Before he “moved like a mighty machine” in a literally earth-shattering performance in the Belmont Stakes, before securing a ninth Triple Crown win in history and ending a 25-year drought, Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in such dramatic fashion that it would be considered one of the greatest races of all time – if only he didn’t follow it with even greater theatrics in his next two races.
After a stunning defeat at Wood Memorial, Secretariat, who was crowned 2-year champion, was suddenly the beneficiary of doubt among horse racers despite winning 10 of 11 races before the Derby. Rumors were circulating: he was injured, he lost a step during his 3 year season, he just wasn’t the super horse everyone thought he was, his Wood rival Sham would be the true king of 1973.
Then the gates opened in the 99th edition of the Run for the Roses and he still walked away a 3-2 favorite while Sham was the second pick at 5-2. And so began his angry rally to prove his doubters wrong. He broke a step slow, a Secretariat trademark, and settled in behind his 12 challengers. His regular driver, Ron Turcotte, sat unconcerned on board. Turcotte let the colt find his legs and run his race.
He moved to the first pack, and then to the second. His rival Sham sat near the lead and made his move to catch leader Shecky Greene at the end of the stretch. Then, and only then, did Turcotte ask his horse for more, and the Secretariat, like the best racing cars, found another gear.
He dug in and sped past Sham on track to win by two and a half lengths in 1:59⅖, a record that still stands. He ran each quarter mile faster than the previous one, running 25⅕, 24, 23⅘, 23⅖ and 23 seconds – unheard of in horse racing – and that’s how he went down in the history books.
Of course, the horse known as Big Red for his crimson chestnut coat fought Sham in another thriller at Preakness and set another record in 1:53, followed by a stunning performance at the Belmont in 2:24, a feat that will almost certainly never be surpassed.
His impact on the sport is unparalleled and his exploits have redefined the breeding industry as well. Almost half the horses in Saturday’s Derby have Secretariat in their bloodlines.
“I think people fell in love with the story, the horse was very pretty and his athletic ability just took over the nation,” said Walker Hancock, who runs Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, where the secretariat stood at the stud and where he is buried and memorialized.
Most days his humble grave is crowned with roses and pennies, a nod to his owner Penny Chenery Tweedy, an unlikely hero who took over her father’s farm early in Secretariat’s career and endowed it with the horse’s Triple Crown Run and 6th place $.08 million saved syndication of his breeding rights, a record at the time.
“He was something of a rallying cry for America,” Hancock said, referring to the Richard Nixon era, the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War – a time when his father Seth ran the historic breeding farm; Hancock wasn’t even born yet. “He kind of brought everyone together after everyone was so divided.”