Secretariat

My First Preakness: Big Red Bashes Baltimore

To kick off Preakness week, and with the virtual Secretariat Festival fast approaching on Oct. 10 and 11, I felt this was a good time to look back at the very first Preakness I attended and the memorable experience of witnessing Big Red’s record-breaking performance. ~ Steve Haskin

My First Preakness: Big Red Bashes Baltimore

By Steve Haskin

 

I had seen Secretariat in person on several occasions before. I stood at the rail and watched him bull his way through horses to win the Bay Shore Stakes, his first start after his ground-breaking record syndication. I spent the morning with him at Barn 5, meeting Penny Tweedy for the first time, and then watched him work a surprisingly slow mile in preparation for the Wood Memorial, capturing his massive stride with my trusty Canon F-1. And I was in the Aqueduct grandstand for that race and watched in shock as he finished a dull third to stablemate Angle Light. Of course, there was a legitimate reason for that performance, but no one knew it at the time.

All those were memorable experiences in their own way, but now it was time to see Big Red close up with history on the line. I had watched him win the Kentucky Derby at my friend Jack’s mother’s apartment in The Bronx, hardly a suitable place to witness history being made, especially with Secretariat shattering Northern Dancer’s stakes and track record, and performing the Herculean feat of running each quarter faster than the previous one, something no one had ever seen or will ever see again. It was then that everyone realized this would be no ordinary Triple Crown. Something special was about to happen; you could feel it.

I knew, as head librarian of the Daily Racing Form whose days off were Wednesdays and Sundays, I would have to work on Belmont Stakes day, especially if Secretariat was attempting to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. So I arranged to take Preakness day off and drive down to Baltimore with Jack, who was a copy editor at the Racing Form, and his wife Rena to attend my first Preakness. This would be my only chance to at least witness in person one-third of what could be a history-making Triple Crown.

Jack had arranged to get reserved seats for him and Rena. But that wasn’t good enough for me. I needed to totally immerse myself in the event, to be part of it, to get close enough to Secretariat to feel his power and his energy, to be able to look him in the eye and see the fire of competition begin to intensify as he prepared for battle.

In order to achieve this I needed to be bold and ask for press credentials, even though I was only a mere librarian and still a few years away from my ambitious venture into freelance writing. The best person to accomplish this was Joe Hirsch, who covered the Triple Crown for DRF and was fast becoming an iconic figure in the sport. So Joe was kind enough to arrange to get me credentials.

On the Thursday before the race I received an Associated Press photo in the library that really got my juices flowing for the following day’s drive down to Pimlico and the big day that was to follow.

Original Press Photo for Auction

It was a photo of Secretariat, covered in a blanket as he walked the shed cooling out after his morning training. He had just turned the corner of the shedrow when he paused to look straight into the eyes of his main rival Sham, who had his head out the stall door.

If there was a horse who could derail Big Red’s quest for immortality it was the Kentucky Derby runner-up, who had the misfortune of slamming his head against the starting gate at the break, losing two of his teeth and returning with a mouthful of blood. Yet, by getting beat 2 1/2 lengths he also had broken the track record, and there were some who felt the Santa Anita Derby winner would be more formidable in the Preakness. After all, he had already finished well ahead of Secretariat in the aforementioned Wood Memorial, but his jockey Jorge Velasquez had been waiting for Big Red’s challenge that never came and his last desperate surge at Angle Light came up a neck short.

Here were these two gifted adversaries eyeballing each other just two days before their much-anticipated rematch. I looked hard at this remarkable photo before labeling it and filing it away. I have no recollection whether or not the DRF editors published the photo. I was too busy getting ready for the trip to Baltimore the following day. I’m sure it was used by one or more of the many newspapers to whom the photo was sent. Wide World Photos, which was owned by Associated Press, was the agency that it used. The news department was on the fourth floor of the AP building at 50 Rockefeller Center in New York City, and Wide World Photos was a floor above and handled the dissemination of photos to the various newspapers around the country.

On Friday, Jack, Rena, and I left for Baltimore. By now the excitement had grown to a feverish pitch as the eyes of the country turned to Pimlico Race Course. If Secretariat could defeat Sham one more time and do it in the same brilliant manner he did at Churchill Downs then there would be no one who could stop him in the Belmont Stakes, even though Bold Rulers had not shown the ability to get a mile and a half. But they said the same thing about them at a mile and a quarter until Secretariat smashed that theory to smithereens.

We arrived in Baltimore that evening and promptly got lost trying to find the country club where the big pre-race media party was being held. Jack stopped at a gas station to ask for directions. Talk about a small world, the owner who gave us directions just happened to be the cousin of Jack’s good friend Ruth, with whom he had traveled to the Washington D.C. International in 1966. On the way home they stopped to visit her cousin at the gas station he owned. For Jack to stop randomly at this same gas station seven years later to ask for directions was a portent of the magical Saturday that was to come.

Finally, the big day arrived and we were off to Pimlico. After finding a place to park we had a long walk to the track as throngs of people poured in from all directions, many of them carrying coolers. You could feel the electricity in the air.

I headed to the office of public relations director Sam Siciliano to pick up my credentials. Yes, my credentials. I was playing journalist and loving it. I was given a simple round piece of thin cardboard with a string attached. I looked at it and did a double take. The name on the credential read “Steve Cannon.” I didn’t know Joe Hirsch all that well back then; this was years before he would become a mentor. Was this Joe’s doing or someone in the press office? I said nothing. Steve Haskin never got to see his name on a media credential. I was now Steve Cannon. There was a top New York sports columnist at the time named Jimmy Cannon. Was that who I was supposed to be? And there was a famous comic strip character named Steve Canyon, who was a rugged adventurer and Air Force pilot. OK, I could handle that as well.

Anyway, on this day I was Steve Cannon. The afternoon seemed endless, but when it was finally time for the Preakness horses to be saddled on the turf course I headed down, proudly flashing my Steve Cannon credentials. I walked over to the saddling area and there before me, inches away, was the magnificent Secretariat standing calmly as trainer Lucien Lauren, attired in a loud burgundy sport jacket and bright blue pants, tied his girth, with groom Eddie Sweat holding the horse’s head and exercise rider Charlie Davis sitting atop the lead pony. I positioned myself a couple of feet from Laurin right off Secretariat’s flank. I raised my camera to get a shot of Big Red’s powerful hindquarters. Jockey Ron Turcotte showed up as Laurin put the blinkers on the horse. With everyone on this side of Secretariat, I moved to the other side where the light was much better and where there were hardly any people. Yes, I had been close up to Secretariat before on that peaceful morning at the barn before the Wood Memorial. But standing this close to the imposing chestnut decked out in Meadow Stable’s familiar blue and white checkered blinkers and the strip of blue on his reins, it was like looking at the great warrior Achilles in full battle array priming himself for another resounding conquest.

As Laurin spoke to Turcotte on the other side of the horse I again lifted my trusty Canon F-1 and took a photo of Secretariat standing in perfect conformation, looking straight ahead. When Big Red heard the click of my shutter, he turned his head and, through his blinkers, looked right at me, or I should say right through me. I was able to capture that moment as well, and the result was a photo I would treasure for the next five decades. It was just me and this spectacular creature one on one. If I may anthropomorphize for a moment, it was as if Secretariat knew he was being photographed and gave me the pose of a lifetime.

I then turned around and there walking directly behind me, was Sham, his dark bay coat shining like burnished copper and bursting with dapples. Here I was between two of the most magnificent looking horses I had ever seen. To this day, I have never been that close up to two horses of such rare beauty and so ready for combat. The battle was on.

I made my way up to the roof to get a bird’s eye view of this impending spectacle. In one hand I held my Canon F-1 with Kodachrome slide film, which I used in the paddock, and in the other I held my Canon FTB loaded with black and white film, not knowing what I would shoot. Unfortunately, once the race started I forgot about my cameras and focused only on the action below me as I was shaking too much to deal with photography. As the small field charged past me, Secretariat was dead-last, which was fine until I saw the opening quarter of :25 flash on the tote board, not knowing the mistake that fraction and eventual final time would prove to be. What was Turcotte thinking? It was as if Secretariat was moving in slow motion, as he would being out for a morning jog.

Pincay had Sham placed perfectly in third along the rail, about two lengths behind the pacesetting Ecole Etage as they passed right below me. Then, just as I wondering what Turcotte was doing in last behind such a slow pace, it happened, and it happened so quickly it took a few seconds for my brain to register what my eyes were seeing. In the blink of those eyes, Secretariat was steered to the outside and looked as if he were about to become airborne, his front legs leaping off the ground, while getting tremendous thrust from those same hindquarters I had just photographed. Turcotte was now just a passenger waiting for the pilot to take off. And take off he did.

In all the films of the race over the years, the beginning of Secretariat’s electrifying move was not shown, as he was out of the picture. It wasn’t until he was on the turn, with all cylinders already firing, that he charged into the frame. But there I was atop the roof to see it all unfold in disbelief, too stunned to even pick up my camera. Fortunately my colleague at DRF, Ray Woolfe Jr., was up there in position to capture Secretariat’s initial ascent, which became the inspiration for the famous statue of Big Red that adorns the Belmont Park paddock.

Tony Black, who broke between Secretariat and Sham from post 2 aboard Deadly Dream, was directly in front of Secretariat along the rail when he caught a brief glimpse of a chestnut blur whizzing past him. As Black said, “The further we went the smaller Secretariat got.”

But his presence looked larger than life to those jockeys who saw him go by them as if they were standing still. The move certainly caught Pincay by surprise. No horse ever made such a dramatic last-to-first move on the first turn. Secretariat suddenly was well past him and about to pounce on Ecole Etage, whose jockey George Cusimano said after the race, “I was going along nicely on the lead and had plenty of horse, and then I heard this noise that sounded like a locomotive closing in behind me. When Secretariat went by me he was moving with such force he blew the number right off my arm.”

(This had to be the same noise I had heard in my first encounter with Secretariat. I was sitting on the porch at Saratoga the year before having breakfast with Jack. My back was turned away from the track when I heard that same locomotive approaching and the sound of hooves pounding the track. I looked up to see a chestnut colt fly by. Seeing his blue and white blinkers, blue saddle towel and blue reins, I told Jack it could only be that promising 2-year-old of Meadow Stable that we had been hearing about.)

When Secretariat blew right on by Ecole Etage and quickly opened a two-length lead as they began the run down the backstretch, Pincay had no choice but to start pushing on Sham, who also went by Ecole Etage and took aim at Secretariat. But no matter how hard Pincay rode him he could not get any closer. When they turned for home I finally came to my senses and took a black and white photo, but they were too far away to get a decent shot. Again, I got caught up in the action and just watched from there on. Heck, I was a fan not a photographer. There was Pincay hitting Sham with a series of left-handed whips while Turcotte was merely hand-riding Secretariat, who was still hugging the rail. Hordes of fans jumped over the inner rail in the infield and rushed to the main rail on the track, some jumping up and down, others waving their arms in celebration, and still others reaching over the rail almost touching the horse.

Secretariat crossed the finish line the same 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Sham as he did in the Derby, with Sham the same eight lengths ahead of Our Native. Because of a tote board malfunction, no one knew at the time that Secretariat had once again set a new stakes and track record with an actual clocking of 1:53, which he was awarded years later.

But that didn’t matter then. As Secretariat strutted back right below me, I like everyone at the track and millions more watching on TV, knew right then and there that we were all standing on the threshold of history.

So ended my first Preakness. I had witnessed true greatness and had stood within inches of a horse who would still be part of our vernacular a half century later, the barometer by which all greats are measured. Yes, it was as amazing an experience as I had hoped. It was a day Steve Cannon will never forget.