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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


By Steve Dennis, for Thoroughbred Racing CommentaryAfter ultimately bloodless victories in the Bay Shore and the Gotham, the mighty Secretariat had been beaten fair and square in the Wood Memorial, his hitherto armour-plated dominance thrown into considerable doubt. 

For the first time in his life, the Horse of the Year was on a retrieval mission, and his next race was the most important of his life – the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs.

The Kentucky Derby is called the greatest two minutes in sport. Well … not this time. Almost, but not quite.

The abscess in his mouth that had troubled Secretariat before, during and after the Wood Memorial had ruptured and the pain had gone, but doubt remained.

Would the powerhouse son of Bold Ruler stay the Derby distance? Bold Ruler famously failed to see out the ten furlongs in his Derby – although he won the Preakness – and his progeny were loaded with speed rather than stamina.

Was the big horse injured? Racetrack rumour, that capricious minx, swore blind that Secretariat’s knees were bothering him, that they were being iced day and night. People who wouldn’t know a knee from a nightingale were dogmatic in their belief that Secretariat was walking wounded.

Had Secretariat simply peaked? The Santa Anita Derby winner Sham had beaten him by four lengths in the Wood, and Sham was a crackerjack. Perhaps Sham was just the better horse, and he would prove it in Louisville.

The build-up to the 99th Kentucky Derby was rife with tension, riven with uncertainty. Yet Secretariat worked the house down three days before the race, firing a bullet five furlongs in 58⅗s, alleviating many of trainer Lucien Laurin’s concerns.

The colt was coming to the biggest test of his career, his life, his legacy, in good order. And so was Sham, one-nil up in their personal rivalry and also working lights out in preparation for the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Thus a nation bowed down by the weight of the failing war in Vietnam, by the embarrassment of the Watergate scandal, by the slow decline to one of the lowest points in its history, would now turn its hopeful eyes to Secretariat and to Sham on a warm spring afternoon full of promise.

The stage was set, the principal players in place. More than 134,000 people – at that time a record, another superlative on a day that would be replete with them, not least the biggest-ever Derby winner’s purse at $155,050 – passed through the gates at Churchill Downs in the expectation of seeing something special, two minutes they’d never forget.

With Secretariat berthed in the tenth box, a field of 13 leaves the gate for the 1973 Kentucky Derby.

There were 11 other runners in the Kentucky Derby, the biggest field Secretariat would ever face, a strong field including the winners of most of the major preps – Angle Light (Wood Memorial), My Gallant (Blue Grass), Shecky Greene (Fountain of Youth), Royal And Regal (Florida Derby), plus the hardworking Our Native, who had run 23 times already, future three-time Horse of the Year Forego (runner-up Florida Derby), Twice A Prince (runner-up Fountain of Youth), Navajo (runner-up Louisiana Derby), Warbucks (third Blue Grass), Gold Bag and Restless Jet.

There were mint juleps, there was ‘My Old Kentucky Home’, all the formalities that help make America’s greatest race America’s greatest race. In the paddock, amid the tumult, Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte, who had won the previous year’s Derby together with Riva Ridge, caucused at the eleventh hour. “Ride the race the way it comes up,” said Laurin. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

And for all the rumour and the rancour, the betting public were unshakable in their belief in Secretariat. He and Angle Light were coupled at 3-2 on the tote board, with Sham at 5-2, the coupled My Gallant and Shecky Greene at 11-2 and the rest, to adapt a phrase from antiquity, may as well have been nowhere.

Turcotte walked Secretariat into post ten. Laffit Pincay and Sham were on their inside in post four. Shecky Greene, who was expected to set the pace, was next door in the 11-hole. It never goes quiet on a racetrack on raceday, least of all at Churchill Downs on Derby day, but whatever hush there was settled over the circuit as the 13 horses stood in line. 

Then the gates opened, and Secretariat came out last. It was like the Wood all over again. Yet Turcotte, at the whirling centre of the world, was calm. As Laurin had advised, he wasn’t worried about a thing.

“I was very happy with the way he felt,” he told William Nack, Secretariat’s loyal Boswell. “He was comfortable, he was relaxed, so I felt confident. I knew he was the old Secretariat.”

The old Secretariat galloped around the clubhouse turn with two horses behind him, chasing the pace of Shecky Greene, who had gone directly to the lead and rattled through the first quarter in 23⅖s, bounding clear. Secretariat, eating dirt, was clocked at 25⅕s. Remember that number.

Turcotte, possibly remembering Laurin’s instruction to ride the race the way it came up, certainly responding to the gleeful feel of the old Secretariat beneath him, angled his mount to the outside, moving to and past Forego, My Gallant and Navajo. Now he was eighth.

In hindsight, the 1973 Kentucky Derby was from one perspective a thoroughly conventional race. Nothing out of the ordinary happened, there were no traffic problems, there were no unorthodox tactics, no shocks. The front-runner took them as far as he could and the best horses went past him and on into the heat-hazed distance. But from another perspective it was the most extraordinary race, the most unconventional thing imaginable.

Shecky Greene kept running. Sham moved up into second place. Secretariat cruised past Restless Jet and Our Native. He was sixth, and had run the half-mile in 49⅕s, with a second quarter of 24s flat. Fast.

“It was the first time he put everything together,” recalled Turcotte. “It was like he was flying through the air.”

Secretariat left Angle Light behind. He was fifth. Up ahead, Pincay shook up Sham and went level with Shecky Greene, who was feeling the strain. Secretariat eased smoothly, purposefully past Gold Bag into fourth. He went through the third quarter in 23 4/5s. Faster.

As Sham put away Shecky Greene, Secretariat flew by Royal And Regal. Shecky Greene was tired now, the future Eclipse Award-winning sprinter all out of gas, and Secretariat cut him down too. 

It took Big Red 23⅖s to run the fourth quarter, and at the end of it all that remained was he and Sham and the long length of the Churchill Downs stretch, and the noise of 134,000 spectators who had got what they’d come for. It cost five dollars to enter the infield, and the colourful band of brothers and sisters looking from the inside out were getting more than their money’s worth.

Blanket of roses: Secretariat and Ron Turcotte after scoring at Churchill Downs. Photo:

Blanket of roses: Secretariat and Ron Turcotte after scoring at Churchill Downs. Photo:

At the top of the lane Sham was up by a length, but Secretariat was coming for him. He rolled down the centre of the track like the irresistible force, caught Sham at the three-sixteenths pole, lingered deliciously for a moment, and then asserted with a furlong to run. And that was that.

There was nothing wrong with Secretariat’s knees. There was nothing lacking in his stamina. And he was the better horse, the best horse.

Turcotte drove him out, the gap widening to 2½ lengths, and when they hit the wire the clock stopped at 1:59⅖s, a new record time for the Kentucky Derby, Northern Dancer’s 1964 mark of 2:00 flat smashed into little pieces. 

Fast, faster, fastest. That’s the Kentucky Derby, the greatest minute-59-and-change in sport. Secretariat’s record still stands.

Let the annals show that the magnificent, magnificently unlucky Sham, who sheared off two teeth when hitting his mouth on the starting gate, also broke the old record when drawing eight lengths clear of Our Native, but he himself had been broken by Secretariat’s implacable brilliance. “You know, the other horse,” said a deflated Pincay, and everyone knew.

Soon enough, everyone also knew the extraordinary, otherworldly fact that Secretariat had covered the final quarter of the Derby in 23s flat, meaning that he had run every quarter faster than the previous one.

As a strong rule of thumb, horses slow down as they near the finish, whatever the optical illusion of horses sprinting to the line might suggest. Secretariat speeded up, like a machine, like a tremen… well, we’ll save that for another day.

In a sport obsessed and possessed by such figures, Secretariat’s race chart for the Kentucky Derby stands like a monument to his greatness: 25.2, 24.0, 23.8, 23.4, 23.0. It wasn’t the first time he had beaten the clock as hard as he had the opposition, and it would not be the last.

“He felt from the start as though he was running well enough to win,” Turcotte told the post-race press conference. “He did all the running on his own until we challenged Sham, when I asked him. Then he really got down to business. They were rolling and I was flying.”

Laurin’s chief emotion was vindication, for himself and his horse. Even in the hour before the race there had been a whisper that Secretariat and his barnmate Angle Light would be withdrawn, but now Laurin’s worries had been blissfully lifted from him.

He turned away from the past and looked to the future. The second leg of the Triple Crown was just two weeks away, and the first three home in the Derby would meet again at Pimlico.

“These rumours, I’d never heard so many rumours,” said the trainer. “He’s a great horse and his knees are in good shape. He redeemed himself today. You all saw what a great race he ran. I think he’ll be even better in the Preakness.”

To the victor the spoils, to the beaten, the last word. Sham’s trainer Frank ‘Pancho’ Martin was not averse to a little brash trash-talking and had filled plenty of column inches with his exuberance in the build-up to the race. Now he took his cigar out of his mouth, chastened but not cowed, and spoke almost prophetically.

“Sham ran his race, and I make no excuses. I beat Secretariat once and he beat me once. When he beats me three out of four, I’ll call him great.” 

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