Virginia-bred Secretariat produced a remarkable run through the 1973 Triple Crown, not only becoming the ninth horse in history to do so but setting records in each leg of the prestigious series.
Those that witnessed his Triple Crown run that year say they will never forget Secretariat’s astonishing performances. Following a stellar juvenile season in which he won seven of eight starts, including six stakes events, and was named champion 2-year-old and Horse of the Year, Secretariat won his first three starts of 1973 before finishing third in the Wood Memorial (G1) in his final Kentucky Derby (G1) prep. The Wood is typically regarded as an important prep race for the Derby. Three of the previous eight Triple Crown winners—Gallant Fox, Count Fleet and Assault—used the Wood to set them up for winning efforts in the Derby.
Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s regular rider, had no excuse for the below par effort in the Wood immediately after the race, saying at the time that “he just didn’t have his punch today.”
Fans were quick to forgive Secretariat’s third-place finish in the Wood and sent him off as the Derby favorite. Secretariat ran to his odds, defeating Sham by 2 ½ lengths. His time of 1:59 2/5 for the 1 ¼ miles set a new Derby record. He became at the time only the second juvenile champion to parlay a championship at age two to Derby glory. The first was famed Florida-bred Needles in 1956.
In the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, Secretariat again defeated Sham by 2 ½ lengths and again set a new record, running 1 3/16 miles in 1:54 2/5 in front of a Preakness record crowd of 61,657 at Pimlico Race Course.
While his winning efforts in the Triple Crown’s first two legs were plenty impressive, Secretariat had turf writers searching for superlatives following his performance in the Belmont Stakes (G1) on June 9, 1973, considered by many as the single greatest race by a horse in history.
Leading up to the Belmont Stakes, trainer Lucien Lauren sent Secretariat out for a work early one morning at Belmont that served notice of things to come in the final leg of the Triple Crown. Secretariat blazed one mile in 1:34 4/5, just 1 1/5 seconds off the track record.
“I was very confident in the way he was training,” Turcotte said during an NTRA conference call on Wednesday. “I didn’t think there was a horse in the world that could beat him.”
Turcotte was right. At 1 ½ miles, the Belmont Stakes is capable of stopping even the greatest of racehorses. Secretariat turned the track and the 105th running of the race into his own private playground. Rival Sham pressured Secretariat early, pushing him through fast early fractions of :23 3/5 and :46 1/5 before giving way. Secretariat disposed of Sham and opened up seven lengths by the time he flew by the mile marker.
Secretariat and Turcotte stretched their advantage to more than 20 lengths at the head of the lane. He widened his lead through the lane and hit the wire a jaw-dropping 31 lengths in front of Twice a Prince in second to become racing’s ninth Triple Crown winner. Secretariat’s time of 2:24 was a new track and world record for 1 ½ miles. The clocking shattered Gallant Man’s previous mark set in 1957 by 2 3/5 seconds.
Chick Anderson’s famous race call of the Belmont in which he proclaimed “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine,” will never be forgotten by racing fans and those closest to the brilliant horse.
“I’ve listened to it so often it’s engraved on my heart,” said Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery. “Winning the Triple Crown changed my life. I had been a good wife, a good mother, I was 50 years old and wanted something new and interesting and this horse came along and presented me with so many challenges and opened so many doors. He was my lifesaver.”
Turcotte, in the midst of a memorable run, also heard Anderson’s call.
“I did hear the call,” he said. “When you are alone like that, you can hear the announcer. I turned in the saddle and looked back. All I could hear was Lucien saying ‘Ron, don’t fall off.’ I chirped to him but I hadn’t really asked him to run at that point. I was very confident.”
Following the Triple Crown, Secretariat added victories in the Invitational Stakes at Arlington Park, the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap at Belmont Park and finished second to Onion in the Whitney Handicap (G2) second to Prove Out in the Woodward (G1). His connections tried him on turf to close out his season and career. He didn’t disappoint. He won the Man o’War Stakes (G1) and the Canadian International (G2), both by open lengths. At season’s end, the Triple Crown winner was Champion 3-Year-Old, Champion Grass Horse and Horse of the Year.
Secretariat, known by his legion of fans as “Big Red,” made the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. The media coverage he attracted for horse racing was unmatched before his arrival and hasn’t been experienced since.
Following his racing career, Secretariat stood stud at Claiborne Stud in Paris, Ky. As a stallion, he produced Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret and Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner Risen Star. Secretariat died in October of 1989.