Writer’s Forum

Secretariat – Super Genius

An intimate narrative delving into the personality of Secretariat and the traits that made him such a special champion. Author Bill Doolittle gives a delightful and engaging account of Secretariat through the remembrances of the Meadow Stable team.


By Bill Doolittle

It’s an interesting quirk of history that Secretariat lost three races during his historic Triple Crown year in 1973, but each time he lost he came back to break a track record in his next race.

Secretariat lost the Wood Memorial in April, but roared back to take the Kentucky Derby in track-record time. In August, after sweeping the Triple Crown, he lost to a horse named Onion at Saratoga, and then in September to Prove Out at Belmont. After each of those losses he not only rebounded with track record victories, but the clockings he recorded also established new track records for the distances and surfaces.

Which didn’t surprise exercise rider Charlie Davis one bit at the time, and doesn’t surprise him today.

“He’d get beat, he’d go right to the back of the stall,” recalls Davis. “He’d put his head to the back wall and his rump to the door. That was to tell you, ‘I don’t want to be bothered. I’m thinking what I can do to make this up.’ Then he’d do it. The very next time after he’d get beat, he set a record.”

Which is a terrific story, but equine experts say horses don’t actually possess that kind of reasoning ability. They don’t feel guilty somehow and work up a determination to do better next time. That’s strictly a human trait, the experts say.

Or is it?

Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery lends some credence to Davis’ story. “I do think we humanize the animals we love,” admits Chenery. “But Secretariat was like that. After he got beat, he wouldn’t come to the webbing (the barrier across the stall door). He wouldn’t be consoled, saying, in effect, I know I messed up.”

After each of those losses, Davis says he and groom Eddie Sweat knew exactly what to do: Nothing. They let their big horse work things out for himself. “We’d just leave him be the next couple days,” Davis explains.

But when Secretariat returned to the track to train for his next race, Davis would be ready.

“I’d just hold on tight and let him do what he wanted to do,” says Davis. “I know I couldn’t hold him. He’d be thinking, ‘Now I’ve got to get this out of my system, and be ready next time.’ When Onion beat him in the Whitney he was mad horse. Mad. And then he come back and set a world record. When Prove Out beat him, I’d say, I know he wants to get big. He’d work fast and I’d say,’ Oh man. Oh, man. They better look out.’ And sure enough he went right to the front – and was gone.Davis gives a quick whistle through his teeth: “Just like that … sssweeet … gone.”

The Whitney race was followed by the historic Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park, in which Secretariat defeated a star-studded invitational field that included Kentucky Derby-winning stablemate Riva Ridge and West Coast champion Cougar II. Secretariat’s clocking of 1:45 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles was the fastest in history at that distance. When he avenged his loss to Prove Out, he stopped the clock at 2:24 4/5, the fastest 1 ½ miles ever recorded on grass. It was Secretariat’s first start the turf.

Jockey Ron Turcotte, who was aboard “Big Red” for all those races – the wins, the losses, and the track-record comebacks – says there’s a more logical explanation. The Wood-Derby turnaround, he says, can be explained by the simple fact Secretariat had been suffering with a painful, but undetected, abscess in his mouth. After the abscess was spotted, trainer Lucien Laurin, groom Eddie Sweat and Davis went to work on the problem with old-fashioned horse remedies. The painful problem was fixed – and nothing could stop Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby.

“I wasn’t worried,” recalls Turcotte. “When he worked real good at Churchill Downs in the days before the Derby, I thought he was back to himself.”

Turcotte says he didn’t ask Secretariat for much at the start of the 1 1/4 miles Derby – the farthest the horse had ever run to that date. “The reason I just galloped him the first part, I thought maybe he didn’t benefit (in conditioning) enough from the Wood, with that abscess. But he was fine and went stronger all the way.”

After settling to last place after the start, Secretariat picked up steam and proceeded to run each quarter mile faster than his previous quarter mile – a horse on a mission, and an astonishing feat that long-time observers said had never been done in the Kentucky Derby. Even if horses are passing others, they are generally not running as fast (or faster!) at the end as at the beginning of the race. Especially in the long and grueling Run for the Roses. But Secretariat did. His 1 1/4 miles was timed in 1:59 2/5. Still the Kentucky Derby standard.

Maybe he was trying to prove something.

Turcotte wouldn’t wish to contradict anything his friend Charlie Davis says, but thinks the explanation has more to do with conditioning than the desire to prove a loss was a fluke. “Horses, they can’t figure out things that way,” says Turcotte. “It’s more about being at your best physical condition. Secretariat, if he was fit, he ran.”

But that doesn’t mean the champion was an equine robot. Secretariat did possess some human-like traits. “He was a pleasure to be around, from the first day I got on him to the last day I rode him,” says Turcotte. “He was something else. And he never had a mean hair on him, never spooked from anything with me.”

There were days, though …

“He threw me one morning coming back from a workout, threw me right over his head,” recalls Turcotte – who says his biggest concern wasn’t where he would land, but that the $6 million horse would run off loose and hurt himself. “But when I looked up, there he was, just standing there looking at me. He waited for me to get back on him, and we just went back to the gap and to the barn. He was too much.”

Jimmy Gaffney, who was an exercise rider, and teacher, for Secretariat early in his career, encountered a similar problem with the horse wishing to toss a little guy off his back. “After I’d gallop him for a mile-and-a-half, or even two miles, he would start buck jumping,” says Gaffney. “It would be time to pull him up and I’d say, “Whoa, Daddy.’ But he’d start into these long jumps, like going over hurdles. The outrider at Belmont, Jimmy Dailey, would say he’d never seen a horse do something like that after he’d galloped that far. (The horse is supposed to be tired, after all.) But even as I would be trying to pull him up, he’d be wanting to jump. I just let him do it. He was running good, and he was happy. If he wanted to jump, I let him do it.”

Secretariat wasn’t a bad actor, Gaffney says. He just felt good.

Gaffney said he rode with his stirrups long and didn’t try to take a strong hold. He wanted his pupil to be a happy horse. “I wanted him to enjoy his gallops, and he did,” says Gaffney. “He just had incredible energy. Awesome. To this day people ask me what it was like riding Secretariat, and I just can’t think of a word other than he was an awesome powerhouse of a horse. The way he’d reach out, you’d feel him underneath you, the sucker could really run.”

Jockey Eddie Maple, a top rider of the era, rode Secretariat just one time – his last race, when Turcotte was serving a suspension for a riding infraction. Just one race, but one Maple says he won’t ever forget.

“That was something to have a chance to get on Secretariat,” says Maple, who is retired from riding, but still in the horse business with his wife Kate in Hilton Head, South Carolina. “I’d been around him at the tracks his whole career, and there always was just such a buzz about him. He wasn’t unbeaten, but I knew he’d had an excuse every time he’d lost.”

And Maple didn’t wish to be any part of an excuse in the final start of Secretariat’s last race – which was Oct. 28, 1973, in the Canadian International at Woodbine Park, in Toronto. A mile and five-eighths on the turf. “I went there the night before because the weather was crappy,” Maple remembers. “I didn’t want any chance a plane flight would be delayed, or anything like that. And when I got there it was wet, 37 degrees and freezing rain. The skies were gray, and the turf course was soft. But Ronnie (Turcotte) took the horse out in the morning and said the turf course would be no problem. They’d really taken care of it, and Secretariat got over it fine, Ronnie said. He had no problems crossing the dirt strip where the turf crossed the main track. He and Penny and Lucien, they all were saying Secretariat was perfect. Jumping out of his skin. Not to worry”

But there were still hazards, Maple knew. Secretariat had only run once on the grass – his previous record-setting performance in the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park. That was over a “firm” turf course. Today the turf would be rated firm, but still wet. There was media all around Woodbine, including in the jock’s room. A huge crowd had turned out, despite the weather. “People were everywhere, cheering for Secretariat. It was a big day for Canada,” Maple says. “But the horse was just fine. Handled the excitement like there was nothing to it.”

No doubt experience at the Kentucky Derby, where a record crowd had spilled across fences to run up to the inside rail before post time, had served Secretariat well. It was a scene charged with excitement that was repeated at Pimlico and Belmont, and at Arlington Park, in Chicago. Maple and Secretariat broke sharply from the outside No. 12 post position, and settled in with Kennedy Road at the front of the pack. That horse was ridden by Avelino Gomez, the top rider in Canada. Everything was fine, Maple says, until the backstretch. “Secretariat saw that horse of Avelino’s there and he didn’t like it. He was mad, and he suddenly just took off,” says Maple. “He opened up eight or nine lengths. I remember wishing it hadn’t happened. It was too early. But I didn’t want to pull on him.”

It was one of those cases in which a top rider knows better than to fight his mount. “We crossed the dirt with no problem and headed into the stretch. I tapped him with the stick left handed and he just sailed away.” Secretariat suddenly opened up a huge lead and cantered to the wire. Victorious in his final race!

“First, there was a big relief,” Maple says. “I had been on the hot seat a couple times before, but not like this. So with the way he braved the weather and it being such a big day for Canada, I just was really proud of him. It doesn’t get any better than to have an opportunity like that. A horse like I’d never dreamed of before.”

Maple noted certain special athletic qualities in Secretariat – from his time riding the horse, and from observing his other races. “He was very agile, and had a lot of spring,” Maple says. “When he was young he wasn’t always the first one out of the gate. But when he got older he showed more speed, and he always sprang out of the gate. That’s the way he did it for me at Woodbine. And he had that move. He could lay back, then beat you in a second.”

Like Turcotte, Maple doesn’t go too much for ascribing human traits to horses. But hadn’t Maple said Secretariat got “mad” about rating next to another horse in the Canadian International?

“The word ‘mad’ is something I probably use to make what happened more understandable for everyone,” says Maple. “Let’s say he didn’t get mad, but startled. He got excited. The thing  that Charlie saw, that he’d maybe hang his head for a couple days, you could take the word mad and its more like sulked. You could see he was upset if he didn’t eat his food. The main thing is that whole barn that Lucien had, they would be right on seeing anything like that in their horses,” says Maple. “Lucien had the best help, and that’s why the stabled jibed.”

To which, Charlie Davis would say, “Thank you.”

But the old exercise rider isn’t the least deterred. “Every time he got beat,” Davis says, “he was a horse, he don’t like to work five (furlongs) much faster than a minute, but when he got beat he would work :58 or :57, and then he would set the track record. You don’t think that is smart?”

Davis and Eddie Sweat did, of course, spend all their time with Secretariat. The horse didn’t need a guard, Davis and Sweat never left him unattended. If one went for sandwiches the other stayed around. The only other soul Secretariat expected to have around was Billy Silver, the stable pony. “He always would look around, look around, and then when he would see Billy Silver he would be fine,” says Davis.

“Let me put it this way,” continues Davis. “If he could have talked he would have been a sonofagun. Me and him had a bond toward each other. He knows when I don’t feel good and I know when he don’t feel good. If I stay out late on a Friday or Saturday night and have three or four Crowns and come back late, all right then. Come the next morning I got a hangover, and he knows. He tells me just hang on, I’ll take you there. O K, that’s what I do,” Davis continues. “I just cross the reins and take hold of the yoke and he know what he’s got to do. He just gallops all the way around. I just go along, and he know just where to pull up at. Then he just watch that other horse passing him and that don’t bother him. He just turn and come back to the barn. “And if I know he don’t feel good, I don’t make him do it. I just let him take his time. So that’s how he had just as much sense as a human being.”

Maybe more.

“We all know a good racehorse is a smart racehorse,” says Chenery. “We don’t have any dumb champions. They have to want to run. You can’t force them into being dedicated to running. The horse has to ‘get it.’ ”

One thing Turcotte would certainly agree with Davis and Gaffney about was keeping the Big Horse happy. “He was a big ham,” recalls Turcotte. “Whenever he heard a camera clicking he would stop, and I would leave him stopped. If I wanted him to start moving, though, I could do that. He’d move along. He wasn’t like John Henry that if he didn’t want to move he wouldn’t, and sulk if you tried to make him. He wasn’t like that. I just let him do it because he enjoyed it. He would turn and pose. What a pleasant horse. A person had to be on him to know.”

And if self-awareness is a human quality that a horse might have, Turcotte said Secretariat certainly did know who he was. “He was a little proud of himself,” says Turcotte. “He carried his head high. I don’t know how horses think, but I would believe that he realized he was up there. That’s for the Horse Whisperer to figure out. But he knew he was something special.”

Bill Doolittle is a well-known Louisville journalist and the author of the best-selling “The Kentucky Derby: Run for the Roses,” with forward by Walter Cronkite. He compiled many of the stories and historical notes about Secretariat for this site.


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