A once-in-a-lifetime ride

"Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes. Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat's muscular build identifies him immediately; his glowing reddish coat is a banner of health and rippling power. Magnificent enough at rest … when he accelerates … he produces a breathtaking explosion that leaves novices and hardened horsemen alike convinced that, for one of those moments that seldom occur in any sport, they have witnessed genuine greatness." -- Pete Axthelm, Newsweek

The baby boom generation was coming of age, those at the vanguard in their early 20s, the "Woodstock Generation," many freshly out of college, in search of employment in a shallow market wracked by runaway inflation or repatriated, disillusioned and troubled from Vietnam and a war that tore the national consciousness to the bone. Bell-bottom pants were in fashion. Lapels and ties were wide; skirts short; collars and hair long. The average price of a gallon of gasoline was 40 cents. In New York, construction of the World Trade Center was nearing completion.

As hearings began in Washington, the nation's mood was darkened by the unfolding Watergate scandal that would end dramatically with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. Despite a sense of relief, there was a pervasive embarrassment and undercurrent of anger that lingered after 12 years of unproductive, widely unsupported combat that left more than 50,000 young Americans dead in Southeast Asia. Spiro Agnew, the vice president, was under investigation by the United States Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland on allegations of extortion, tax fraud, bribery and conspiracy. The Age of Aquarius had dawned and dimmed and there was a pervasive anxiety in America.

In the winter of 1972-73, America's sports pages lamented the lack of a Triple Crown winner since Citation, the Calumet Farm legend who had swept the series in 1948, when those who would come to be known as the "boomers" were yet in diapers. A quarter-century had produced no truly great 3-year-old thoroughbred. Sportswriters speculated that the breed was obviously in decline and raised the possibility that there might never be another Triple Crown winner. Thoroughbred heroes were as scarce as human ones.


Secretariat is the kind of big horse that makes grown men weep.

"-- Larry Merchant, New York Post

During that quarter-century, six horses had failed to complete the Triple Crown after having won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Half suffered injury in the series, giving rise to speculation that the thoroughbred had become too brittle to withstand the grind. The term "Cripple Crown" surfaced in cynical newspaper columns.

At the same time, a copper-colored colt training at Hialeah Park was already the toast of the racing world but had yet to win a significantly wider audience. Secretariat's designation as Horse of the Year, at age 2, was controversial and widely debated. By the end of 1973, the only remaining point of debate: Is this the best horse ever to have raced in the United States? Or, the world? Better than Man o' War? Nearco? Citation? Forty years later, the evidence supports strongly an argument on his behalf.

Forty years later, the hand-wringing over the fragile thoroughbred remains a topic among some journalists who believe that time began yesterday. No Triple Crown winner has emerged since Affirmed in 1978 -- a decade longer than the drought that followed Citation. The game has changed in lockstep with advances in technology and the migration of spectators and bettors to remote venues. The United States remains in a war measured in decades, waged without decision or clear purpose. The nation is divided politically and economically and Secretariat -- the closest thing to perfection Americans have ever experienced in a racehorse -- remains the standard by which all thoroughbreds are measured.

Forty years ago he defied every constraint imposed by nature upon the breed, usurping the greats who had come before with feats that until he made them his own were considered impossible and placing in perspective the accomplishments of all who would follow. At times, Secretariat suggested that he was capable of rendering gravity an inconvenience.

His career began inauspiciously, on July 4, 1972, when he finished a troubled fourth in a maiden race at Aqueduct. He then reeled off seven victories at Aqueduct, Saratoga, Belmont Park, Laurel and Garden State, though one of those, the Champagne Stakes, was reordered by the stewards in a controversial disqualification.

Secretariat exuded power and strength even at rest. He seemed to float over the ground with a stride eventually measured at 26 feet less an inch, blood pumped by a heart discovered after his death to be more than 2½ times that of the normal thoroughbred, a cardiopulmonary freak. Always unhurried, even nonchalant early in his races, he would unleash jaw-dropping, almost fierce moves at will, last to first in what seemed to be a matter of no more than a few ground-swallowing strides. His burnished copper coat seemed to glow from deep within. He cast his own light.

He defined not only the American thoroughbred; Secretariat carried all those associated with his life into history. The late Lucien Laurin, despite a Hall of Fame career and a victory in the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes with Riva Ridge, is tethered in history forever to Secretariat. A popular film based loosely on Secretariat's life failed even to mention Riva Ridge. Ron Turcotte, who rode the best horse he would ever sit astride in all but the first two and last of his 21-race career, remains first and foremost Secretariat's jockey. The horse made the late Eddie Sweat the most famous groom in racing history. Owner Penny Chenery Tweedy is celebrated to this day for an association that has become part of racing legend. Secretariat has been immortalized in an immense volume of prose, film and, no doubt, poetry. To this day, charitable causes are supported in his name.

Before the 1973 season was fully under way, his unmitigated dominance at age 2 having left only anticipation of what otherworldly feats might be in his future, Secretariat had been syndicated for $6 million -- $32.5 million in today's dollars -- in order to settle taxes owed by the estate of Christopher Chenery, from whom his daughter had assumed control of Meadow Stud, in Virginia. That transaction, chronicled on the financial as well as the sports pages, began the acceleration of Secretariat's rising stardom, taking him from champion juvenile to emerging immortal and into a wider public consciousness that eventually became an appreciative and dedicated audience of inexplicably enthralled people who had no other interest in racing.

"I want another shot at the Triple Crown," said Laurin, who less than a year earlier had trained Riva Ridge, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes beneath the Meadow Stable colors, in an assessment of Secretariat's prospects while still training in Florida. "I think this colt is going to give me a real look at our classics again."

Secretariat's timing was not altogether impeccable. He would, from time to time, reveal the absence of invincibility.

He won the Bay Shore and Gotham Stakes with a familiar dismissive aplomb and was a race removed from the Kentucky Derby when Laurin, on his way to the winner's circle at Aqueduct, turned ashen and dumbstruck. He had just won the Wood Memorial with Angle Light, though he would realize that colt's triumph some time later and only when informed by Chenery. If he was unaware that Angle Light had won the Wood, he was acutely aware that Secretariat had finished a nonthreatening third without apparent excuse.

"From here on out," said Chenery, who had hosted a group of bankers at the Wood, "it's Tums and Rolaids."

Angle Light may have been a star in another year, in another man's stable, but on this day in 1973 he was an afterthought in the presence of the best horse Laurin dared imagine, and the result of the Wood set loose a torrent of speculation spiced by a verbal feud between Frank Martin, who trained the formidable if unfortunate Sham, and Laurin, who never explained Secretariat's first shocking defeat, though it was subsequently determined that he suffered that day from an undetected toothache.

During the next three weeks, it was widely concluded by the inevitable rising tide of naysayers that Secretariat, being a son of Bold Ruler, was limited by distance; that his blocky conformation made him a sprinter, at best a miler, but not a stayer. Martin offered Laurin, who declined, a $5,000 horse-to-horse wager, Sham and Secretariat. Jimmy Jones, who trained Citation a quarter-century earlier, dismissed the entire crop of 3-year-olds as less than top class. Skeptics were abundant and Secretariat, the favorite in all 21 career starts despite the occasional lapse, was 3-2 on Derby day though coupled in the betting pools with Angle Light. At the races, bears almost always outnumber bulls.

The daily congregation of reporters at Laurin's Belmont Park barn expanded exponentially after Secretariat was shipped to Churchill Downs. Each day brought the same questions from new faces in the press corps, the largest part of which saw only two or three races a year, all during the five weeks of the Triple Crown. At week's end, there was a sense of urgency. Only Secretariat would answer the questions raised after the Wood Memorial and he had only one way of communication, all questions answered in a glowing copper blur.

There is no adjective appropriate to the answer provided by Secretariat.

He settled the issues raised after the Wood Memorial with a purposeful demolition of a dozen opponents in the Derby, prevailing by 2½ lengths over Sham after having run five successively faster quarter miles to complete 10 furlongs in 1:59 2/5, a stakes and track record that still stands.

"He ran pretty good for a crippled horse," Turcotte said, interjecting a bit of postrace sarcasm for the benefit of reporters. "You know something: He might have run that in 1:56 if he was all right."

Two weeks later, at Pimlico, Secretariat's stardom was on an incline more familiar to a rock star and the runaway momentum of his bandwagon had been ripped loose from reality.

Again away from the gate unhurriedly, Secretariat settled the issue on the first turn, passing the entire field as though he were inhaling a bucket of oats and emerging on the backstretch in command. Again, the margin was 2½ lengths. Again, Sham was second. Again, the running time would be a Preakness and Pimlico record though 39 years would pass before it was fully established.

The electronic timer at Pimlico recorded a winning time of 1:55. Daily Racing Form clockers timed the race at 1:53 2/5. Officials admitted that there were "extenuating circumstances" with the electronic timer's recording and changed Secretariat's official time to 1:54 2/5. If Secretariat had indeed run the 1 3/16-mile race in 1:53 2/5 it would have meant a record at the time, and one that has been matched but not beaten since.

But, acting on a petition from Chenery last year, the Maryland Racing Commission, taking advantage of technology unavailable in 1973, changed the official time to 1:53 flat after an inquiry, providing Secretariat a Preakness and Pimlico record that still stands.

By then, Secretariat's public popularity was on the boil. His likeness appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week leading up to the Belmont Stakes. The media was in full-throated frenzy. Secretariat was the most popular public figure in America.

"Secretariat is the kind of big horse that makes grown men weep," Larry Merchant wrote in the New York Post, "… even when they are flint-hearted bettors, even when he goes off at 1-10. He is apparently an unflawed hunk of beauty and beast that they search for doggedly in the racing charts every day and never seem to find. His supporters rhapsodize over him as though he is a four-legged Nureyev, extolling virtues of his musculature, his grace, his urine specimens. If he were to lose the Belmont, the country may turn sullen and mutinous."

Secretariat added to the breathless frenzy when, with the Belmont about a week away, he worked a mile in a blistering 1:34 4/5 and returned to the barn jumping and playful. Never before has a mile work at dawn been major news, but this was also a foreshadowing of what was to come on June 9, 1973.

People remember where they were when they heard the news of John F. Kennedy's assassination, when a man first walked upon the lunar surface, when terrorists in airplanes brought down the World Trade Center. And those at Belmont Park or in front of a television on that 90-degree Saturday in June of 1973 recall every detail of Secretariat's Belmont Stakes, the greatest moment enjoyed by any horse anywhere at any time, the uncharacteristic flurry of speed with which he departed the starting gate and every stride of those 12 furlongs.

Fully aware that Secretariat had the Belmont and Triple Crown in hand after having again shrugged off Sham and three others who were overmatched, but unaware that the red colt had taken him into another dimension, Turcotte noticed only the quiet, heard only the wind rushing past his straining ears.

They were out there alone, a dot in the distance to those in the sprawling grandstand, horse and rider moving methodically where none had gone before.

Then, they began to build momentum, and suddenly it was as if all who watched realized the race was now between Secretariat and the wind, that anything was possible on this day -- for this horse.

A mile into the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes, Secretariat was chiseling his place deeper into history with weightless strides, "moving like a tremendous machine," announcer Chick Anderson said, a description that lingers forever in a million memories. Now in the long Belmont stretch, Turcotte caught a glimpse of the teletimer, sensed history within reach and encouraged the huge knot of muscle in his hands. The response was breathtaking. Secretariat was now in a heated battle entering the final quarter-mile, not with a mortal horse, but with the ghost of every great thoroughbred who had covered this ground on the journey to immortality. It was no contest.

The roar built to a deafening thunder as Secretariat roared past the crowd -- 20 lengths in front after 10 furlongs in 1:59, faster than he had run the distance in Kentucky, 28 in front at the stretch call and 31 at the wire, 12 furlongs run in 2:24, another track record; another that still stands. The nation rose as one in appreciative applause.

After that day, the Triple Crown in hand, his place in history established, there was no need to do more. The Belmont would be all but impossible to replicate and every race he ran in the summer and fall would be compared to the incomparable. He would twice be upset, by Onion in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga and Prove Out in the Woodward at Saratoga, but neither defeat diminished his stature and under terms of the syndication agreement, Secretariat would be retired after another smashing victory, this one on a grass course in the Canadian International at Woodbine, in Toronto.

He was never able to replicate himself during a long career at stud, but became known as a prolific sire of broodmares. Secretariat, proud and vital well into his dotage, died in the fall of 1989 at Claiborne Farm, in Kentucky, his Triple Crown records intact, as is his place in history 40 years later.

Yet, we live in hope that one day we will see another like him -- the next Secretariat.

Yet, having basked in the racing season of 1973, it is probably selfish to expect one lifetime to be twice so blessed.