Linda’s Chief Helped Give Birth to a Legend

In an era of great horses, not many are that familiar with Linda’s Chief, but he was a big name in his time and on the 50th anniversary of his clash with an up and coming young horse named Secretariat in the 1972 Sanford Stakes it is the perfect time to tell his story.~ Steve Haskin

Linda’s Chief Helped Give Birth to a Legend

By Steve Haskin


The giant strides one must take on the road to greatness begin with small steps, and it is those small steps that turn boys into men and allows us to begin pondering what great feats might lay ahead. In the case of Secretariat it was 50 years ago that he took the first small steps to immortality.  When he went into the historic Sanford Stakes at Saratoga, the very race in which Man o’ War suffered his only defeat, he was just a promising colt who had the looks and the pedigree to be special, but with only a maiden and allowance victory to his credit, as well as a troubled fourth-place finish in his debut. In fact, the majority of those at Saratoga on August 16, 1972 might have felt it was an undefeated near-black colt named Linda’s Chief who was headed into the realm of greatness following three impressive stakes wins in New York.

So impressive was Linda’s Chief, winning his first two starts by five and eight lengths, setting a new track at Belmont for 5 ½ furlongs, and then capturing the Youthful, Juvenile, and Tremont Stakes, he was sent off as the 3-5 favorite. It would be the only time in Secretariat’s career he was not the favorite, having to settle as the 3-2 second choice. Everyone considers Sham as Secretariat’s most formidable opponent, but Linda’s Chief was not far behind, as he would go on to prove.

Secretariat’s credentials going into the Sanford were based mainly on his reputation and his striking appearance. He had looked the part breaking his maiden on July 15 at Aqueduct by six lengths at odds of 6-5, but back then young horses normally didn’t jump into stakes competition off a maiden race, so trainer Lucien Laurin ran him back 16 days later on July 31 in an allowance race at Saratoga, once again going six furlongs. This time, however, Secretariat had a tougher time, winning by only 1 ½ lengths as the 2-5 favorite. But jockey Ron Turcotte knew there were bigger races coming up quickly and he never went to the whip, just hand-riding Secretariat down the stretch.

The powerful chestnut by Bold Ruler, out of Somethingroyal had big shoes to fill, with his stablemate Riva Ridge having already won an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old in 1971 and then coming back at 3 to score impressive victories in the  Blue Grass Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont Stakes. So it was imperative that Secretariat show something out of the ordinary in his stakes debut in the six-furlong Sanford, again with only 16 days between races.

Although a prep for the Hopeful Stakes, the Sanford was hardly the place for an unproven colt to show something out of the ordinary, as Secretariat was going to have his hands full just winning the race. If there was a budding star in the race it appeared to be the Florida-bred Linda’s Chief, who looked nothing like the hulking Meadow Stable colt, being a smallish light-framed individual with a near-black coat. But, boy, could he run. Unlike Secretariat, who had never been tested in stakes competition, Linda’s Chief was coming off three consecutive stakes victories and was undefeated in five starts.

Because of his brilliance, precocity, and already being battle-tested in stakes company it was no surprise the fans made him the odds-on favorite. Who knew then that his favoritism over Secretariat would one day become a trivia question?

Linda’s Chief broke from the rail in the five-horse field, with Secretariat, who had worked five furlongs in a blazing :59 five days earlier, right alongside. Braulio Baeza eased Linda’s Chief back to third, two lengths off the pace, while Turcotte took Secretariat back to last, but only four lengths behind the leaders. After a opening quarter in :22 4/5, Baeza was able to ease Linda’s Chief out in the clear, with Secretariat lurking just behind, but in a precarious spot directly behind two horses and hemmed in by Linda’s Chief. Approaching the quarter pole, Linda’s Chief had dead-aim on the leaders, entrymates Trevose and Northstar Dancer, from the barn of Johnny Campo, but was a bit late changing leads. Meanwhile, Turcotte had no choice but to remain where he was and wait for a hole to open between the two Campo colts.

Linda’s Chief finally switched leads at the three-sixteenths pole, but as soon as he pounced on the leaders, Secretariat shot through a narrow opening and stormed to the front. All Baeza could do now was chase him home, as Secretariat opened up with every stride. Not only did he cross the finish line three lengths in front of Linda’s Chief, he came home his final quarter in a sensational :23 1/5, stopping the teletimer in a sharp 1:10 flat, again under a hand ride. Linda’s Chief continued on strongly, finishing six lengths ahead of the third place finisher, but was no match for the horse who had just knocked him off his spot atop the 2-year-old division and brought his stunned connections back down to earth.

Linda’s Chief’s trainer Al Scotti was not only shocked by the turn of events he was in awe of Secretariat. “Going into this race I didn’t think there was a horse alive who could beat Linda’s Chief,” he said. “But Secretariat was just fantastic. My horse had a good clear run at the head of the stretch and Secretariat was jammed up behind horses. Ronnie finally found a little hole and he just busted through on the inside. It was unbelievable. He just ran away from me like I wasn’t there.”

It wasn’t that Linda’s Chief’s star had faded as much as it was Secretariat’s star lighting up the sky. And it would only keep getting brighter, not just for the next 14 months, but the next 50 years.

Secretariat had taken his first step in what would be an epic journey into racing’s pantheon of immortals, and he had done it against a horse who was a star going into the Sanford, and was a star afterward, winning nine of his first 10 starts as a 3-year-old, including seven major stakes at five different tracks from California to Chicago to New York. He scored a victory in the six-furlong San Miguel Stakes, then set a new track record for a mile at Santa Anita, winning the San Jacinto Stakes in 1:33 4/5 defeating future Hall of Famer Ancient Title by five lengths. He followed that up by beating Ancient Title again, this time by three lengths in the San Felipe Handicap. Finishing a well-beaten fourth in the San Felipe was an up and coming star named Sham, who had a disastrous trip, taking up in close quarters early, then getting stuck in traffic and  taking up again in the stretch after getting shut off.

The Santa Anita Derby would be the stage for Linda’s Chief to establish himself as the main threat to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby. While he would ultimately be seeking revenge against Secretariat, who had also finished well ahead of him the previous fall in the Champagne Stakes before being disqualified, Sham was out for revenge against Linda’s Chief in the Santa Anita Derby.

Both colts had a new look, with Linda’s Chief being turned over to Bobby Frankel in California. Sham was sold to Sigmund Sommer for the hefty sum of $200,000 at the Claiborne Farm dispersal following the death of Claiborne owner Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. in September, 1972.

Prior to his nightmare trip in the San Felipe, Sham, trained by Frank “Pancho” Martin, had broken his maiden at Aqueduct by six lengths in the mud, then romped in a pair of allowance races at Santa Anita by six and 15 lengths before winning the Santa Catalina Stakes by 2 ½ lengths over a deep, muddy track.

As Linda’s Chief and Sham prepared to do battle in the March 31 Santa Anita Derby, back in New York Secretariat, who was now the reigning Horse of the Year, had made his long-awaited 3-year-old debut in the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes on March 17, winning by 4 ½ lengths in the slop, and was one week away from winning the one-mile Gotham Stakes by three lengths, equaling the track record of 1:33 2/5.

Whoever emerged victorious in the Santa Anita Derby would likely be Secretariat’s biggest obstacle at Churchill Downs. Sham, looked to be more formidable at 1 ¼ miles, and although Linda’s Chief had improved in leaps and bounds from 2 to 3 and dominated top-class horses in the San Jacinto and San Felipe, he still had been beaten soundly twice by Secretariat, while Sham was just now coming into his own as a major force in the 3-year-old division. But before any thoughts turned to Secretariat, Sham first had to turn the tables on Linda’s Chief.

Only six were entered in the Santa Anita Derby. Laffit Pincay Jr. as usual was aboard Sham, with Pancho Martin putting in entrymate Knightly Dawn with Jorge Tejeira named to ride. When Linda’s Chief drew post 5 and Knightly Dawn post 6, Bobby Frankel began to get a bit anxious having Sham’s stablemate right outside him. Both outspoken trainers had emphatically predicted victory for their colt. When Martin switched riders the morning of the race, replacing Tejeira with the veteran Milo Valenzuela, who wasn’t doing that well at the time, Frankel admitted he became suspicious regarding Martin’s strategy.

Sure enough, Knightly Dawn broke to the outside and Valenzuela quickly grabbed hold of him and sharply angled him in, sawing off Linda’s Chief, or simply said putting the squeeze on him. Instead of laying first or second Baeza was forced to take back to last. Knightly Dawn charged to the lead, with Baeza rushing Linda’s Chief up outside Sham nearing the first turn.

Sham was able the get the jump on Linda’s Chief and opened a clear lead in the stretch. Linda’s Chief tried gallantly but couldn’t catch Sham, who won by 2 ½ lengths in a near-track record 1:47 flat. Frankel was livid after the race, and despite going on to a Hall of Fame career he never got over that defeat, feeling Martin deliberately had Knightly Dawn take Linda’s Chief out of the race early.

Of course, we all know what happened after that with Sham coming east and getting the better of Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, but falling just short of catching Big Red’s stablemate Angle Light and then chasing Secretariat in all three record-breaking Triple Crown races. In his second-place finish at Churchill Downs, he still ran the second-fastest Kentucky Derby of all time, despite hitting his head on the starting gate and losing several teeth.

Frankel, sensing Linda’s Chief might have distance limitations, ran him in the 1 1/8-mile California Derby, the same day as the Wood Memorial. The colt went off at 1-5 and sprinted to an eight-length lead through torrid fractions of :45 4/5 and 1:09 3/5. He still led by four lengths at the eighth pole, but barely held a on to win by three-quarters of a length.

With Linda’s Chief no longer under consideration for the Kentucky Derby, his owner and breeder, Neil Hellman sent him back to Al Scotti in New York. Shortened up to a mile in the Withers Stakes at Belmont Park, Linda’s Chief again went right for the lead and drew off to a three-length victory over Stop the Music, who had been placed first in the Champagne on the disqualification of Secretariat. Finishing third, beaten five lengths, and coming off a fourth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, was Forego, who became the second Hall of Famer to be beaten by Linda’s Chief. The time of 1:34 4/5 missed the track record by two-fifths of a second.

Linda’s Chief continued his winning ways, gutting out a victory in the 1 1/16-mile Pontiac Grand Prix at Arlington Park in the slop, giving nine pounds to runner-up Blue Chip Dan. Back to Aqueduct, carrying topweight of 126 pounds in the Saranac Stakes on June 30, he blazed the mile in 1:34 flat defeating the classy Allen Jerkens-trained Step Nicely.  His time was a fifth of a second slower than Dr. Fager’s time in the 1967 Withers Stakes when the Doc ran the fastest mile by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing.

That same day at Arlington Park, Secretariat made his first start since his historic romp in the Belmont Stakes and crushed his opponents by nine lengths in the Arlington Invitational, a new race carded just for Big Red. With Secretariat pointing to the Whitney against older horses and then the Travers, Linda’s Chief headed to Monmouth Park for a 1 1/16-mile prep for the Monmouth Invitational Handicap. Run as an exhibition race with only three entered, Linda’s Chief opened a 10-length lead and then coasted home under wraps to win by six lengths.

Now owned by Oregon lumberman Aaron U. Jones, who paid around $2 million (some reports say $1.8 million) for the son of Chieftain, Linda’s Chief looked like a lock to win the Monmouth Invitational. That is when the Philip Morris tobacco company proposed a one-mile match race between Secretariat and Linda’s Chief, in which they would put up $150,000 winner-take-all to be run September 15 at Belmont Park.

Just when people thought Linda’s Chief, riding a five-race winning streak, might get another shot at Secretariat, he ran an inexplicably poor race in the Monmouth Invitational, tiring in the stretch to finish fifth, beaten over seven lengths. That same day Secretariat was upset by Onion in the Whitney and the match race quickly went up in smoke. But that idea gave birth to the inaugural Marlboro Cup on September 15, which Secretariat, who had recovered from a virus, won over stablemate Riva Ridge in world record time.

Given another chance in the one-mile Jerome Handicap on October 20, Linda’s Chief could only finish third behind Step Nicely and Forego, two horses he had already handled with ease. He was put away for a couple of months and sent back to California to be trained by Charlie Whittingham.

Eight days after the Jerome Secretariat ran his last race, romping in the Canadian International Championship and putting the final stamp on a legacy that has lasted half a century. Sham was long gone, having been retired with an injury following the Belmont Stakes. Linda’s Chief had outlasted both his main antagonists as he headed into his four-year-old campaign.

He ran well in his first two starts at Santa Anita, the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes and 1 1/8-mile San Fernando, but had to settle for second each time behind Ancient Title, who had improved a great deal since his two defeats the previous spring at the hands of Linda’s Chief, who continued to find it difficult getting back to the winner’s circle. Stretching out beyond his best distance he finished fourth in the Santa Anita Handicap and third in the Premiere Handicap dropping back to six furlongs. Clearly, he was not the same horse he was at 2 and 3.

The reason might have surfaced in his next start, the Caballero Handicap, when he ran poorly, with jockey Bill Shoemaker saying after the race, “I don’t know what was the matter with the horse. He was lugging out all the way.”

Was Linda’s Chief trying to tell his connections something? He apparently seemed well enough to run back two weeks later in the seven-furlong Los Angeles Handicap. Soon after the start, Linda’s Chief for some inexplicable reason propped and made a sharp left-hand turn, unseating jockey Steve Valdez. He slammed hard into the rail attempting to jump it and landed heavily on the hard ground behind it. Two veterinarians rushed to the stricken horse and reported to a third vet on the scene that he had broken his back and was paralyzed in both hind legs. There was no choice but to euthanize the colt. It was later discovered he had severed his spinal column and fractured his pelvis.

Aaron Jones had been assembling a fashionably bred band of fillies to breed to Linda’s Chief the following spring. But in a heartbeat his $2 million horse who had finished first or second against three future Hall of Famers and at one time had been on the threshold of an epic match race with Secretariat was gone, forever lost in the pages of history.

To those who remember this brilliant and tough little colt, they can’t help but look back to the 1972 Sanford Stakes when he was the only horse to ever face Secretariat as the top dog. Whether he was up against Big Red, Forego, Sham or Ancient Title he always ran his heart out and made them know they were in a horse race. He may be a forgotten star from racing’s golden era, but not by those who saw him run.


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