March 30 marks 40 years since the birth of 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat at Christopher T. Chenery’s The Meadow near Doswell, Va. It’s a date well worth remembering by any racing fan but especially by those who were around during Secretariat’s racing days and more so by those lucky enough to see the strikingly handsome chestnut colt with three white stockings in action.
Secretariat’s magnetism was evident soon after the colt’s birth. Chenery’s daughter, Penny, was so overwhelmed after getting her first look at the son of Bold Ruler that all she could say was “Wow.” That wasn’t the last time that word was used to express admiration or astonishment in Secretariat.
The first hint of Secretariat’s greatness came at Saratoga in 1972. “Nothing so revitalizes our interest in racing as the emergence of real good ones among the 2-year-olds at Saratoga,” wrote The Blood-Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth, focusing on Secretariat and the filly La Prevoyante. “Meadow Stable’s Bold Ruler colt, Secretariat, with smashing triumphs in the Sanford and Hopeful, has demonstrated a lick not seen since Damascus approached the last turn trailing by about 13 lengths and came out of it six lengths on top to win the 1967 Travers by 22 lengths in track-record time.”
The Hopeful, which Secretariat won by five lengths, was the colt’s fourth win in five starts. Secretariat went on to finish first in the Futurity Stakes, the Champagne Stakes, the Laurel Futurity, and the Garden State Stakes, but he was disqualified for interference in the Champagne and placed second. An easy choice for divisional honors, Secretariat was the first 2-year-old since Colin in 1907 to earn Horse of the Year outright. (La Prevoyante was voted champion juvenile filly.)
As great as he was at 2, as a 3-year-old Secretariat staked his claim as the best racehorse ever. He began 1973 with victories at Aqueduct in the Bay Shore Stakes (gr. III) and the Gotham Stakes (gr. II, in track-record-equaling time) before finishing a shocking third in the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) behind stablemate Angle Light and Sham two weeks before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
To say Secretariat redeemed himself with a victory in the Kentucky Derby would be an understatement. He not only won the Run for the Roses by 2 1/2 lengths over Sham but became the first horse to win the 1 1/4-mile race in less than two minutes. His time, 1:59 2/5, bettered Northern Dancer’s 1964 stakes and track record by three-fifths of a second.
In the 1 3/16-mile Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Secretariat stunned the racing world with an incredible last-to-first move around the clubhouse turn that carried him to a 2 1/2-length score over Sham. The race was not without controversy, however, as the final time, 1:55, later was reviewed and changed to 1:54 2/5, two-fifths of a second slower than Canonero II’s track record set in the 1971 Preakness. Making the snafu ever more perplexing and infuriating to some was that Daily Racing Form timed the race in 1:53 2/5, which would have been a track record.
Secretariat mania swept the nation. The colt was on the verge of becoming the ninth Triple Crown winner and the first since Citation in 1948. His likeness appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated.
Under regular jockey Ron Turcotte, Secretariat swept the series, winning the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I) by an astonishing 31 lengths in 2:24 and shattering Gallant Man’s stakes and track record by 2 3/5 seconds—a world record performance on dirt.
Conveying a sense of disbelief, Hollingsworth wrote, “To see that which never before has been seen is an emotional experience. And we figure to be quite snobbish about having seen it. So when old racing men begin to reminisce of Buckpasser’s Suburban, Kelso’s International, the Ridan-Jaipur Travers, Swaps’ Sunset, Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Citation, Count Fleet, Alsab against Whirlaway, War Admiral and Seabiscuit, Equipoise: Gentlemen, we will say, let me now tell you about a non-pareil, a genuine race horse I saw win the Belmont by a sixteenth of a mile without working up a lather.”
Secretariat raced six more times, winning four races and finishing second twice. He won the Arlington Invitational Stakes; was upset by the older Onion in the Whitney Handicap (gr. II) at Saratoga; set a world record for 1 1/8 miles on dirt in the Marlboro Cup Handicap at Belmont over an all-star field that included stablemate Riva Ridge, Key to the Mint, and Cougar II; was beaten by the older Prove Out in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont; captured the Man o’ War Stakes (gr. IT) at Belmont in course-record time in his grass debut; and went out a winner with a dominating victory in the Canadian International Stakes (gr. IIT) at Woodbine in late October.
Trained throughout his career by Lucien Lauren, Secretariat retired with 16 wins from 21 starts and earnings of $1,316,808. Secretariat was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame the year after his retirement.
Secretariat, produced from the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal and a half brother to successful sire Sir Gaylord, entered stud in 1974 at the Hancock family’s Claiborne Farm near Paris, Ky. The previous winter Secretariat had been syndicated for $6,080,000, or $190,000 a share, a record in both categories. Penny Cheneny, along with her sister, Margaret, and their brother, Hollis, had been in charge of Secretariat’s career.
The odds against Secretariat siring his like were astronomical, but he did sire such good ones as 1986 Horse of the Year and Hall of Fame member Lady’s Secret; 1988 champion 3-year-old male and Preakness and Belmont winner Risen Star; Travers Stakes (gr. I) winner General Assembly; and two-time Pacific Classic Stakes (gr. I) winner Tinners Way.
But it was in his role as a broodmare sire that Secretariat is best remembered in pedigrees. His daughters produced such stars as 1992 Horse of the Year and two-time leading sire A.P. Indy, plus other two-time leader Storm Cat and important sire Gone West.
Secretariat was euthanized Oct. 4, 1989, at age 19 because of complications from laminitis. He is buried in the main cemetery at Claiborne.