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TrackNotes: Secretariat's Not Impossible Story

First of a three-part series.

The memory fades. Pushed further into the past, by more and more open lengths, just as he did to four others on that June day in 1973.

For anyone of an age to have been there, or simply remember the hold he had on America, it's easy. For all the others, I guess there's nothing wrong with a major motion picture rekindling the story of Secretariat, aka Big Red.

You'll get an argument over who's the best of all time, sometimes just for the obstinacy of it all, but Secretariat is always in the conversation. "Man o' War! Count Fleet! Citation!"

And then there's Big Red. Choosing the ridiculous title Secretariat: The Impossible True Story, Disney stays devoted to its own peculiar tablets of storytelling ethics. Sure, I'll buy into it for the couple of hours it runs, but I'd rather remember the real story. Because it wasn't impossible.

Penny (Chenery) Tweedy and Lucien Laurin and Ron Turcotte did it.

And, most of all, Secretariat did it.

Let's first remember the running. The 21 races he ran as a two- and three-year-old.

Aspirations were high for Secretariat the minute he was born; that's how good he looked to appraisers of horse flesh. He was the very-well bred son of Bold Ruler, out of the esteemed Princequillo mare Somethingroyal. Horse owners can only hope, but they had a lot of hope in this one.

A horse that learns to stay out of trouble is called "professional," and even Secretariat was no professional as he took to the gate in July 1972 at Aqueduct under Paul Feliciano.

He banged like a billiard ball out of the gate, and found himself in traffic trouble most of the way. More than eight lengths back at the quarter pole in the short 5.5-furlong race, he veered to the rail and got up for fourth in a near blanket finish. It was the only time he finished out of the money, but near as anyone could tell, he just wanted to run as fast as he could.

Eleven days later, he got his maiden win over six furlongs at Aqueduct and prepared for his coming out in the summer season at Saratoga.

Apparently already on the radar of horseplayers, Big Red jumped to stakes company in the $27,000 Sanford in August 1972. He had by then a new jockey, the veteran Ron Turcotte. The Sanford was the third in what would become a string of 10 straight wins, and the only race in his life in which he wasn't the betting favorite.

Secretariat won Saratoga's featured race for the kids, the Hopeful Stakes, and then moved down the road to Belmont. After overcoming more traffic troubles in the Futurity Stakes to win by an expanding 1-3/4 lengths, Big Red began what could be called a Fall Eastern Seaboard "tour." Unlike today's pampered stars, horses then ran more often - Secretariat ran about once every two or three weeks.

With his race purses escalating, he stepped into the gate for the $146,000 Champagne, a huge October race before the Breeders' Cup was even invented. It was the first race where he encountered his first true adversity.

Having already beaten some familiar foes such as Stop the Music, Angle Light, Linda's Chief and Master Achiever, Big Red had a rank race as he started badly in the Champagne and it got worse from there.

His lagging behind in last kept him out of Angle Light's hot pace, but he was all over the track as he made his way around the turn and chugged for the wire. He bore into the rail and bumped Stop the Music; Turcotte got him straightened and he went on to win by two lengths. Except he couldn't beat the stewards. They ruled Secretariat compromised Stop the Music's chances to win and disqualified Big Red to second place.

Two weeks later, Secretariat easily won the Laurel Futurity at Laurel over Stop the Music and Angle Light in 1:42-4/5ths, just 1/5 off the track record for the 8.5-furlong distance. He finished out his two-year-old season with a win in the slop in the Garden State Futurity at now-demolished Garden State Park in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

Secretariat was 9-7-1-0 (with the disqualification) in 4-1/2 months of racing at five different tracks and five different distances. He won the Eclipse Award for best two-year-old and was also named overall Horse of the Year. He looked like a runner.

After a much-deserved freshening, Secretariat came out strong in March 1973, overcoming a rough start and threading his way through horses to win the Grade III Bayshore at Aqueduct.

* * *

Visually, Big Red had to be pounding himself into peoples' heads as all of his victories were by open lengths. In the Grade III Gotham in April, Secretariat's maturity and professionalism began to show even more as he fended off a determined challenge by Champagne Charlie, hugging the rail for a three-length victory. He did it in 1:33-2/5ths, equaling the track record for a mile and missing by just over a second the world record for a mile, set by the nearly mythically fast Dr. Fager.

By April, Derby Fever was firmly epidemic and the word was out on Secretariat: He looks like a superhorse. Then he went and did it.

We would learn in hindsight that as Secretariat entered the gate for the April 21 Wood Memorial (just two weeks before the Kentucky Derby; imagine that in this day and age!), he had an abscess in his mouth - something that could easily upset the fragile equilibrium of a delicate thoroughbred. Trainer Lucien Laurin might have known about it. Turcotte did not.

After a lackluster break from the gate, Secretariat ran wide for the entire race, got up to fifth coming into the stretch and just didn't have enough kick to overcome Sham or the winner, Angle Light. I remember the uproar as the competence of Laurin and Turcotte were questioned, and some had doubts about Big Red himself. His sire, Bold Ruler, was the greatest sire of the 1950's, one of the greatest ever. But had he handed down enough stamina for Secretariat's Triple Crown quest?

* * *

Secretariat never said, but he must have really loved to run. For not only was he wowing them in the afternoons, he was truly super in his morning workouts.

According to William Nack in his celebrated biography Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, Big Red drilled in :57-2/5ths for five furlongs and 1:10 flat for six furlongs preparing for the Preakness. That would be more than plenty to win races at those distances. In one of Laurin's patented tough workouts for Secretariat, he blistered five furlongs in :56-4/5ths before the Belmont.

Content to let Sheckey Greene dash to the lead, Secretariat laid nearly last in the 110th Kentucky Derby. As they settled into the backstretch, the cameras fixed on the leaders and Secretariat burst into the television picture, showing off a powerful, determined and relaxed run as he made his move to the lead.

Passing the quarter pole and safely near the middle of the track, Big Red seemed to be getting faster with each step. He was - running each quarter faster than the last. He consumed Our Native and Sham and won by more than two. His 1:59-2/5 clocking broke the 1964 two minutes flat of Northern Dancer and the two-minute barrier in the Derby has been broken only one other time, by Monarchos in 2001. And he looked comfortable doing it.

* * *

His foundation for greatness laid, Secretariat moved on to Pimlico for the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.

You marvel at his size and beauty and power as he approaches the clubhouse turn, last in the field of six. Then again as he commands the race and takes the lead on the backstretch in one of the most magnificent turns of foot in history. Once again, Sham and Our Native finish 2-3. But wait, there's controversy.

The Pimlico electronic timer failed and race officials had to depend on their own manual clocker for the final time, 1:54-2/5ths, officially. Other timers said no, he ran faster and the Daily Racing Form had him at 1:53-2/5ths, breaking Nashua's 1955 record by more than a full second. As far as I'm concerned, he stands tied for the record with Tank's Prospect (1985) and Louis Quatorze (1996).

Big Red was greeted by nearly 138,000 fans on Belmont Stakes Day and on the verge of gracing the covers of the biggest nameplates in the magazine biz and capturing the imagination of all sports fans in a day when Thoroughbred horse racing was still on the public's and media's radar. He was attempting to capture the first Triple Crown in 25 years and join the ranks of the greats, including 1948's Citation.

But nobody could anticipate his Belmont performance, which shot his name to the top of those ranks. You had the usual worries, such as the 10-furlong distance and Turcotte's ability to control his inner clock, the ability to know how fast you're going and how much ground is left to cover. What we got was a perfect run, a perfect ride, and a perfect call.

First in the gate, Secretariat stood stone still, not moving one hoof. Out of the gate, he stayed on the rail and calmly got to the front on the first turn. He seemed to be having fun as he ran along with Sham, both five lengths ahead of the rest. But as they continued down the backstretch, Secretariat had had enough and began pulling away. The giant American flag in the infield measured his lead, the long lens showing him in an optical illusion ahead of Sham by the length of that flag.

Entering the far turn, his lead was eight and growing seemingly exponentially and the television camera couldn't keep the first two in the picture. With the camera moving with Secretariat, by the time the director pulled back to get Sham into the frame Big Red had increased his lead to easily 15 lengths. On that turn, we heard Chick Anderson's immortal call: "They're on the turn and Secretariat is blazing along, the first three-quarters of a mile in one o nine and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!"

And he was. Metaphorically, Anderson was spot on as he marveled "Secretariat is all alone now!" As alone as a horse can be in a race with the other horses, tens of thousand of fans in the grandstand and millions of people watching on television.

With Turcotte nearly motionless in the irons, Secretariat appeared absolutely energized anew by the roaring crowd and he turned it on even more, lengthening the massive lead as Turcotte subtly turned his head to see where the rest of them might be and sneaking a peek at the scoreboard timer display.

Still at full speed through the wire, Secretariat continued running at least another two furlongs before smoothly easing up. Relatively speaking, he was barely winded. Dad and me and the rest of the bar were strangely quiet as we knew we had just seen history. Dad, not really a horseplayer, collected on a couple of small bets after telling the contrarians "nobody beats this horse."

Secretariat's owner, Penny (Chenery) Tweedy, hugged those around her, flashing the now-famous smile. She waved her arms to the crowd, as if to say "This is great, isn't it?"

Still bouncing on his toes, Big Red returned to the winner's circle and bobbed his head to the crowd and Turcotte tipped his helmet. The stats said 2:24 flat and 31 lengths at the finish. It annihilated Gallant Man's 1957 mark of 2:26-3/5ths and still stands as the race, the track and the distance records. A.P. Indy (1992) and Easy Goer (1989) share second for the race record, a full two seconds back.

Even for Secretariat, anything after a record-shattering Triple Crown had to be at least partially anticlimactic. He had kicked off a decade that would see three Triple Crown winners and the nation wanted to see Big Red.

Back in the day when television basically covered sports more than they ran them like now, Arlington Park ponied up $125,000 and created the Arlington Invitational in what was an early made-for-TV sporting event.

With Chris Schenkel and a microphone next to her, Tweedy commented during the race, which was a cakewalk. However, after starting slowly, Secretariat got going enough to just miss Damascus' track record by only one-fifth.

According to Nack, the Arlington money was too good to pass up, but it probably messed up Tweedy's and Laurin's strategies. They had been pointing for the summer season at Saratoga with the prestigious Jim Dandy-Whitney-Travers trifecta in their plans. And Big Red could probably have used a little break after the Triple Crown.

Plus, he wasn't feeling well with a slight fever and was not training well. It showed in the Whitney when H. Allen Jerkens' Onion pulled off the upset. Secretariat finally got his needed rest, battling the fever at the same time.

In an early manifestation of corporate sponsorship, Philip Morris offered a $250,000 purse for the newly created Marlboro Cup. Originally planned as a match race between Secretariat and his Meadow Stable mate Riva Ridge, winner of the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont the year before, the field added Onion, Cougar II, Key to the Mint and others after both Riva Ridge and Secretariat lost coming in.

After turning in anther sharp drill, Secretariat delivered a world-record 1:45-2/5ths for nine furlongs, beating Riva Ridge a couple of lengths.

Laurin pointed Secretariat to the 10-furlong Man o' War Stakes on the turf and Riva Ridge to the Woodward. But when the track came up sloppy for the Woodward, scheduled for nine days before the Man o' War, he scratched Riva and pressed Secretariat into service. Jerkens was ready again and his Prove Out stalked and then hunted down Secretariat to register a four-length win. Secretariat's training for another race did him in.

Laurin, however, kept Big Red on track for the Man o' War, his first turf race. The superhorse made it look easy as he dispatched the highly regarded Tentam and pulled away to a Belmont track-record 2:24-4/5ths for 10 furlongs on turf.

Secretariat's stud syndication deadline loomed (more on that next week) and he would have time for only one more race in his career. Tweedy chose the Canadian International, a long 13-furlong turfer at Canada's Woodbine.

Turcotte was required to serve a suspension for rough riding in another race and the mount was taken by veteran Eddie Maple. On or near the lead the entire race, Secretariat took command on the turn and pulled away, hot vapor flaring out of the nostrils of his legendary cardiovascular system.

As sad as it was to ponder his last race, the image was fitting as winter approached, and the odyssey of Secretariat through the four seasons of 1973 came to its conclusion.

He ran 21.75 miles in 21 races and countless more in his training.

"Secretariat loves to run," Tweedy said. "There are horses like Secretariat, who are sound and able, and think running is thrilling. He knows when he wins. He knows when people notice him. It's been a great experience for him, too."

The vision of Secretariat running. Etched in our minds forever.

(Next week: Secretariat: In perspective)

Rachel's Retirement
Rachel Alexandra, another horse who had a season for the ages, has been retired.

In a sorry excuse for an announcement, owner Jess Jackson created more questions than he answered, saying only that "she did not return to her 2009 form." It's not likely we'll get a full explanation, either.

Rachel had just turned in two very solid weeks in preparation for this Saturday's Beldame at Belmont. Does Jackson just want to get to the breeding part? He said he plans to breed Rachel to his own Curlin, his two-time Horse of the Year champion.

Trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Blasi were training her hells bells and Jackson just pulls the plug? Unless Rachel was giving strong indications that she just didn't want to run anymore - they do that sometimes - he should have given her the chance to run in the Beldame and vault into the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic.

Or did Jackson put an end to it now knowing he wasn't going to send her to the Breeders' Cup and thus avoid being called a chicken?

While I strongly disagreed with sending her 10 furlongs in the Personal Ensign, a distance she would not and could not conquer, her strong showing must have provided enough foundation for her to continue with two more races.

Then again, I've said all along that I thought her 2010 campaign was badly handled. She was rushed into training to get a prep into her in order to commit to an enriched Apple Blossom. She wasn't ready and Jackson caught hell when he took her out of what would have been a showdown with Zenyatta. Instead of a cooperative and careful strategy to get the two together in late spring or summer, it blew the showdown out of the water.

Once again, fans are left grasping for air and another great horse is taken from us.

RIP Real Quiet
In 1998, Real Quiet and Victory Gallop formed one of the all-time Triple Crown rivalries as they fought it out in each jewel of the crown.

Real Quiet won the first two, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. But 'Gallop came back to deny Real Quiet the crown in the Belmont in one of the closest finishes ever.

Real Quiet died earlier this week when he was severely injured in a paddock accident. He was only 15. He was the son of Quiet American, out of the Fappiano mare Really Blue.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday and welcomes your comments.

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