Secretariat’s Triple Crown Cover to Cover

There is one aspect of the 1973 Triple Crown that is often overlooked in its importance to the legacy of Secretariat and that is something that happened away from the racetrack. But it created an awareness of this magnificent racehorse that had a profound effect on his exposure to the American public. ~ Steve Haskin

Secretariat’s Triple Crown Cover to Cover

By Steve Haskin

June 1973 Sports Illustrated, TIME, and Newsweek Covers


Shortly after the 1973 Preakness Stakes something occurred almost simultaneously at 225 Liberty Street, 251 West 57th Street, and 1271 Avenue of the Americas in New York City that was so unique in the world of journalism it may never be repeated.

Osborn Elliott, editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine, Henry Grunwald, managing editor of Time magazine, and André Laguerre, managing editor of Sports Illustrated, three of the most iconic publications in America, all agreed to risk their reputation and winding up with egg on their face by putting a photo of a racehorse on the cover of their magazine and proclaiming him a super horse of almost mythical proportions BEFORE he was scheduled to prove himself worthy of such an accolade. It was unheard of for a major publication to jump the gun in such an overwhelming manner, especially with a subject as fragile and unpredictable as a Thoroughbred racehorse.

Secretariat had just won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths over Sham and was about to attempt to add the Belmont Stakes and become racing’s first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. But Sham would be no pushover, especially at the grueling distance of 1 1/2 miles. It was only weeks earlier that many people doubted Secretariat’s ability to stay the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby.

But when Secretariat won the Run for the Roses in track-record time, running each quarter faster than the one before, and then turned in one of the most electrifying moves ever seen on an American racetrack on the first turn of the Preakness Stakes, the three magazines all decided to get the jump on history and salute the country’s next superstar athlete even though he still had 12 demanding furlongs of Belmont Park real estate and a daunting foe standing between him and entrance into racing’s pantheon. A defeat would reduce the three magazine covers to nothing more than birdcage lining and have people asking how three of the most reputable magazines in the country could make such a blunder and put that heavy a burden on the shoulders of Secretariat and his connections. It would be the ultimate whammy.

Though each of the magazine covers display June 11 on their covers, in typical publication policy they actually were released preceding their post-dated edition dates and hit newsstands the week prior to the Belmont Stakes. In many ways it was this audacious, but courageous, decision to publish them before the big event that defined just how extraordinary an athlete Secretariat was, and demonstrated the adulation even some of the most prominent editors in American journalism had for him. This was like Time and Newsweek putting John F. Kennedy on the cover, calling him a superstar and doing a major feature on him a week before the presidential election. This was like Sports Illustrated putting Cassius Clay on the cover and proclaiming him sport’s next hero a week before his heavyweight title fight against Sonny Liston. There have been very few people in history, and now a racehorse, who have had the mystique and the hold on one’s imagination to give three national magazines confidence to do what they normally would never consider doing. Secretariat had broken through the sports barrier and infiltrated the realm of national news before proving himself worthy of such acceptance.

Frank Deford was the senior writer for Sports Illustrated from 1962 to 1989 and a revered figure in the world of sports with a gift for turning a phrase. Later in 1973 he took it upon himself to cover Secretariat’s final race, the Canadian International at Woodbine. After Big Red demolished his opponents Deford did something you would rarely if ever see a writer of his stature do. He wrote afterward, “I went down to the finish line and snatched up the very grass where, best I could tell, the supreme champion’s hooves had last touched a racetrack. I stuffed it in my pocket and took it home.” You could understand looking back how someone that awestruck by a racehorse would never doubt the result of the Belmont Stakes.

In the story accompanying the Newsweek cover, which showed Secretariat winning the Preakness with the banner “Superhorse,” the magazine’s lead sports writer Pete Axthelm wrote, “No horseman has to be reminded when he is in the commanding presence of a racehorse as rare and brilliant as Secretariat.” He continued, “Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes. Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat’s muscular build identifies him immediately; his gleaming reddish coat and rippling power. When he accelerates he produces a breathtaking explosion that leaves novices and hardened horsemen alike convinced that for one of those moments that seldom occur in any sport they have witnessed genuine greatness.”

Time magazine, which had a striking head shot of Secretariat with the same “Super Horse” title and a story with the headline “Wow Horse Races Into History,” said of the colt, “He has a neck like a buffalo, a back as broad as a sofa. His chest is so deep and wide that it takes a custom-made girth to hold the saddle. And he is still growing.” They concluded by saying, “Thus the horse owners continue to chase their rainbows, knowing that the gold will elude most of them most of the time. Every one of them will be imagining himself in Penny Tweedy’s place this Saturday afternoon as her superhorse makes his run at racing history.”

And so the American public was now aware of this modern-day Pegasus, and everyone, whether a racing fan or not, was prepared to see him make history in the Belmont Stakes. After all, if three of the most powerful and reputable publications in the country were willing to go out on such a precarious limb and do something so unprecedented and daring how can anyone doubt the outcome.

Imagine the look on the faces of Frank “Pancho” Martin and Sigmund Sommer, the respective trainer and owner of the all but forgotten Sham, when they saw those covers. A breathtaking physical specimen in his own right, with his glistening and dappled seal brown coat, Sham’s courage in the Kentucky Derby, in which he knocked two of his teeth out hitting the starting gate and returned with a bloody mouth, went overlooked by many. And his connections felt that Secretariat’s spectacular move in the Preakness caught Sham’s jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. by surprise and he was unable to make up any of the lengths Secretariat gained on him. Although Martin felt strongly the Belmont would be a different story, it seemed the public and the media had already placed racing’s most exalted crown on Secretariat’s head..

America could only wonder what amazing feats Secretariat could perform in the Belmont to top his Kentucky Derby, becoming the first horse to break the 2:00 mark for 1 1/4 miles while shattering Northern Dancer’s track record. And what he could do to stun the crowd even more than they were stunned by his jaw-dropping early move in the Preakness?

Regardless of what amazing feats lay ahead in the Belmont, Secretariat, thanks in part to the three magazine covers, had already provided a respite from the typical headlines and magazine covers everyone was seeing every week. His face on the cover of Time with the headline “Super Horse” was such a stark contrast to the magazine’s covers and headlines in 1973 it seemed totally out of place. Each week Americans were looking at Time with cover headlines that read: “Richard Nixon the Watergate Scandal”… “Nixon on the Brink”… “War in the Middle East”… “Vanishing Ozone”… “Nixon Beyond Vietnam”… “Watergate Breaks Wide Open,”… “The Push to Impeach.”

As the Baltimore Sun put it, “Secretariat was a controversy proof superstar to watch and appreciate without the residue of any political division or partisanship.”

Secretariat had become something pure, honest, and beautiful during troubled times. Even in sports he provided a welcome breath of fresh air, with the 1972 and ’73 World Series won by baseball’s controversial bad boys the Oakland Athletics. And people were still reeling from the previous year’s Olympics when 11 Israeli Olympic team members were taken hostage and ultimately murdered by Arab terrorists. In short, America needed Secretariat, and Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated were determined to make sure the country was aware of this magnificent, larger than life athlete who had already brought joy and countless thrills to so many people, beginning with his rare feat of being crowned Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old and being syndicated for a record $6.08 million.

But putting hm on the cover at this point in the Triple Crown and proclaiming him a superhorse was like a theater critic writing his review of a lavish Broadway musical and calling it the greatest show of all time even before seeing the second act. But somehow all three magazines could foresee Secretariat’s performance bringing down the house to spark the most rousing standing ovation in the history of the racing stage.

However, not even the editors of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated could have imagined the magnitude of what Secretariat would accomplish on that unforgettable, nearly 90-degree day in June. By winning the Belmont by an astounding 31 lengths and obliterating Gallant Man’s track record with a mile and a half in 2:24, which no one has come even remotely close to in 50 years, Secretariat seemed to raise the equine genus to another level.

He turned racecaller Chic Anderson’s words, “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine,” into timeless literature. He inspired the New York Times headline “A Horse for the Ages” following the Belmont. He had his owner, known for her class and dignity, flailing her arms about in celebration like an unrestrained teenager.

Whitney Tower, covering the race for Sports Illustrated, wrote: “As Secretariat thundered down the homestretch at Belmont Park to the roar of nearly 70,000 fans, he took on legendary stature.”

Even today when people watch the Belmont on the archival film that remains, whether for the first or 100th time, it still brings the same tears and goosebumps it brought those who saw it live. Those images are as eternal as the big red horse himself. The Baltimore Sun wrote recently, “People gravitated to his remarkable talent. When you watch the grainy footage of Secretariat’s win at the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, to win the Triple Crown, it looks otherworldly.”

Secretariat would go on to transcend not only Thoroughbred racing, but sports in general, and his name still resonates in everyday conversation, becoming part of its vernacular. To demonstrate the mystique that still surrounds him a half-century later, the saddle owned by jockey Ron Turcotte that was placed on Secretariat’s back by trainer Lucien Laurin before the Belmont Stakes, and all his races, recently was sold privately to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay — to go on public display as part of his traveling collection of iconic American cultural artifacts — for a phenomenal $2 million.

Even the three magazine covers remain an everlasting tribute to Secretariat. In a 50th anniversary resolution from the Kentucky State Governor’s office, it read: “WHEREAS, Secretariat is the most celebrated racehorse of all time and has forever raised the bar by which all Thoroughbreds are measured, gracing the covers of Time, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek and being named the only non-human ranked among ESPN’s 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century…”

The Time magazine photo showed up again 26 years after the Belmont. On November 18, 1999, as part of the Celebrate the Century Series, the U.S. Postal Service issued a limited 33-cent stamp of Secretariat, using the same head shot.

Then in 2021, Lelands’ Spring Classic auction unveiled a never before seen Time magazine alternate cover design that was considered for their June 11, 1973 issue. For almost five decades the only documented proof of this unpublished cover could be found in Penny Tweedy’s private collection.

“We are proud to offer this truly unique piece of racing history that represents the never-before publicly seen conceptual design for the cover of the iconic publication,” Lelands said.

The alternate layout showed a smiling Penny Tweedy dominating the cover, with a head-on Secretariat seemingly running right off the page. Time had presented the framed cover layout to Penny as a gift.

Lelands called it, “A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to own a priceless piece of racing history representing a once-in-a-lifetime horse and the woman who was his voice during his racing career and beyond.”

Between the alternate cover and the steady stream of covers of all three magazines still being sold on eBay, this journalistic phenomenon still lives on as an integral part of the most historic Triple Crown in history.

Of course when we think of the 1973 Triple Crown it is all about Secretariat’s three record-breaking performances, but what should not be forgotten is the faith three of the nation’s leading magazines had  in a Thoroughbred racehorse, despite the unpredictability of the breed and how easily and dramatically its good fortunes can change in a heartbeat. They simultaneously decided to elevate Secretariat to a height of public awareness never witnessed in the world of sports, even with his ultimate goal not yet completed.

The wonder of Secretariat never ceases to amaze us, not only because of its profound effect on horse racing, sports, and American culture, but its longevity. But the truth is, 50 years is not a long time compared to eternity. For that is how long the name Secretariat will live on in our mind and our heart as the truest and purest form of greatness.

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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