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Hooray For Hollywood – Robyn Louw

Robyn Louw on the Legend That Is Secretariat

It was a cold, dark night, in Barn 17A on Meadow Farm, Virginia, when 18yo Somethingroyal went into labour with her 14th foal.  At exactly 10 minutes past midnight, she was joined on the straw by a large chestnut colt with 3 white socks and a star running into a narrow blaze.  The date was 30 March 1970 and the colt was Secretariat.

In his prime Secretariat stood at 16.2 hands and 1200 lbs.  His stats read as follows:-  ch. c. 1970 by Bold Ruler (Nasrullah) – Somethingroyal, by Princequillo.  Lifetime Record:  21  16  3 1  $1,316,808.  There are horses with more impressive results and higher earnings, but none who earned them quite like Secretariat.  His power and devastating speed stamped his emphatic chestnut presence in the annals of racing history.

By the time he was a yearling, Elizabeth Ham (the Meadow Stables’ secretary), had already submitted, and been refused, 10 different names for the big colt.  The Jockey Club finally gave their stamp of approval with the 11th submission – Secretariat – Ham’s previous job title at the United Nations.

Secretariat was put into the capable hands of Lucien Laurin for his formal training and raced in the Meadow Stables colours – blue and white checked body, blue and white striped sleeves and a blue cap with his trademark blue and white checked blinkers.  Of his 21 starts, the only time Secretariat finished out of the money was on his debut at Aqueduct, over 5 ½ furlongs on 4 July 1972.  He went down to the start at 3-1 odds (the longest of his career), but was interfered with at the start and encountering plenty of traffic in the 12 strong field, finished 4th.  Eleven days later Secretariat and apprentice jockey Paul Feliciano were back at Aqueduct and this time they took no prisoners, covering the 6 furlongs with ease and chalking up an impressive 4 length victory.

Shortly after this win, Mr Laurin moved his string to the late-summer “Spa” at Saratoga Race Course and Ron Turcotte took over the reins.  As history has borne out, Secretariat and Ron Turcotte formed a formidable partnership.  Together they would contest 7 more races in his 2 YO career, setting track records in 5 of those.  Secretariat suffered defeat only once more when he was disqualified and placed second for bumping Stop the Music in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont on 14 October.  His tremendous achievement of 7 wins from 9 starts made him the first two-year-old to be voted Horse of the Year in 1972.

In the brief hiatus between his two- and three-year-old seasons, the founder of Meadow Stable, Christopher Chenery passed away.  His daughter, Penny Chenery took over the running of the stud, but discovered that her father’s death had left them in a precarious situation financially.  In order to raise funds to settle the taxes on her father’s estate, Penny called upon Seth Hancock of Claiborne Farm to broker a stud syndication deal.  Mr Hancock took his responsibilities seriously, negotiating not only a record price tag of $6.08 million, but contractual terms allowing Secretariat to continue racing for Meadow Stables in 1973.  Not bad for a horse who had yet to set foot on a course as a 3 year old !!

Secretariat’s 3 YO campaign is the stuff dreams are made of.  He won his first 2 starts and finished 3rd in the Wood Memorial after suffering a mouth ulcer.  However, it was his onslaught on the American Triple Crown that sealed his place in history and the hearts and minds of all his fans.

The first leg of the Triple Crown is the Kentucky Derby.  It is contested over a 1 ¼ mile and traditionally held at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.  The 5th of May 1973 was the 99th Run For The Roses, and in excess of 134,000 fans crowded into Churchill Downs to watch history in the making.  Secretariat did not disappoint.  Not only did he win by a convincing 2 ½ lengths, he shattered Northern Dancer’s record of 2 minutes flat, setting a track record of 1.59 2/5 which still stands today.  As if that wasn’t enough, race analysts found that Secretariat had picked up speed with each quarter-mile segment.  His successive quarter-mile times were 25 1/5, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5, and 23, meaning when he hit the final quarter mile, HE WAS STILL ACCELERATING!!  It would take 28 years for another horse to break the 2 minute barrier over 1 ¼ mile and the horse to do it was Monarchos, who managed the feat in 1.59.97 in 2001.

Secretariat continued his Triple Crown onslaught with the Preakness, run over a distance of 1 3/16 mile at the Pimlico track in Baltimore.  Despite breaking last, Secretariat had reversed his fortunes by the first turn and was in the lead with 5/12 furlongs still to go.  He didn’t miss a stride and again beat his nearest rival by 2 ½ lengths.  Unfortunately, his time for the Preakness is shrouded in controversy.  The electronic infield timer reflected a time of 1.55, but the track’s clocker reported a time of 1.54 2/5 and two Daily Racing Form clockers had the time as 1:53 2/5’s.  The Maryland Jockey Club eventually discarded the electronic timer’s 1.55 and posted 1.54 2/5 as the official time (2/5 of a second off Canonero II’s 1971 track record of 1.54).  In an unprecedented first, the Daily Racing Form printed its own clocking of 1.53 2/5 next to the official time in the chart of the race.

If any proof of his celebrity were needed, Secretariat’s popularity was confirmed when he graced the covers of Time Magazine, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated all in the same week !  It was official – Secretariat was a national celebrity.

The third and final leg of the Triple Crown is the Belmont Stakes, contested over a 1 ½ mile course at Belmont Park, New York.  Only four other runners left the stalls alongside Secretariat on 9 June 1973.  He burst out of the start and alongside Sham, opened up a 10 length gap on the rest of the field.  At the 6 furlong mark, Sham began to tire, but Secretariat was only warming up.  His ever-widening margin had stretched to a 1/16 mile lead by the home stretch.  He crossed the line an unbelievable 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field in a time of 2:24 flat becoming the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years and the 9th in history.  His winning margin was so large, even the widest angle of the CBS camera struggled to show Secretariat in the same shot as the 2nd placed horse, prompting Charles Hatton to write in The Daily Racing Form, “His only point of reference is himself.”  It feels almost superfluous to say that Secretariat set a new track record and that no other horse has ever broken 2:25 for 1 ½ miles on dirt.

Secretariat would finish off his 3 YO career with 4 more wins and 2 seconds, including a new world record time of 1.45 2/5 over 1 1/8 mile for the Marlboro Cup and a turf track record for the Man O’War stakes over 1 ½ mile for 2.24 4/5.  The Canadian International at Woodbine in Toronto was his last race.  With Eddie Maple in the irons, he strode to a 6 ½ length victory, after which he retired to stud duties at Claiborne Farm at the end of 1973.

From his first crop, a colt called Canadian Bound became the first Thoroughbred yearling to be sold for seven figures, eventually going under the hammer at the 1976 Keeneland July sale for a cool $1.5 million.  In total, Secretariat sired 16 crops, which included 663 foals and 53 stakes winners.  However, it is as a broodmare sire that he is most revered, being the dam sire to the likes of A.P. Indy and Storm Cat.

On 4 September 1989, Secretariat contracted laminitis and when his condition failed to improve, he was humanely destroyed at 11:45am on 4 October and buried in the horse cemetery at Claiborne Farm.  He was 19 years old.

Secretariat’s list of accolades are long and distinguished.  He was named Horse of the Year in 1972 and 1973.  He was inducted into Racing’s Hall of Fame in 1974 and became the first animal to be inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007.  When ESPN ran a TV series of the 50 greatest athletes of the 20th century in 1999, they ranked Secretariat 35th (Man O’War was ranked 84th and Citation 97th).  In 1999 The US Postal service issued a 33c stamp with his face on it.  A ¾ size bronze statue of him, commissioned by Paul Mellon and depicting him in full flight, graced Belmont Park from 1974 until May 2009, when a horse called City On Line broke free from his handler and smashed into it.  In 2006, another bronze was installed at Kentucky Horse Park.  It depicts Secretariat just after his Kentucky Derby win, with Ron Turcotte in the irons and his groom, Eddie Sweat leading the prancing horse to the winner’s enclosure.  It stands at the entrance to the park, opposite a statute of the original ‘Big Red’, Man O’War.

Most recently, Secretariat has become the subject of a major Hollywood film, starring Diane Lane as Penny Chenery and John Malkovich as Lucian Laurin.  Although it goes on general international release on 8 October, the Nu Metro website states that it won’t be available in South African cinemas until 14 January 2011, but I’ll see you in line at the box office !

There has never been a horse like Secretariat.  Penny Chenery confirmed that they measured his stride on a freshly harrowed track at 25 feet (although he was reportedly still accelerating at the point of measurement and not yet at full stride).  According to Marianna Haun’s ‘The X Factor:  Heart of the Matter’, a brief autopsy revealed Secretariat to have the largest heart on record, at an estimated 22 lbs (the size of the average Thoroughbred heart being 8.5 lbs).  He still holds the track records at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Aqueduct.  In the words of Lawrence Scanlan, he truly was ‘The Horse God Built’.

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