Secretariat was superior from the start

Secretariat, Ron Turcotte up, with trainer Lucien Laurin, in the winner's circle at Belmont following the 1972 Champagne Stakes (NYRA)
Fifty years ago, Secretariat announced his presence with authority during a juvenile season for the ages

By Brien Bouyea
Hall of Fame and Communications Director

Before he achieved immortal status in 1973 by winning the first Triple Crown in 25 years —setting records that still stand in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes en route to becoming a cultural phenomenon — Secretariat was already a superstar thanks to an extraordinary 2-year-old season.

Officially bred by Christopher Chenery’s Meadow Stud, Secretariat’s breeding was arranged by Chenery’s daughter, Penny, who took over day-to-day operations of the stable when her father began experiencing health issues in 1968. Secretariat was a son of Bold Ruler out of the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal, who was owned by Meadow Stud. Bold Ruler, who was owned by the Phipps family, was North America’s leading sire from 1963 through 1969, and again in 1973 thanks in large part to Secretariat’s exploits. Bold Ruler stood at historic Claiborne Farm in Kentucky, but the Phipps family owned the majority of the mares to which the stallion was bred. Few were ever sold at public auction.

To infuse new blood into their breeding program, the Phipps family on occasion negotiated foal-sharing agreements with other broodmare owners. In exchange for waving Bold Ruler’s stud fee, they arranged multiple matings with the stallion — either two mares in a year or one mare in consecutive years. On the assumption two foals were produced, the Phipps family would keep one and the mare owner would retain the other. A coin toss was used to determine who selected first. It was through such an agreement that Penny Chenery (then known as Penny Tweedy) sent two mares to be bred to Bold Ruler in 1968, Hasty Matelda and Somethingroyal. She sent Cicada and Somethingroyal to Bold Ruler in 1969. The agreement stated the winner of the coin toss would get first choice of the 1969 foals, while the loser would receive first choice in 1970.

In the spring of 1969, a colt and filly were produced from the Bold Ruler matings. In the 1969 breeding season, Cicada did not conceive, leaving only one foal due in the spring of 1970. Therefore, the winner of the coin toss would receive only one foal, the first choice in 1969, and the loser would get the second choice in 1969 and the lone foal in 1970. The coin toss was held in the fall of 1969 in the New York Racing Association office of Alfred G. Vanderbilt, the NYRA chairman. Ogden Phipps won the toss and chose the 1969 weanling filly out of Somethingroyal. The filly, named The Bride, never won a race (she did later become a stakes producer). Chenery received the Hasty Matelda colt in 1969 and the yet-to-be-born 1970 foal of Somethingroyal, to be named Secretariat.

Shortly after midnight on March 30, 1970, Secretariat was born at Meadow Stud in Virginia. The bright-red chestnut joined trainer Lucien Laurin’s winter stable at Hialeah Park in Florida in early 1972, quickly earning a reputation as a kind and intelligent horse. Secretariat had a desired physique but was clumsy in his early training. After several months of training, Laurin believed the Meadow colt was ready to make his debut.

Secretariat was a 3-1 favorite in his first career start on July 4, 1972, at Aqueduct. At the start of the 5½-furlong contest a horse named Quebec cut in front of the field, causing a chain of events that led to Secretariat being bumped hard and shuffled back in the field of 12. More trouble ensued on the backstretch when Secretariat and jockey Paul Feliciano found significant traffic trouble. In 10th at the top of the stretch, Secretariat quickly made up significant ground on the leaders and finished fourth, beaten only 1½ lengths by Herbull.   

Eleven days later, Secretariat was favored at 6-5 going six furlongs in a field of 11 at Aqueduct. With Feliciano again in the irons, Secretariat broke poorly but proved to be superior to his competition, rolling to a six-length victory. The New York racing scene then transitioned upstate to Saratoga. At the Spa, Ron Turcotte, the regular rider for Meadow Stable, replaced Feliciano as Secretariat’s pilot.

Turcotte was already familiar with Secretariat from having been on the colt in several morning works, but he was unavailable for his first two starts while recovering from an injury. Turcotte was well trusted by Laurin, having won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont for him and Meadow Stable on Riva Ridge that year, among other races. At Saratoga, the legend of Secretariat began.

With Turcotte up, Secretariat earned an impressive allowance victory at Saratoga on July 31, covering six furlongs in 1:10⅘ as the 2-5 favorite. Secretariat’s first Spa victory prompted legendary sportswriter Charles Hatten to say, “You carry an ideal around in your head, and boy, I thought, ‘This is it.’ I never saw perfection before. I absolutely could not fault him in any way. And neither could the rest of them and that was the amazing thing about it. The body and the head and the eye and the general attitude. It was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes, frankly.”

Next up for Secretariat was the historic Sanford Stakes, a Saratoga fixture since 1913, notable as the only race the mighty Man o’ War ever lost. Secretariat did not suffer the same fate; his Sanford was a tour de force. Facing off with the highly regarded Linda’s Chief — the only horse ever to be favored against Secretariat — the emerging Meadow star had his work cut out for him in the stretch. Impeded by horses in front of him, Turcotte moved Secretariat through the field “like a hawk scattering a barnyard of chickens,” according to Daily Racing Form. At the finish, Secretariat was three lengths clear of Linda’s Chief. The final time for six furlongs was 1:10. Andrew Beyer, covering the race for the Washington Star, wrote, “Never have I watched a lightly raced 2-year-old stamp himself so definitively as a potential great.”  

Secretariat was even better 10 days later in the Hopeful Stakes, which was first contested at Saratoga in 1903 and had been won by greats such as Regret, Man o’ War, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Nashua, and Buckpasser. For most of the Hopeful, Secretariat looked to be out of contention.

“He was shuffled back to last place soon after the start,” the New York Times reported. “Secretariat, for all intents and purposes, was not in the hunt as the field hit into the stretch run.

“The achievement of Secretariat was made most remarkable, even in view of his expected triumph, by his lightning forward thrust. Suddenly, as if activated by coiled springs, Secretariat was up front, enjoying a head advantage over Sunny South. After that the Meadow Stable colt went his own way, extending his lead over his foes with every stride.”

At the finish line, Secretariat was five lengths in front of Flight to Glory for his fourth win in five starts. The time of 1:16⅕ for 6½ furlongs was three-fifths of a second off the track record. 

Turcotte said Secretariat “took himself back as he usually does right after the break. I let him settle into stride and he began to pick up on his own as we came up to the half-mile pole. By the time we straightened out, he was in front. Through the stretch he just kept reaching out without pressure.”

The Times added Secretariat’s Hopeful win was achieved with “contemptuous ease” and the result “was a fitting one for the final program of the Saratoga season.”

Secretariat’s exploits at Saratoga confirmed his star status. He then made his Belmont Park debut on Sept. 16, winning the prestigious Futurity by 1½ lengths. In October, Secretariat was favored at 7-10 in the Champagne. He flew past his rivals turning for home and crossed the finish line first by two lengths, but the stewards disqualified him for bearing in and interfering with Stop the Music, who was declared the winner. Secretariat was placed second.

Two weeks later, Secretariat had no trouble in trouncing Stop the Music by eight lengths in the Laurel Futurity. His time of 1:16⅖ was one-fifth of a second off the track record for 1 1/16 miles. Secretariat closed out his season on Nov. 18 with a 3½-length victory as the 1-10 favorite in the Garden State Futurity in New Jersey. He again dropped back of the field early before gobbling up his rivals turning for home. Laurin, not one to normally speak in reverential tones about young horses, was in awe of Secretariat’s talent.

“In all his races, he has taken the worse of it by coming from behind, usually circling his field,” the trainer said. “A colt has to be a real runner to do this consistently and get away with it.”

With a record of 7-1-0 from nine starts and earnings of $456,404, Secretariat was an easy choice for Champion 2-Year-Old Male in the balloting for the Eclipse Awards and, in a rare occurrence for a juvenile, was named Horse of the Year. Prior to Secretariat, only Commando (1900), Colin (1907), Native Dancer (1952), and Moccasin (1965) had earned Horse of the Year titles as a 2-year-old (Native Dancer and Moccasin were both co-Horse of the Year winners). Since the establishment of the Eclipse Awards, only Secretariat and Favorite Trick (1997) have been voted Horse of the Year honors as a juvenile.

This feature is the first of a two-part retrospective of the career and legacy of Hall of Fame member Secretariat, whose Triple Crown season of 1973 will be commemorated in a special 50th anniversary exhibit at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2023. Part two will be featured in the 2023 Hall of Fame Guide.

Posted Oct 11, 2022
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