May 5, 1973 ~ Kentucky Derby ~ 1 1/4 mile ~ Churchill Downs
The First Saturday in May of 1973 found a record 134,476 fans crowding into the ancient stands and sprawling across the infield lawn of Churchill Downs for the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby. The horse on most everyone’s mind was Secretariat. The Big Red Horse had come into the year as the most famous horse in a generation, and had begun a campaign toward the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown in grand style, with two stylish scores. But in his final prep for the Derby, the Big Red Horse had been beaten, and there was just a tiny, nagging doubt in the minds of even his most ardent rooters that the grueling distance of the Derby would be Secretariat’s undoing.
But as the field of 13 was led into the gate at 5:37 EDT, the doubts that might have lingered in the minds of many in Secretariat’s huge following gave way to hope in their hearts. The Kentucky Derby is restricted to horses who are three years old, so a colt has only one chance at immortality. This was Secretariat’s chance.
Could he do it?
As the field broke from the gate, Secretariat let the speed horses go and dropped in toward the rear of the pack. As they came by the stands for the first time, jockey Ron Turcotte had Secretariat in 11th place, with just two horses behind him. The Daily Racing Form chart caller reported in the race notes that Secretariat “relaxed nicely and dropped back last leaving the gate as the field broke in good order.” He noted that Secretariat “moved between horses to begin improving position entering the first turn but passed rivals from the outside thereafter.”
The Derby is a very long race, and many top horses have won by coming from well-behind. The great riders don’t hurry the come-from-behind horses along the backstretch. Rather, they let their horses improve their position at their own speed, picking up one horse at a time. That’s the way Turcotte did it, never asking for a thing until the turn for home and the long run down the homestretch beneath the Twin Spires.
The Form’s report continues as the field rounded the far turn, with Secretariat now fifth and gaining:
“Turcotte roused (Secretariat) smartly with the whip in his right hand leaving the far turn and Secretariat strongly raced to the leaders, lost a little momentum racing wide into the stretch where Turcotte used the whip again, but then switched it to his left hand and merely flashed it as the winner drew away in record breaking time.”
As Secretariat passed Sham in the stretch, thousands screamed their lungs out at the track, and millions more TV viewers cheered at home. Radio man Cawood Ledford called the race on a national radio network, reaching around the world through the United States Armed Forces Radio. He chanted the simple words that The Big Red Horse¹s millions of fans were waiting to hear: ”It’s SECRETARIAT! And he’s got his Kentucky Derby!”
Secretariat would join an elite list of immortals on that First Saturday of May in 1973 when he got his Kentucky Derby. All hats were off to him for an electrifying performance that included a new track record of 1:59 2/5.
Time is often overrated as a factor in evaluating racing performance, mostly because times vary so much by track condition and how the race was run. And jockeys don’t try to set speed records. They just want to win the race in whatever time it takes.
But racing fans will always talk about Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby time. First, because his final time of 1:59 2/5 broke the track record for 1 1/4 miles in the world’s most important horse race. And second, because The Big Red Horse ran faster every quarter mile of the race, just building power like a locomotive and finishing like a jet.
To come up with the horse’s ”fractional” times, experts began with the electronically-recorded times for the leader for each of the five quarter miles of the 1 1/4 miles Derby. Then, by figuring Secretariat’s racing position in relation to those times, they were able to extrapolate Secretariat’s own times for each quarter mile. They were something!
Secretariat’s quarter mile fractions:
- 0:25 1/5
- 0:23 4/5
- 0:23 2/5
That’s a remarkable set of fractions because it is the opposite of how most horses and horse races are run. Usually, Thoroughbreds speed the fastest at the beginning of races and gradually slow as they tire. Even horses who save their big run for the stretch are likely not running faster than they were earlier, but are more likely passing tiring horses in an ever-slowing race.
Not Secretariat. He had come up with a truly remarkable speed statistic in a very long race an historic note to his Derby time record, that will be long-remembered. He had run every quarter mile faster than the one before.
And he wasn’t through making history.