Champagne Stakes – Oct. 14, 1972 – 50th Anniversary

The 12-colt field for the 101st running of the 1972 Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park included Secretariat, familiar rivals Stop the Music and Linda’s Chief, and an unheralded stablemate of Secretariat named Angle Light.

Angle Light set a swift pace of 1:09 4/5 for the first three-quarters of the mile, and eventually fell behind along with the other front runners. Meanwhile, under jockey Ron Turcotte, heavily favored Secretariat started last and then began to make his move after half a mile, circling horses as he moved around the turn. Coming into the stretch, according to the chart caller, Secretariat “bore in bumping Stop the Music just inside the final three-sixteenths, was straightened up under left-handed pressure and drew away while being strongly ridden.”

Secretariat crossed the wire two lengths ahead of Stop the Music, who was ridden by John Rotz. Step Nicely, trained by Allen Jerkens, finished third under the reins of Angel Cordero Jr.  And then the “Inquiry” sign flashed…

Fifty years later, here are jockey Ron Turcotte’s memories of that day.

Q: Can you describe your recollections of the race as it happened?
RT: Everything was going fine. As we turned for home, Stop the Music carried me out a little bit, but I just chose to go to the outside of him. But that didn’t really affect me – I was still moving good. Secretariat was running the race beautifully and he won it easily enough, but they still took him down [disqualified him]. It was a bad call.

Q: Regarding what prompted the inquiry, describe what happened from your vantage point aboard Secretariat.
RT: Linda’s Chief came out into Stop the Music, and Stop the Music hit Secretariat in the rear and turned him in. So I grabbed him as soon as I could, to give him more room. Really, Secretariat got affected more than Stop the Music. But the chain reaction started with Linda’s Chief.

Q: As you crossed under the wire, did you have any inkling that the win might not stand?
RT: Not really, because I knew that Stop the Music was the one that had turned me in, and I’d grabbed Secretariat as quick as I could. I came back and saw the blinking light. I didn’t think they would take him down. Secretariat was much the best horse.

Q: Is it part of the breaks of the game that sometimes there’s just a bad call like that?
RT: Yes. Also, where the camera was positioned at the head of the stretch at the clubhouse turn, it’s supposed to be straight, but it seems to favor the inside horse. If you watch the replay from there it always looks like the outside horse goes in. It’s just the way the camera is set on the outside fence.

Q: How did you feel when they disqualified Secretariat to second place?
RT: I just felt it was unfair. He should not have been disqualified. I thought there was no way in the world they could take him down. I’ve seen way more than that occur during a race without horses being disqualified.

Q: Did you and Stop the Music’s jockey John Rotz ever talk about that race?
RT: No, we always got along really good afterwards. I don’t blame him at all because had I been in his place, I probably would have claimed foul too because you’ve got to take every chance you can. You came to win. My horse got pushed by the other horse, but it could still be seen as the outside horse who caused the problem. You’ve got to go by how the stewards look at it.

Q: Do you remember the reactions of [trainer] Lucien Laurin and [owner] Penny Chenery?
RT: More Penny than Lucien. I stopped at the barn on the way home. I was always interested in the horses, to make sure they came back good from the race and all that. She thought I’d ridden Secretariat in a way that moved him toward the inside but I said, “Mrs. Chenery, I didn’t turn the horse in. I tried to take him out.” She dropped it at that.

Q: As a jockey, being second-guessed must be frustrating.
RT: Well, you get used to it. We’re the last people exposed. If a trainer makes any mistake, it happens behind the scenes. An owner can make a mistake, like placing the horse in a race where it shouldn’t be. But if the horse gets beat, it’s always the jockey. You can’t say anything. But I never got suspended for the ride after the race. They never blamed me for the disqualification.

The winner’s circle photo that was not-to-be. Here, Ron Turcotte expresses his rare candid sentiments about the 1972 Champagne Stakes — one of several unique offerings in our upcoming Fall Archives Auction beginning in November.

Q: Of course Lucien and Penny couldn’t have been too upset because you were back on Secretariat for the Laurel Futurity two weeks later.
RT: Right.

Q: Did the inquiry affect how you rode Secretariat in his following race?
RT: No, in the Laurel Futurity I rode him the way I usually did. I let the other horses go and then came up on the outside and let Secretariat run through the stretch. He won by eight lengths and his time was just off the track record. I felt very confident every time I rode the horse.

Q: Coming into this race, Secretariat had run six times with five straight wins, and you’d been on him for four straight wins. The final time in the Champagne was a swift 1:35 for the mile. So even with the disqualification, you still must have felt confident about your horse and his future prospects.
RT: Oh, definitely, I knew the other horses couldn’t beat him. He was the best by that much.

Q: Do you have additional perspectives now that it’s been 50 years since the race took place?
RT: By taking away that winning purse, [the winner’s share was $87,900 vs. $32,230 for second place], it stopped him from breaking the record for money won in one year by a two-year-old. I always felt worse for the horse than for myself. He deserved that title. We were robbed. Secretariat was robbed, really. He actually won one more race than everyone says he won. He won that race. But the stewards took it away.


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