream. Racing is about dreams, and you have to an appropriate hero. Secretariat was that kind of hero.”
And he fit his time.
The year was 1973. American soldiers were in Vietnam, and the Watergate scandal was enveloping the Nixon White House.
But then along came a horse who took a sport and a country for a ride. They called him Big Red, another Man o’ War for another generation.
“Secretariat was not only an athletic phenomenon, he was a sociological one,” said William Nack, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who was Secretariat’s biographer. “He was a big, good-looking guy. He captured a lot of people’s attention. He became the thing in New York.”
Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in a record time of 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds.
He won the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico by bolting around the field in the tightest of turns in front of the grandstand, a move so electrifying, it didn’t even matter that he was robbed of another record because of a timing malfunction.
And, then, he made the hardest of horsemen weep, winning the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in 2:24, a record that still stands, a performance of such profound beauty, grace and perfection that it is generally considered the greatest in racing history.
“My God,” said Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer. “That’s the kind of horse you wait your lifetime for.”
And, to think, it all took place in five weeks, on a journey that followed the warmth of the spring north from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore to New York.
The Triple Crown seemed bigger then, a movable feast for the rich, the famous and the $2 player. Horse racing was a whole lot healthier back in the 1970s, too, with the old money, old families and old breeding farms still dominant. And New York was the center of the racing universe. But, in the 1990s, the Derby is dwarfed by the Super Bowl, racing’s nouveau riche come and go and New York’s tracks are into another decade of recession.
Yet just the mention of Secretariat makes you feel young again.
Laurin, the taciturn, diminutive trainer from Canada, still grows nervous every time he watches a videotape of Secretariat’s Triple Crown races.
“I just want him to get to the wire,” he said.
There was unrelenting pressure on all in the Secretariat entourage. Enormous expectations were built, as Secretariat won seven of nine races as a 2-year-old, was named the 1972 Horse of the Year and was syndicated for the then-record $6.08 million. An ounce of horseflesh was worth more than an ounce of gold.
Secretariat won the Bay Shore and Gotham stakes races in the spring of 1973 as the Triple Crown bandwagon began rolling. But, then, Secretariat finished four lengths behind Sham in the Wood Memorial.
Actually, the only problem Secretariat had was an abscess in his mouth. Then came the 99th Kentucky Derby, before 134,476 fans, and Secretariat, racing from the 10th post position, overwhelmed the field, blowing by Sham in an instant.
“Charlie Hatton, from the Racing Form, claimed he thought Secretariat was the greatest horse that was ever on this Earth,” Laurin said. “He said: ‘Lucien, you don’t have a horse--you have a machine.’
“When he ran,” Laurin added, “you had a sense that he was leaping up in the air, higher than any other horse. It was like he was flying.”
If the horse was flying, well, the owner was soaring. Using the same skills she honed as a volunteer serving doughnuts to soldiers during World War II, Penny Chenery--then Penny Tweedy--simply charmed the national media.
The story, first and foremost, was about a horse. But there was also this wonderful subplot of a woman keeping her late father’s dream alive, of sustaining the Meadow Farm, racing horses and making a run in the Triple Crown series. Chenery wasn’t middle-class, but she wasn’t top-drawer society, either. She was approachable, quotable and hard to miss, a tall blond woman in a sport dominated by men.
A year earlier, Chenery was in the Derby winner’s circle with Riva Ridge. That horse was her favorite, but Secretariat became a national treasure.
“It was bedlam,” she said. “I remember having to get my hair done just to go grocery shopping. People would stop their carts and point and say, ‘There she is.’ ”
The first time she saw Secretariat, Chenery wrote a one-word note to herself, “Wow.” Her admiration for the horse never would change.
“In terms of strategy and feeling OK about where we were, the Preakness was the most important of the races,” she said. “Just past the stands, he made this tremendous leap, which was caught in a photograph, and then he took off and passed the whole field in a quarter of a mile, on his own. He just decided to run. That’s when I felt he had matured intellectually. He understood racing and was taking charge.”
But it was the jockey, Ron Turcotte, who rated the horse superbly. Born in Grand Falls, New Brunswick, he literally hitchhiked his way into racing, heading west to Toronto to take a construction job but winding up riding claimers at Woodbine. By 1973, he was at the top of his profession, guiding both Riva Ridge and Secretariat.
During the Triple Crown, Turcotte made all the right moves, shielding Secretariat from the heavy traffic in the Derby, following the horse’s lead around the field in the Preakness and, finally, in the Belmont, simply sitting back and letting the horse fly.
There were horsemen in the stands at Belmont Park who looked aghast as the incredible time fractions were posted. But Turcotte just rode the animal, the pursuers falling farther and farther behind, the Belmont crowd standing and roaring, until the jockey gave the horse a last cluck near the finish.
As they crossed under the wire, America’s ninth Triple Crown secured, Turcotte turned to his left to see the time for himself.
He was awe-struck.
“The best horse I ever rode,” he said. “He was head and shoulders above anything.”
Maybe the best of all time.
The hard numbers say Secretariat won 16 of 21 races and $1,316,808 in his lifetime. They say he produced 15 crops of foals, 41 stakes winners, 582 offspring in all.
But the numbers never did provide the measure of the animal.
He touched something in America. It wasn’t just that the William Morris Agency took the horse as a client, or that television shows and racetracks clamored for his time. It wasn’t even that one entrepreneur wanted to sell tiny specks of his manure.
Even years after his retirement to stud at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky., thousands of race fans would come to visit him.
“He had it all,” said trainer Wayne Lukas. “He had a beautiful pedigree. He was a massive physical specimen. He probably came along at the right time. Sometimes, the greatness in race horses is timing. You become as great as your competition.
“He had a lot of romance to him. What makes a movie star? Sometimes, it’s the chemistry they have about them. He had that chemistry. He captured the American public more than any horse in the last 200 years.”
The horse changed those around him.
Laurin soon would retire to the Florida Keys, his life’s goal of gaining a Triple Crown accomplished.
Chenery tasted fame and enjoyed the racing scene. But, eventually, the horse breeding business became too expensive, and she sold the family farm, finally moving on to Kentucky, racing a few horses every season, looking for another Secretariat.
Turcotte’s ride to greatness would end abruptly at the site of his most famous triumph. In 1978, he broke his back and was paralyzed from the waist down after being thrown during a race at Belmont Park.
Wednesday, he completed an emotional trip to Kentucky, visiting Secretariat’s gravesite.
“It’s like going to a funeral,” he said. “You know he’s there, yet he’s not.”
Gentry, who was there at the beginning, stayed on at the Meadow Farm until retiring to Charlottesville, Va., in 1979.
“I’m 85 and counting,” he said. “I don’t think there will ever be another Secretariat in my lifetime.”
Secretariat was humanely destroyed Oct. 4, 1989, after contracting laminitis, a painful inflammation of the inner tissue of the hoofs. He was buried at dusk in a 6-foot-6 oak coffin at Claiborne Farms, near his father, Bold Ruler.
Hundreds of racing fans sent flowers. Obituaries appeared in newspapers. The story made the network’s evening newscasts.
All for a horse.