1972 Garden State Stakes – 50th Anniversary

In many respects the Nov. 18, 1972 Garden State Stakes was a replay of several of Secretariat’s previous races: breaks tardily, trails the field, makes a big move on the turn and wins handily.

The talented Meadow Stable colt had attained the respected, if not revered, status with the journalists who covered his racing appearances and whose lofty expectations he met and often exceeded. And while he had now ascended to front page headliner status within the sporting press he also had become a familiar, almost comforting presence for some reporters as can be gleaned from the priceless tidbits from the New York Times’ Steve Cady who covered the race:

“If horses could read, Secretariat’s five rivals in today’s $298,665 Garden State Stakes would have known he already had been conceded the season’s 2-year old championship. So they might have been reluctant to go out and make fools of themselves against the Meadow Stable colt, which is what happened in the 20th running of America’s richest race for thoroughbreds…

“As usual Secretariat gave his backers in the closing-day crowd of 25,175 at Garden State Park some nervous moments as he ran along in last place during the early going. Then Ron Turcotte turned him loose, and as the field swept around the far turn, a familiar message crackled over the public-address system: ‘Here comes Secretariat with a big rush on the outside.’

“The Virginia-bred son of Bold Ruler was in front before the eighth pole and just loping along easily at the finish in what sometimes is referred to as a country gallop.”

The official margin of victory was a modest 3 1/2 lengths in the time of 1:44 2/5; however the order of finish was never in doubt as Cady goes on to colorfully quip:

“They call Secretariat ‘Big Boy’ around the barn, and he handled his rivals the way a growing boy handles jelly doughnuts. He demolished them.”

There were several other interesting angles to the lucrative race whose purse was worth even more than any individual race in the 1972 Triple Crown series.

First, it represented back-to-back victories for the Meadow racing stable which had claimed the Garden State Stakes a year earlier in 1971 with Riva Ridge, who then subsequently won the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. All indicators signaled that Penny Chenery and her team were well on the way to establishing the Meadow as a racing powerhouse.

Second, the contest featured two Turcottes in the same race with Ron’s younger brother Rudy piloting Angle Light, ultimately resulting in a 1-2 finish for trainer Lucien Laurin’s entry mates. It was Rudy who may have summed up the race best:

“At the quarter pole … I thought I was home free. I was going to give Angle Light a breather, and go on with him. Then I looked over my shoulder and saw those blue and white checkered silks. I knew if Secretariat was that close with a quarter of a mile to go, it was all over.” 

Finally, with eight straight first place finishes (although the Champagne Stakes victory was surrendered to disqualification) the Garden State would certainly allow Secretariat to lay claim to an Eclipse Award for champion juvenile colt. But it also fanned the growing flame that he be named Horse of the Year as well — an unprecedented honor for a 2-year-old, And as history shows…he was.


Hall of Fame jockey Ron Turcotte recently shared his reflections of that race 50 years ago:

Q:  Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin said the Garden State Futurity was one of your best rides, but you thought it was one of your worst. Why was that?

RT:  In that race, Secretariat broke on the lead but I took him back. Coming from far back in a race of a mile and a sixteenth, I left Secretariat with more work to do than I really wanted him to do. I told Lucien afterwards, ‘That’s the worst race I ever rode.’ Fortunately though, as it turned out, by the time we reached the final turn Secretariat picked up all the other horses and went right past them. We won by 3 1/2 lengths.

Q:  In that race Secretariat was paired as an entry with Angle Light, who was also trained by Lucien Laurin, and ridden by your brother Rudy. What was it like to ride against your brother?

RT: It was a lot of fun. As I turned for home I came to him on Angle Light and said, “How you doing, bro?” He said, “I’m doing fine, I’ve got the rest of them beat.” I said, “Okay, so long, pal!” and went on to win. We laughed about that afterwards.

Q:  During a race, is there a lot of chatter like that among the jockeys?

RT:  We might talk to each other but we’re paying attention to our horses. In other sports, the athletes don’t share the same dressing room as their opponents, but with jockeys, we’re dressing and showering in the same room. We get to know each other pretty well. But once we’re on the racetrack, we’re on our own with our horse.

Q:  You had a lot of family “teammates” when you were growing up in New Brunswick, being one of 12 children. Can you talk about how you and several of your brothers got into horses?

RT:  I was the third child, after my twin brother and sister. My dad first put me on a horse when I was barely old enough to walk, and he taught us how to ride. My dad was a lumberjack and I went to work with him when I was 14 – I worked with the logging horses.

There were five of us brothers who became jockeys: me, Noel, Rudy, Roger and Yves. Noel was a good rider in Toronto. Rudy was the leading jockey at several tracks in the early 1970s and Roger was the leading apprentice rider in North America in 1975. It was harder for Yves since he was the youngest, but he worked hard and became a good rider and went on to western Canada where he became a steward.

Q: Your parents must have been proud of all of you.

RT:  Oh yes, they were.  


Archives Note: Meadow Stable exercise rider Jim Gaffney was so impressed with the Garden State Stakes victory, he collected Secretariat’s race-worn winning shoes for posterity.

He identically mounted and framed each of the front shoes, keeping one display for himself and a year later gifted its twin to President Richard Nixon who by then was squarely mired in the Watergate scandal. The president responded to Mr. Gaffney on White House stationery with a personal note of gratitude which fascinatingly alludes to the troubled times, writing:

“I am deeply heartened by all the words of encouragement I have received in the past few weeks, and your assurance of trust reaffirms my conviction that this Administration can continue moving toward the goals the American people elected us to achieve.” 

Gaffney’s historical letter and framed shoe are currently on display at the Kentucky Derby Museum, further bearing testament to Secretariat’s status as an American sports and cultural icon.


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