1972 Horse of the Year – A Prelude to Greatness

With the recent announcement of the 2022 Eclipse Award nominees let’s revisit how Secretariat left such a major impact on Thoroughbred racing during his outstanding 2-year-old campaign which seems to have gotten lost in his legacy. But by being voted Horse of the Year it left expectations at 3 so high it surely had to help owner Penny Tweedy and new Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock attract enough breeders to syndicate the colt for a record $6,080,000. ~ Steve Haskin

1972 Horse of the Year – A Prelude to Greatness

By Steve Haskin

When Meadow Stable groom Eddie Sweat, who rubbed 1971 2-year-old champion Riva Ridge, first saw Secretariat at Hialeah in the winter of 1972, he thought he was too pretty and too fat to be a good horse, and in fact, he didn’t even want to rub him at first. That he would become Horse of the Year that year was so far-fetched it was laughable.

When trainer Lucien Laurin’s own horse Gold Bag used to dust Secretariat every time they worked together and Laurin couldn’t even get Secretariat to work three furlongs faster than :38, his only thought about Horse of Year was that Riva Ridge had a good chance of winning it and he hoped he could get Secretariat to break his maiden. His main image of the colt they considered a clown was “‘Ol’ Hopalong” hoppin’ along well behind Gold Bag.

When Meadow Stable’s jockey Ron Turcotte laid eyes on Secretariat for the first time in January of 1972, he chuckled and asked Laurin, “Hey Lucien, who’s the pretty boy here?  Laurin replied, “That’s the Bold Ruler who just arrived from the Meadow, he’s too good looking to be a racehorse.” Like Laurin, Turcotte’s thoughts of Horse of the Year revolved only around Riva Ridge.

Even when things began to change and the pretty boy’s baby fat began to turn to muscle, and he shocked everyone by working five furlongs in a sizzling :57 3/5, it merely gave them hope that he might be a good horse. Riva Ridge had easily won the Kentucky Derby and had just romped in the Belmont Stakes, so if there were any thoughts of Horse of the Year they were firmly focused on the son of First Landing who had helped pull the declining Meadow Stable and its ailing owner Christopher Chenery out of the abyss and given them new life.

When Daily Racing Form copy editor John Piesen, who was close to Meadow Stable, came into the office one morning early that spring and told everyone that the stable had an unraced 2-year-old named Secretariat who could be something special, not many paid much attention. That he would become Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old was ludicrous, especially after the colt finished fourth in his debut on July 4 despite being bumped soundly coming out of the gate, dropped far back, and rallied in the stretch to be beaten only 1 1/4 lengths.

When a certain head librarian for the Daily Racing Form was having breakfast on the apron at Saratoga in August with a friend and colleague he heard a loud noise growing even louder over his left shoulder. Yes, it was the sound of hooves pounding the ground, but this sounded more like a cavalry charge. He turned around and there flying by him with enormous strides was a one-horse stampede decked out in the blue and white checkered blinkers of Meadow Stable and their blue saddlecloth with white trim. The colt was hitting the ground with such force you had to pay attention. The young man turned to his colleague and said, “That must be that 2-year-old, Secretariat, John Piesen told us about.” He had followed up his fourth-place finish with victories in a maiden and allowance race and was training for his stakes debut in the Sanford. At that time any thoughts of Horse of the Year centered around 3-year-olds Riva Ridge and the up-and-coming star Key to the Mint, who was coming off victories against older horses in the Brooklyn Handicap and Whitney Stakes.

When aspiring racetracker Steve Jordan, who would soon be hired by Lucien Laurin as a hotwalker, attended the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga and watched Secretariat bust through horses in the stretch like a “seasoned older horse” to defeat the three-time stakes winner and track record holder Linda’s Chief going away, his first reaction was, “Holy S__t! Whatever they’re writing about this horse is no exaggeration. This is the real deal.” But it wasn’t until Steve joined the Meadow Stable barn and watched Secretariat pile on one stakes victory after another, compounded by a series of defeats suffered by Riva Ridge, that he said the idea of a Horse of Year title for Secretariat was at least an outside possibility.

Then came Secretariat’s final race of the year on November 18. When Floyd Iuliucci Sr. came home from work that evening he had something he needed to tell his family. As a longtime assistant starter at Garden State Park, he couldn’t stop raving about the colt he had loaded into the starting gate that day for the rich Garden State Stakes for 2-year-olds. “Watch out for the big red horse, he could be something really special,” he said. “He’s just so smart.” Little did he know that that when that big red horse, named Secretariat, crossed the finish line a minute and 44 seconds after he had loaded him it would indeed clinch 1972 Horse of the Year honors for the colt.

Secretariat’s 2-year-old campaign was a major part of his legend and shouldn’t be forgotten. You have just seen that campaign flash by in giant leaps through the eyes of others as it pertained to Horse of the Year. However, there were a number of unforgettable moments that year.

We skimmed over his first four races, culminating with the Sanford Stakes and that impressive victory over Linda’s Chief, a brilliant and established colt in his own right who is the only horse ever to go off as the favorite over Secretariat. That was when Secretariat began opening the eyes of people like Steve Jordan that this colt might have the qualities you look for in young horses.

But it was his next start in the Hopeful Stakes that had those eyes popping for the first time when he made a startling move from ninth and last to first on the far turn in a flash and then drew away to win by five lengths, missing the track record by three-fifths of a second. That is when Eddie Sweat began to think that this one-time clown with nothing but baby fat might be as good as Riva Ridge.

Joe Nichols, writing in the New York Times, said Secretariat won with “contemptuous ease.” I’ll let him describe the race: “The achievement of Secretariat was made most remarkable, even in view of his expected triumph, by his lightning forward thrust. He was shuffled back to last place soon after the start, with the early contention being offered by Sunny South and Branford Court. Secretariat, to all intents and purposes, was not in the hunt as the field hit into the stretch turn. 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.”

Ron Turcotte added, “He 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 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.”

His next start two weeks later in the Futurity Stakes at the same 6 1/2-furlong distance as the Hopeful resulted in a more workmanlike 1 3/4-length victory over Greentree Stable’s talented Stop the Music, who he had beaten by 5 1/4 lengths in the Hopeful. But like the Hopeful, Turcotte never asked Secretariat in the stretch and he won in hand, missing the track record by only two-fifths of a second.

That set him up for what looked like sure victory in the one-mile Champagne Stakes, the race that often decided the 2-year-old championship. Secretariat dropped back to 11th in the 12-horse field, more than a dozen lengths off the swift early pace. Again, Turcotte just waited for the explosion he felt in the Hopeful. It came swiftly and suddenly as Secretariat began his big sweeping move. He blew by horses one by one, collared Puntilla and Stop the Music at the eighth pole, and drew off to a two-length victory. The crowd went wild, but had failed to see Secretariat bear in and bump Stop the Music at the three-sixteenths pole. The inquiry sign went up and soon after, Secretariat was disqualified to second place, much to the dissatisfaction of the crowd. But everyone knew who the best horse in the race was.

The year was far from over, and Secretariat came back two weeks later in the Laurel Futurity, his first start around two turns. This race has often gone overlooked, but it was one of the colt’s most impressive races of his career. Running on a sloppy track for the first time, Secretariat dropped back to last in the six-horse field, a dozen lengths off the pace. He was still 10 lengths back after a half-mile. Then he took off and just inhaled his opponents with that powerful sustained run. He burst clear of the field turning for home, opened up by five at the eighth pole and won eased up by nine lengths.

Meanwhile, Riva Ridge’s chances at Horse of the Year had gone steadily downhill since his gut-wrenching victory in the Hollywood Derby. In his showdown with Key to the Mint for the 3-year-old championship in the Woodward Stakes he was soundly beaten by the Rokeby Stable colt on a sloppy track, which pretty much nailed down the title for the son of Graustark. Key to the Mint still had a good chance at Horse of the Year if he could close out the year with another victory, or even come close, in The Jockey Club Gold Cup, which also attracted the slumping Riva Ridge for one last attempt at championship consideration. But the older horse Autobiography, who Key to the Mint had already defeated on several occasions, ran the race of his life to win the Gold Cup by a staggering 15 lengths, leaving the Horse of the Year title up for grabs.

The last big race of the year was the Garden State Stakes and when Secretariat basically went through the motions to defeat his stablemate Angle Light by 3 1/2 lengths it capped off an outstanding 2-year-old campaign that opened the door for Horse of the Year honors that only he seemed to want to go through. And go through he did, taking a chapter in the history books with him. He would become the first 2-year-old ever named Horse of the Year in the Daily Racing Form/Morning Telegraph voting, the most recognized poll in the country since its inception in 1936. And this was a year that saw future Hall of Famers Riva Ridge, Cougar II, Susan’s Girl, and Numbered Account, and champions Key to the Mint, Autobiography and the brilliant 2-year-old filly La Prevoyante, winner of all 12 of her races. 

Secretariat had stolen the spotlight from Riva Ridge, who at one time was the most likely candidate for racing’s highest honor. But that was nothing compared to the following year when he would raise the equine genus to another level and change the entire landscape of Thoroughbred racing by becoming one of the great celebrities of his era, whose name still dominates the Sport of Kings half a century later.

Of course no one had seen it coming. How could they… for any 2-year-old. It was truly an amazing achievement. But Secretariat’s 2-year-old campaign and even his Horse of the Year honors would get somewhat lost in 1973 when the horse affectionately known as Big Red would reach heights never before attained, right up there with Man o’ War, and establish himself as the standard by which future great horses are measured. None would ever come close to equaling the achievements, fame, charisma, and beauty of the horse whose name 50 years later is still part of our vernacular and continues to grow in legend.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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