Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 21, 2012

At Last, All The Records Belong To Big Red

It received little notice, but there was a decision this week by the Maryland Racing Commission that finally righted a nearly four decade old wrong. These days of course, for most sports fans horse racing is little more than an afterthought. With the recent disappointment of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner I’ll Have Another’s late scratch from the Belmont Stakes due to an injury, it has now been 35 years since a horse won the Triple Crown; and for casual fans the five-week springtime battle for that seemingly impossible prize and perhaps the two-day Breeders’ Cup card in the fall is all that merits even a glance at the sport once called that of kings. But if one is old enough, one can remember a different time. It was a time when regional tracks were not dependent on the honky-tonk lure of video slots or full-blown casinos to attract customers, and the major stakes races were must-see moments for the country; a time when there had also been a lengthy drought between Triple Crown champions.

Sir Barton was the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont, in 1919. Gallant Fox did it next eleven years later, and that was the longest gap until mid-century, as Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, and the immortal Citation added their names to the honor roll. But after 1948 a quarter-century would pass, the years tumbling upon one another as a multitude of thoroughbreds tried and failed to piece together three consecutive epic performances over May and June. Then came the springtime of 1973.

Secretariat was a massive chestnut colt who began the year as the favorite on the Triple Crown trail after a stellar campaign as a 2-year old that led to him being voted Horse of the Year. Only one other juvenile has since won the Eclipse Awards’ top honor. But after winning twice as a 3-year old he ran a disappointing third at the Wood Memorial, his final prep race before shipping to Churchill Downs. The performance led some to think that his rival Sham might be the better choice at the parimutuel window, but in the end the entry of the horse nicknamed Big Red and his stablemate Angle Light went off at 3-2, a slight favorite over Sham who broke from the gate with odds of 5-2.

The favorite broke slowly and for a moment was dead last in the field of 13 as the speedster Shecky Greene moved to the lead. But coming out of the first turn onto the back stretch Secretariat accelerated to the outside and began to pass horses. As the pack raced toward the far turn in Louisville, Sham moved up to challenge Shecky Greene, and those two dueled for the lead. Just as the front-running speed horse began to tire and fade, giving Sham the momentary lead, jockey Ron Turcotte swung Secretariat wide around the final turn and brought his mount charging down the outside lane as the horses began their stretch run. At the eighth pole Secretariat put his nose in front and then he relentlessly pulled away with each stride. At the wire he was the winner by 2 ½ lengths. In that age racing times were measured in fifths of a second, and as Big Red crossed the finish line the official timer had stopped at 1:59 2/5, a full 3/5 of a second faster than Northern Dancer’s Derby record of two minutes flat. Secretariat had set the record for the mile and a quarter Derby and become the first horse to finish the race in less than two minutes by essentially accelerating throughout; as he ran each quarter-mile faster than the one before. Thirty-nine years later, the record still stands, and only Monarchos in 1997 has also run the Derby in under two minutes.

Two weeks later at Pimlico only Sham and four others showed up to challenge Secretariat for the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Once again he broke slowly, and the heavy favorite wearing the distinctive blue and white checkered mask, the colors of owner Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stables, was dead last the first time past the fans in Baltimore. But midway into the first of Pimlico’s tight turns Ronnie Turcotte urged Secretariat forward, and with an enormous burst of speed Big Red began to sweep by the field. Race announcer Chic Anderson seemed stunned as he shouted, “But here comes Secretariat! He’s moving fast, and he’s going to the outside! He’s going for the lead, and it’s right now he’s looking for it!” With effortless ease the favorite moved past the field and into the lead midway down the back stretch. Once again Sham gave chase, but despite a furious ride by jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr., the second choice was always going to be second, again by some 2 ½ lengths.

But this time it appeared at first that there was no record. The timer on the infield tote board read 1:55. The Preakness record was 1:54 flat, set by Canonero II two years earlier. But there was immediate controversy. A track official timing the race on a stopwatch had recorded it at 1:54 2/5, and two veteran clockers for the Daily Racing Form had both timed the finish at 1:53 2/5, a new record. The Maryland Jockey Club reviewed the videotapes of both the 1973 and 1971 races, and determined that Big Red had finished ahead of his predecessor. But in a bizarre decision they ruled that despite that conclusion Secretariat’s official time was 1:54 2/5, leaving Canonero II with the record. In the years since Canonero II’s mark has been eclipsed six times, with Tank’s Prospect in 1985, Louis Quartoze in 1996, and Curlin in 1997 all finishing in 1:53 2/5, the very time that two stopwatches had recorded for Secretariat. But the question of how fast Secretariat really covered the mile and three-sixteenths has always lingered.

There has never been any question about what the great horse did three weeks later on Long Island. Just five horses went to the post on June 9, 1973, with Secretariat and Turcotte the prohibitive 1-10 favorite to win the Triple Crown. There were 69,000 in the grandstand at Belmont Park and they were witnesses to one of the most dominating performances in any sport. This time there was no slow break from the gate. Secretariat sprang from the inside post and moved quickly along the rail. By the time the field reached the first turn he and Sham were running side by side in front. Halfway down the back stretch the two had opened up a ten length lead on the other three horses, and announcer Anderson opined that “it’s almost a match race now!” Which was precisely the moment when Secretariat ended the match by finding another gear that no other horse of his time possessed.

He moved ahead by a neck, and then by a full length. Then there was clear space between his tail and Sham’s head. Then the lead was three lengths as they moved into the far turn, and growing larger with every stride that Big Red took. Anderson made his historic call, “They’re on the turn and Secretariat is blazing along! The first ¾ of a mile in 1:09 and 4/5! Secretariat is widening now! He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” So he was. Turcotte guided Secretariat across the finish line thirty-one lengths ahead of Twice a Prince. Sham, done in by his effort to stay with his nemesis, faded to last. The time for the mile and a half was 2:24 flat, shattering not merely the race record, but the world record for a mile and a half by 2 3/5 seconds. At a length for every one-fifth second, Secretariat had run a mile and a half thirteen lengths ahead of the next fastest thoroughbred ever. Along the way he ran the first mile and a quarter in 1:59, faster than he had run the Derby. Of course the record still stands.

Having never given up her quest to determine what really happened in Baltimore, Penny Chenery recently asked the Maryland Racing Commission to review the tapes of the 1973 Preakness. With the help of modern high-speed timing devices they did so, and this week the members voted unanimously to rewrite the record books. Secretariat’s official time for the Preakness is now 1:53 flat, and now all three records are his. There is the familiar old adage about sports records of course, but not all are broken. Thirty-nine years later, none of Big Red’s has been.

American horse racing is a pale shadow of its former self. Poor breeding decisions have made the horses perilously fragile. Over reliance on medication and an industry-wide willingness to wink and nod at those who bend and break the rules have driven away fans and caused betting patrons to feel like they are playing against a stacked deck. Training methods have made 3-year old horses increasingly ill-prepared to run three races in five weeks over distances that they have not previously run and, in the case of the Belmont, will likely never run again. But there was another time; and oh what a time it was. The time when Ronnie Turcotte and Secretariat ran like a tremendous machine.

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