Big Red’s March to the Derby

Yes it is the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s legendary Triple Crown sweep and his iconic fall campaign, but not to be overlooked is the tension-filled journey in the winter and early spring of 1973 that led to the historic events that followed. This is when the legend began and changed the face of horse racing for all time. After you travel back in history and read the behind the scenes story that follows, check out the Week 8 Derby Rankings and the result of the Tampa Bay Derby, along with other interesting tidbits of information.~ Steve Haskin

Big Red’s March to the Derby

By Steve Haskin

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Every year the sights and sounds of Aqueduct are pretty much the same. While many of the Kentucky Derby hopefuls are basking in the warm Florida and Southern California sunshine, those brave souls who head north or are stabled there all winter are dealing with the cold bitter winds blowing in off Jamaica Bay and the squawking of seagulls, who pretty much take over the track.

Back in 1973 there was no winter racing, with Aqueduct closing shortly after Thanksgiving. As March rolled around and the temperatures began to rise there was great anticipation for opening day in mid-March, with track workers preparing for the start of the new racing season. Soon the grays and whites of winter would be replaced by colorful beds of tulips and a kaleidoscope of jockey silks. The sounds of horses thundering down the stretch would again resound throughout the grandstand that had been hushed for over two months.

In the winter of ‘73 there was plenty to excite racing fans elsewhere, with the brilliant Linda’s Chief, trained by the young transplanted New Yorker Bobby Frankel and the budding star Sham dominating the 3-year-old scene in California and names like Our Native, My Gallant, Royal and Regal, and a late-developing mountain of a horse named Forego sharing the glory in Florida.

But they were all merely opening acts for the eagerly anticipated debut of racing’s $6 million horse and reigning Horse of the Year, Secretariat. What made Secretariat’s record $6,080,000 syndication price so remarkable was the fact that he had not even raced at 3. No horse had swept racing’s Triple Crown since Citation in 1948, and the buzz was already in the air that the grand-looking Secretariat was unbeatable, even though there were stamina questions concerning his sire Bold Ruler, perhaps the most dominant sire of 2-year-olds the sport had ever seen. But his earlier juvenile champions Vitriolic and Successor failed to regain their form at 3 and his potential superstar Bold Lad, who like Secretariat was out of a Princequillo mare, managed to win only the Derby Trial at 3 in 1965.

So, here was this newly turned 3-year-old, who had not run beyond 1 1/16 miles, already valued at nearly $2 million more than Buckpasser, nearly $3 million more than Dr. Fager, and $3.5 million more than Damascus.

Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy, who only a couple of years earlier was a housewife in Colorado, and Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock, who took over the farm after the death of his father “Bull” Hancock,” had pulled off one the great coups in the art of horse trading, and selling their product as a must-have commodity. The fear of missing out on a sure thing and not being part of the next Triple Crown winner had the sport’s top breeders and shrewdest businessmen calling Tweedy and Hancock to obtain a piece of her four-legged gold mine.

On Feb. 26, 1973, the record syndication was announced. Tweedy’s late father, Christopher Chenery, who founded Meadow Stud and had died a short time earlier, on Jan. 3, would have been proud. His daughter, who knew little about the intricacies of the Sport of Kings, had kept the farm alive, despite the urging of her family to sell.

What helped give her credibility in the business was the way she stepped in and managed the career of Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge in 1971 and ‘72, admittedly learning from several mistakes made with the colt. But even Riva’s accomplishments had to take a back seat to the stable’s 2-year-old phenom, whose near-perfect conformation, muscular physique, and glistening chestnut coat earned him the title “Big Red.” The record syndication price and taking over the moniker of racing’s first Big Red, the immortal Man o’ War, placed a heavy burden on the powerful shoulders of Secretariat as it did Penny Tweedy. With her financial conquest came the pressure of now having to fulfill the high expectations and heavy investments. Tweedy had already won two classics with Riva Ridge, and she and many others felt anything short of a Triple Crown sweep would be a disappointment.

Tweedy and trainer Lucien Lauren had an immediate scare when Secretariat developed a small splint in his foreleg while stabled at Hialeah. But it was still early in the year. The leg was pinfired and the talented colt soon returned to training. He was nearing his debut, but when Tweedy encountered delays in settling her father’s estate it was decided to wait until the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day.

Secretariat’s March 10 arrival at Barn 5 at Belmont Park brought a steady stream of reporters, photographers, and TV cameramen, who waited patiently outside the barn for racing’s biggest star to emerge.

Because of his hulking physique, which had carried layers of baby fat when he was younger, Secretariat needed to work fast in order to get him sharp and fit. One would never get the impression by looking at him that he was capable of blazing fast works. But as he matured, his baby fat was replaced by muscle, his neck rippled as he lowered it and stretched it to the limit, and his stride grew to mammoth proportions. And what no one was able to see was the abnormally large heart that enabled him to do things other horses couldn’t.

As the Bay Shore neared, you could feel the tension building. Were we going to see the same Secretariat we saw the year before or something even more phenomenal? Of course, there is always the chance you could see a regression from 2, as we had seen with previous juvenile champions sired by Bold Ruler, but that didn’t seem likely, especially when Secretariat had onlookers gasping in disbelief watching him blow out three furlongs the Wednesday before the race in :32 3/5.

But there are always a number of factors that can contribute to a horse’s defeat, as Secretariat showed in his career debut when he was knocked sideways coming out of the gate and in the Champagne Stakes when he was disqualified from first. Heavy rains the day before the Bay Shore turned the track sloppy, and it remained muddy on race day, which dawned gray and ugly and stayed that way all afternoon.

I walked the three long blocks from my home in Brooklyn to Flatlands Avenue, where I would take the Pioneer bus to Aqueduct, as I had been doing since 1967. Through the cloud of cigar smoke that permeated the bus came the constant chatter of Daily Double talk, who had what winners the day before, and of course Secretariat’s much-anticipated 3-year-old debut.

Instead of watching the race from the grandstand, as I normally did, I decided to stand at the rail with my trusty Canon F1 in the hope of getting a good shot of Secretariat as he came galloping past me following  the post parade. The lighting was not conducive to good sharp photos, but I would take anything I could get, as this was my first close-up look at Secretariat in the flesh. I had anticipated him being in the middle of the track and had my lens focused there, but Ron Turcotte had him closer to the rail, which caught me and my camera by surprise. As a result, the only photo I took that day captured Big Red in all his magnificence, with his neck arched in regal splendor, but just missed being 100 percent sharp.

At the start, Secretariat, as expected, dropped back in the field of six. He moved up steadily along the rail with the hard-knocking Champagne Charlie lapped on him. There was a feeling of trepidation, as Secretariat was running up behind a wall of horses with no escape route. Turcotte kept pushing on him around the far turn and was able to ease out when Champagne Charlie left him and moved up to challenge the leaders.

As they hit the head of the stretch, Turcotte had the option of going outside Champagne Charlie and Impecunious, but when a small opening appeared inside Impecunious and outside Actuality, who had snuck through on the rail, he decided to go for it. It was a major risk to put Secretariat in such a precarious spot, and for a brief instant it looked as if Turcotte had made a colossal mistake. As soon as he went for the inside route, the hole closed and Secretariat and Turcotte found themselves in what looked like a compromising situation. On this day it appeared as if he was going to need the luck of the Irish to get through. If they had gotten shut off badly and somehow lost the race, the uproar would have been heard round the racing world, especially in his own camp.

But despite the risk involved, Turcotte didn’t hesitate. He knew what was at stake and just aimed the big battering ram beneath him at the shrinking hole and let him bull his way through. Big Red eased everyone’s mind by bursting through in a flash, despite taking a bump or two. He quickly opened up and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths as everyone, especially Tweedy and Laurin, breathed a sigh of relief.

I was too caught up in the drama that was unfolding to take another photo, but it was enough just watching what turned out to be a far more eventful race than anyone had thought.

The Bay Shore was an important race for Secretariat. In addition to showing he had made progress from 2 to 3, it also proved to everyone he was not just another pretty face, but a horse who could handle the heat of battle and use his brute strength if the going got rough.

In the Gotham Stakes three weeks later, Secretariat and Turcotte gave everyone an even bigger scare by reversing tactics and going to the front, setting blistering fractions of :45 1/5 and 1:08 3/5, while opening a two-length lead turning for home. But nearing the eighth pole, Champagne Charlie came flying up alongside him and pulled on even terms. I had to work at the Racing Form that day, and we had our columnist Teddy Cox give us a call over the phone. I will never forget Teddy’s ominous words at the eighth pole: “He’s gonna get beat.”  It looked as if the gray had the momentum, but Secretariat had a lot more in the tank. He surged back in front and drew clear to win by three lengths, equaling the track record of 1:33 2/5 for the mile.

Morning Telegraph/DRF columnist Charlie Hatton wrote, as only he could; “Secretariat couldn’t have gone any faster if they threw him off the grandstand roof.”

Now, the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown talk began to pick up steam. The Wood Memorial was supposed to be just a mere formality, as there was no one left to fear in New York. Then came word that trainer Pancho Martin was doing the unconventional and sending his Santa Anita Derby winner Sham to New York for the Wood instead of heading directly to Louisville.

Leading New York owner Sigmund Sommer had purchased the maiden Sham over the winter for a then hefty $200,000 at the late Bull Hancock’s dispersal. Sham, coming off a pair of seconds and a third, won his first start for Sommer and Martin by six lengths at Aqueduct on Dec. 9, leading every step of the way going a flat mile. Sent to Santa Anita, he opened a lot of eyes with a 15-length romp in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, and then followed that up with a six-length score in allowance company before winning the Santa Catalina Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths. So, did we have another phenom out west who could test Secretariat?

Just when people were beginning to think that, Sham was upset in the San Felipe Handicap by Linda’s Chief after a troubled trip, finishing a distant fourth. In the Santa Anita Derby, Martin entered Sham along with stablemate Knightly Dawn. With Knightly Dawn drawn directly outside Linda’s Chief, it was the perfect opportunity for Martin’s second-stringer to play the role of a hit man. At the break, Knightly Dawn veered in sharply and all but wiped out Linda’s Chief. Sham was able to get position on his rival, and when Laffit Pincay asked him nearing the head of the stretch, Sham shot to the lead and never looked back, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Linda’s Chief. Frankel was incensed over the flagrant double team and never stopped talking about it until the day he died. Just the mention of Knightly Dawn would set him off.

But to Sham’s credit, he did draw away from Linda’s Chief and his time of 1:47 flat equaled the stakes record set by eventual Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair.

The addition of Sham to the Wood field added to the intrigue and provided a sneak preview of the battle everyone was expecting in the Kentucky Derby. The closer the race got, the more Martin would exude confidence in his colt and assure everyone he had no fear of Secretariat, which is why he deviated from the norm and sent Sham to New York to face Secretariat as soon as possible.

To be the best you have to beat the best and it was obvious that Martin was targeting Secretariat, just as he had targeted Linda’s Chief, but this time he took it one step farther. He announced he was not only going to run Sham, but also his proven assassin, Knightly Dawn, as well as a fast colt named Beautiful Music, who had romped by 10 lengths in his only start at Santa Anita.

That brought some scathing words and a forewarning of chicanery from Charlie Hatton, who had an admitted love affair with Secretariat, whom he called the greatest he had seen since Man o’ War. He was the horse Hatton had been waiting for since the first Big Red, and he prepared everyone for the likelihood of roughhouse tactics.

Not only would Secretariat have to contend with the Martin marauders, he also would be confronted by his own stablemate Angle Light, who Laurin decided to run following a neck defeat in the Flamingo Stakes, a 10-length romp in an Aqueduct allowance race, and a solid third in the Louisiana Derby. Tweedy was not crazy about Laurin having another horse in the race, but he felt an obligation to Angle Light’s owner Edwin Whittaker.

On April 17, Lauren scheduled a mile work for Secretariat, with Turcotte aboard. I couldn’t resist and headed to Belmont with my trusty cameras. I was surprised at the absence of media around. In fact, it was me and my colleague, DRF photographer Ray Woolfe Jr., who was chronicling Secretariat’s career for a potential book.

Secretariat looked calm, but was slightly on his toes walking around the ring before heading to the track along the path behind the barns. It was me, Ray, Laurin, Tweedy, and two visitors whom I didn’t know. Big Red’s groom, Eddie Sweat, walked the colt to the path and then headed back to the barn.

As a little sidelight, Ray rushed ahead and turned back to photograph Secretariat. Ray had a pretty volatile temper and could fly off the handle very easily. Although I was well to the side of everyone, leaving him with plenty of room to crop me out of the picture, he started shouting at me to “Get out of the way.” I told him I had nowhere to go and to just crop me out. Well, he took the shot, and later that day after developing the film (his dark room was part of the library, where I worked, so we were always very close), he called me in and said he liked the picture with me in it and was going to use it in his book, which surprisingly he did. He even made me up an 8×10 print of it. To this day I have a much-cherished nationally published photo of me and Secretariat.

I stood by the rail, so I didn’t get to see a lot of the work. All I saw was Secretariat reaching out with those magnificent strides, his neck muscles rippling. Sham had worked earlier that morning, blazing five furlongs in :58 flat, so it was expected that Secretariat would have a pretty sharp mile, even though Laurin wasn’t looking for too much speed and would be happy with a 1:37 or even 1:38 work, which was pedestrian for Big Red.

Well, you can imagine the surprise when we found out he had worked in 1:42 2/5. Lauren and Tweedy weren’t expecting that and didn’t know what to make of it. I did manage to get one shot just past the wire that showed Secretariat completely stretched out with those neck muscles rippling. As a postscript, that was one of two main photos Jocelyn Russell used for her mammoth sculpture of Secretariat that adorns Old Frankfort Pike in Lexington, Kentucky.

In the days leading up to the Wood, Hatton kept writing about Martin’s tactics. It finally got to the fiery Cuban-born trainer, who decided to show the world Sham could beat Secretariat on his own. He scratched both horses the morning of the race, removing two arrows pointed at the bullseye on Secretariat’s back.

History will show that it was Angle Light who shocked the world by stealing the Wood on the front end. Pincay aboard Sham had been tracking him the whole way, but was more interested in having something left for Secretariat in the stretch and never let him loose until it was too late. When Pincay, who was a length and a half behind at the eighth pole, finally realized Secretariat was no threat he went after Angle Light, but his run fell a head short. Although Secretariat was far back and moving into contention slower than usual, I, like many, felt he was unbeatable and kept waiting for him to pull off some miraculous closing burst from well out in the middle of the track. But it never came. I stood there stunned watching Secretariat plod home in third, beaten four lengths.

You could hear a pin drop. You never saw a less happy person in the winner’s circle than Laurin, who knew the verbal assaults from all sides were about to come.

Just like that, Secretariat’s mystique and $6 million price tag took a dramatic tumble. Critics again brought up the Bold Ruler factor, citing the horse’s inability to sire a classic mile and a quarter horse.

No one knew about the abscess in Secretariat’s mouth, not even Turcotte. Whether or not it was the reason Secretariat ran such a dull race we’ll never know for certain, but it certainly made sense considering the colt could not bite down on the bit. Once he arrived in Louisville, the abscess cleared up and Big Red would ride into legend..

But the legend was born in the winter of 1973, when Secretariat evolved into Big Red and took those important first steps that would lead him into the pantheon of immortals. It was there he would become the standard by which greatness is measured.



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