Big Red comet
By Larry Schwartz
"He was the only honest thing in this country at the time. This huge magnificent animal who wasn't tied up in scandal, wasn't tied up in money, he just ran because he loved running," says author George Plimpton about Secretariat on ESPN's SportsCentury show. Secretariat, the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 25 years, was voted No. 35 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
June 9, 1973 -- Only four other horses took on Secretariat at the Belmont for it was expected that the 1-10 favorite would win. What wasn't expected was the performance Big Red would give.
In the most demanding test of his young life, Secretariat rushed to the lead. He was soon challenged by Sham, who had finished second to Secretariat in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. They raced the half mile in 46 1/5, a suicide pace for a mile and a half race.
But then Secretariat began pulling away as he ran the mile in a stunning 1:34 1/5. The Meadow Stable colt reached the mile and a quarter in 1:59, faster than he ran in setting the Kentucky Derby record. Alone, Secretariat wasn't racing against other horses, but against the clock, against history. When he finished the last quarter in a mind-blowing 25 seconds, there wasn't another horse in the same zip code. The magnificent chestnut finished an amazing 31 lengths in front.
"You couldn't find the other horses with two pairs of binoculars," said columnist Charlie Hatton.
In winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat set a world-record 2:24, breaking Gallant Man's Belmont mark by an incredible 2 3/5 seconds.
"He's the greatest horse that has yet developed in this century," said Holly Hughes, the senior trainer of America who saw Man o' War run and saddled the 1916 Kentucky Derby winner. "Yes, he's the Horse of the Century."
ODDS AND ENDS
Secretariat still holds the record for the Derby (1:59 2/5) and Belmont. No horse has come closer than two seconds at the Belmont.
The previous biggest margin of victory at the Belmont had been 25 lengths, by Count Fleet in 1943.
Secretariat was named for the executive secretary (Elizabeth Ham) of Meadow Stable owner Christopher Chenery. Five other names had been rejected before the racing authorities accepted the name Secretariat.
Secretariat was trained by Lucien Laurin, who at 59 was considering retirement before taking over Meadow Stable's horses in 1971.
Ron Turcotte was Secretariat's regular jockey, sitting atop the horse for 18 of his 21 races. He didn't ride Secretariat the first two races because he was injured and missed the last race because he was suspended.
While Secretariat had good pedigree, there were some who thought he wouldn't be a champion because as a two-year-old in training he was too fat.
In his first start, Secretariat went off at $3.10 to $1. It was the only race he would go off at more than 3-2. He didn't get off to a storybook start, being slammed inward almost into the rail. Way out of contention, he made an impressive recovery to finish fourth, only 1+ lengths behind the winner.
To excavate Meadow Stable out of financial difficulty, Penny Chenery Tweedy (the late Christopher Chenery's daughter) syndicated Secretariat for a record price of $6.08 million in February 1973. The price was based on 32 shares at $190,000 each, with Meadow Stable retaining four shares.
In winning the 99th Kentucky Derby, Secretariat accomplished the unheard of in a mile and a quarter race -- he ran successively faster quarters (25 1/5 seconds, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5 and 23).
While Secretariat is the only horse to ever officially break two minutes in the Derby, Sham was clocked unofficially in 1:59 4/5.
After Secretariat won the Preakness, Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said, "It is as if God decided to create the perfect horse."
On Nov. 6, 1973, nine days after his final race, Aqueduct in New York held "Farewell to Secretariat" Day. A crowd of 32,900 came out on a Tuesday to see Big Red's final public appearance.
Outside the paddock at Belmont Park is a statue of Secretariat, who has both his front feet in the air in a classic pose.
After Secretariat died in 1989, an autopsy revealed that his heart was two and a half times larger than that of the average horse.