In waging the most glorious Triple Crown campaign ever, Secretariat made racing history in 1973. In the doing, he took the author on an unforgettably exhilarating ride
By William Nack
SI Longform: From the Vault offers a new showcase for the most memorable stories from sports illustrated's first 60 years. Here, as California Chrome makes a bid for the 2014 Triple Crown, is William Nack’s evocative, deeply personal portrait of the greatest of racing’s champions.
Just before noon the horse was led haltingly into a van next to the stallion barn, and there a concentrated barbiturate was injected into his jugular. Forty-five seconds later there was a crash as the stallion collapsed. His body was trucked immediately to Lexington, Ky., where Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, performed the necropsy. All of the horse’s vital organs were normal in size except for the heart.
“We were all shocked,” Swerczek said. “I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”
In the late afternoon of Monday, Oct. 2, 1989, as I headed my car from the driveway of Arthur Hancock’s Stone Farm onto Winchester Road outside Paris, Ky., I was seized by an impulse as beckoning as the wind that strums through the trees down there, mingling the scents of new grass and old history.
For reasons as obscure to me then as now, I felt compelled to see Lawrence Robinson. For almost 30 years, until he suffered a stroke in March 1983, Robinson was the head caretaker of stallions at Claiborne Farm. I had not seen him since his illness, but I knew he still lived on the farm, in a small white frame house set on a hill overlooking the lush stallion paddocks and the main stallion barn. In the first stall of that barn, in the same place that was once home to the great Bold Ruler, lived Secretariat, Bold Ruler’s greatest son.
It was through Secretariat that I had met Robinson. On the bright, cold afternoon of Nov. 12, 1973, Robinson was one of several hundred people gathered at Blue Grass Airport in Lexington to greet Secretariat after his flight from New York into retirement in Kentucky. I flew with the horse that day, and as the plane banked over the field, a voice from the tower crackled over the airplane radio: “There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat than there was to greet the governor.”
“Well, he’s won more races than the governor,” pilot Dan Neff replied.
An hour later, after a van ride out the Paris Pike behind a police escort with blue lights flashing, Robinson led Secretariat onto a ramp at Claiborne and toward his sire’s old stall—out of racing and into history. For me, that final walk beneath a grove of trees, with the colt slanting like a buck through the autumn gloaming, brought to a melancholy close the richest, grandest, damnedest, most exhilarating time of my life. For eight months, first as the racing writer for Newsday of Long Island, N.Y., and then as the designated chronicler of Secretariat’s career, I had a daily front-row seat to watch the colt. I was at the barn in the morning and the racetrack in the afternoon for what turned out to be the year’s greatest show in sports, at the heart of which lay a Triple Crown performance unmatched in the history of American racing.
Sixteen years had come and gone since then, and I had never attended a Kentucky Derby or a yearling sale at Keeneland without driving out to Claiborne to visit Secretariat, often in the company of friends who had never seen him. On the long ride from Louisville, I would regale my friends with stories about the horse—how on that early morning in March of ’73 he had materialized out of the quickening blue darkness in the upper stretch at Belmont Park, his ears pinned back, running as fast as horses run; how he had lost the Wood Memorial and won the Derby, and how he had been bothered by a pigeon feather at Pimlico on the eve of the Preakness (at the end of this tale I would pluck the delicate, mashed feather out of my wallet, like a picture of my kids, to pass around the car); how on the morning of the Belmont Stakes he had burst from the barn like a stud horse going to the breeding shed and had walked around the outdoor ring on his hind legs, pawing at the sky; how he had once grabbed my notebook and refused to give it back, and how he had seized a rake in his teeth and begun raking the shed; and, finally, I told about that magical, unforgettable instant, frozen now in time, when he turned for home, appearing out of a dark drizzle at Woodbine, near Toronto, in the last race of his career, 12 lengths in front and steam puffing from his nostrils as from a factory whistle, bounding like some mythical beast of Greek lore.
Oh, I knew all the stories, knew them well, had crushed and rolled them in my hand until their quaint musk lay in the saddle of my palm. Knew them as I knew the stories of my children. Knew them as I knew the stories of my own life. Told them at dinner parties, swapped them with horseplayers as if they were trading cards, argued over them with old men and blind fools who had seen the show but missed the message. Dreamed them and turned them over like pillows in my rubbery sleep. Woke up with them, brushed my aging teeth with them, grinned at them in the mirror. Horses have a way of getting inside you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and true a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.
The story I now tell begins on that Monday afternoon last October on the macadam outside Stone Farm. I had never been to Paris, Ky., in the early fall, and I only happened to be there that day to begin an article about the Hancock family, the owners of Claiborne and Stone farms. There wasn’t a soul on the road to point the way to Robinson’s place, so I swung in and out of several empty driveways until I saw a man on a tractor cutting the lawn in front of Marchmont, Dell Hancock’s mansion. He yelled back to me: “Take a right out the drive. Go down to Claiborne House. Then a right at the driveway across the road. Go up a hill to the big black barn. Turn left and go down to the end. Lawrence had a stroke a few years back, y’know.”
The house was right where he said. I knocked on the front door, then walked behind and knocked on the back and called through a side window into a room where music was playing. No one answered. But I had time to kill, so I wandered over to the stallion paddock, just a few yards from the house. The stud Ogygian, a son of Damascus, lifted his head inquiringly. He started walking toward me, and I put my elbows on the top of the fence and looked down the gentle slope toward the stallion barn.
And suddenly there he was, Secretariat, standing outside the barn and grazing at the end of a lead shank held by groom Bobby Anderson, who was sitting on a bucket in the sun. Even from a hundred yards away, the horse appeared lighter than I had seen him in years. It struck me as curious that he was not running free in his paddock—why was Bobby grazing him?—but his bronze coat reflected the October light, and it never occurred to me that something might be wrong. But something was terribly wrong. On Labor Day, Secretariat had come down with laminitis, a life-threatening hoof disease, and here, a month later, he was still suffering from its aftershocks.
Secretariat was dying. In fact, he would be gone within 48 hours.
I briefly considered slipping around Ogygian’s paddock and dropping down to visit, but I had never entered Claiborne through the backdoor, so I thought better of it. Instead, for a full half hour, I stood by the paddock waiting for Robinson and gazing at Secretariat. The gift of reverie is a blessing divine, and it is conferred most abundantly on those who lie in hammocks or drive alone in cars. Or lean on hillside fences in Kentucky. The mind swims, binding itself to whatever flotsam comes along, to old driftwood faces and voices of the past, to places and scenes once visited, to things not seen or done but only dreamed.
It was July 4, 1972, and I was sitting in the press box at Aqueduct with Clem Florio, a former prizefighter turned Baltimore handicapper, when I glanced at the Daily Racing Form’s past performances for the second race, a 5½-furlong buzz for maiden 2-year-olds. As I scanned the pedigrees, three names leaped out: by Bold Ruler-Somethingroyal, by Princequillo. Bold Ruler was the nation’s preeminent sire, and Somethingroyal was the dam of several stakes winners, including the fleet Sir Gaylord. It was a match of royalty. Even the baby’s name seemed faintly familiar: Secretariat. Where had I heard it before? But of course! Lucien Laurin was training the colt at Belmont Park for Penny Chenery Tweedy’s Meadow Stable, making Secretariat a stablemate of that year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner, Riva Ridge.
I had seen Secretariat just a week before. I had been at the Meadow Stable barn one morning, checking on Riva Ridge, when exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney took me aside and said, “You wanna see the best-lookin’ 2-year-old you’ve ever seen?”
We padded up the shed to the colt’s stall. Gaffney stepped inside. “What do you think?” he asked. The horse looked magnificent, to be sure, a bright red chestnut with three white feet and a tapered white marking down his face. “He’s gettin’ ready,” Gaffney said. “Don’t forget the name: Secretariat. He can run.” And then, conspiratorially, Gaffney whispered, “Don’t quote me, but this horse will make them all forget Riva Ridge.”
So that is where I had first seen him, and here he was in the second at Aqueduct. I rarely bet in those days, but Secretariat was 3-1, so I put $10 on his nose. Florio and I fixed our binoculars on him and watched it all. Watched him as he was shoved sideways at the break, dropping almost to his knees, when a colt named Quebec turned left out of the gate and crashed into him. Saw him blocked in traffic down the back side and shut off again on the turn for home. Saw him cut off a second time deep in the stretch as he was making a final run. Saw him finish fourth, obviously much the best horse, beaten by only 1¼ lengths after really running but an eighth of a mile.
You should have seen Clem. Smashing his binoculars down on his desk, he leaped to his feet, banged his chair against the wall behind him, threw a few punches in the air and bellowed, “Secretariat! That’s my Derby horse for next year!”
Two weeks later, when the colt raced to his first victory by six, Florio announced to all the world, “Secretariat will win the Triple Crown next year.” He nearly got into a fistfight in the Aqueduct press box that day when Mannie Kalish, a New York handicapper, chided him for making such an outrageously bold assertion: “Ah, you Maryland guys, you come to New York and see a horse break his maiden and think he’s another Citation. We see horses like Secretariat all the time. I bet he don’t even run in the Derby.” Stung by the put-down “you Maryland guys,” Florio came forward and stuck his finger into Kalish’s chest, but two writers jumped between them, and they never came to blows.
The Secretariat phenomenon, with all the theater and passion that would attend it, had begun. Florio was right, of course, and by the end of Secretariat’s 2-year-old season, everyone else who had seen him perform knew it. All you had to do was watch the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga. I was at the races that August afternoon with Arthur Kennedy, an old-time racetracker and handicapper who had been around the horses since the 1920s, and even he had never seen anything quite like it. Dropping back to dead last out of the gate, Secretariat trailed eight horses into the far turn, where jockey Ron Turcotte swung him to the outside. Three jumps past the half-mile pole the colt exploded. “Now he’s runnin’!” Kennedy said.
You could see the blue-and-white silks as they disappeared behind one horse, reappeared in a gap between horses, dropped out of sight again and finally reemerged as Secretariat powered to the lead off the turn. He dashed from last to first in 290 yards, blazing through a quarter in :22, and galloped home in a laugher to win by six. It was a performance with style, touched by art. “I’ve never seen a 2-year-old do that,” Kennedy said quietly. “He looked like a 4-year-old out there.”
So that was when I knew. The rest of Secretariat’s 2-year-old campaign—in which he lost only once, in the Champagne Stakes, when he was disqualified from first to second after bumping Stop the Music at the top of the stretch—was simply a mopping-up operation. At year’s end, so dominant had he been that he became the first 2-year-old to be unanimously voted Horse of the Year.
Secretariat wintered at Hialeah, preparing for the Triple Crown, while I shoveled snow in Huntington, N.Y., waiting for him to race again. In February, 23-year-old Seth Hancock, the new president of Claiborne Farm, announced that he had syndicated the colt as a future breeding stallion for $6.08 million, then a world record, in 32 shares at $190,000 a share, making the 1,154-pound horse worth more than three times his weight in gold. (Bullion was selling at the time for $90 an ounce.) Like everyone else, I thought Secretariat would surely begin his campaign in Florida, and I did not expect to see him again until the week before the Kentucky Derby. I was browsing through a newspaper over breakfast one day when I saw a news dispatch whose message went through me like a current. Secretariat would be arriving soon to begin his Triple Crown campaign by way of the three New York prep races: the Bay Shore, the Gotham and the Wood Memorial Stakes.
“Hot damn!” I blurted to my family. “Secretariat is coming to New York!”
At the time I had in mind doing a diary about the horse, a chronicle of the adventures of a Triple Crown contender, which I thought might one day make a magazine piece. The colt arrived at Belmont Park on March 10, and the next day I was there at 7 a.m., scribbling notes in a pad. For the next 40 days, in what became a routine, I would fall out of bed at 6 a.m., make a cup of instant coffee, climb into my rattling green Toyota and drive the 20 miles to Belmont Park. I had gotten to know the Meadow Stable family—Tweedy, Laurin, Gaffney, groom Eddie Sweat, assistant trainer Henny Hoeffner—in my tracking of Riva Ridge the year before, and I had come to feel at home around Belmont’s Barn 5, particularly around stall 7. Secretariat’s place. I took no days off, except one morning to hide Easter eggs, and I spent hours sitting on the dusty floor outside Secretariat’s stall, talking to Sweat as he turned a rub rag on the colt, filled his water bucket, bedded his stall with straw, kept him in hay and oats. I took notes compulsively, endlessly, feeling for the texture of the life around the horse.
A typical page of scribblings went like this: “Sweat talks to colt ... easy, Red, I’m comin’ in here now ... stop it, Red! You behave now ... Sweat moves around colt. Brush in hand. Flicks off dust. Secretariat sidesteps and pushes Sweat. Blue Sky. Henny comes up, ‘How’s he doin’, Eddie?’ ‘He’s gettin’ edgy.’ ... Easy Sunday morning.”
Secretariat was an amiable, gentlemanly colt, with a poised and playful nature that at times made him seem as much a pet as the stable dog was. I was standing in front of his stall one morning, writing, when he reached out, grabbed my notebook in his teeth and sank back inside, looking to see what I would do. “Give the man his notebook back!” yelled Sweat. As the groom dipped under the webbing. Secretariat dropped the notebook on the bed of straw.
Another time, after raking the shed, Sweat leaned the handle of the rake against the stall webbing and turned to walk away. Secretariat seized the handle in his mouth and began pushing and pulling it across the floor. “Look at him rakin’ the shed!” cried Sweat. All up and down the barn. laughter fluttered like the pigeons in the stable caves as the colt did a passable imitation of his own groom.
By his personality and temperament. Secretariat became the most engaging character in the barn. His own stable pony, a roan named Billy Silver, began an unrequited love affair with him. “He loves Secretariat, but Secretariat don’t pay any attention to him,” Sweat said one day. “If Billy sees you grazin’ Secretariat. he’ll go to hollerin’ until you bring him out. Secretariat just ignores him. Kind of sad, really.” One morning, I was walking beside Hoeffner through the shed, with Gaffney and Secretariat ahead of us, when Billy stuck his head out of his jerry-built stall and nuzzled the colt as he went by.
Hoeffner did a double take. “Jimmy!” he yelled. “Is that pony botherin’ the big horse?”
“Nah,” said Jimmy. “He’s just smellin’ him a little.”
Hoeffner’s eyes widened. Spinning around on his heels, jabbing a finger in the air, he bellowed. “Get the pony out of here! I don’t want him smellin’ the big horse.”
Leaning on his rake, Sweat laughed softly and said, “Poor Billy Silver. He smelled the wrong horse!”
I remember wishing that those days could breeze on forever—the mornings over coffee and doughnuts at the truck outside the barn, the hours spent watching the red colt walk to the track and gallop once around, the days absorbing the rhythms of the life around the horse. I had been following racehorses since I was 12, back in the days of Native Dancer, and now I was an observer on an odyssey, a quest for the Triple Crown. It had been 25 years since Citation had won racing’s Holy Grail. But for me the adventure really began in the early morning of March 14, when Laurin lifted Turcotte aboard Secretariat and said, “Let him roll, Ronnie.”
The colt had filled out substantially since I had last seen him under tack, in the fall, and he looked like some medieval charger—his thick neck bowed and his chin drawn up beneath its mass, his huge shoulders shifting as he strode, his coat radiant and his eyes darting left and right. He was walking to the track for his final workout, a three-eighths-of-a-mile drill designed to light the fire in him for the seven-furlong Bay Shore Stakes three days later. Laurin, Tweedy and I went to the clubhouse fence near the finish line, where we watched and waited as Turcotte headed toward the pole and let Secretariat rip. Laurin clicked his stopwatch.
The colt was all by himself through the lane, and the sight and sound of him racing toward us is etched forever in memory: Turcotte was bent over him, his jacket blown up like a parachute, and the horse was reaching out with his forelegs in that distinctive way he had, raising them high and then, at the top of the lift, snapping them out straight and with tremendous force, the snapping hard as bone, the hooves striking the ground and folding it beneath him. Laurin clicked his watch as Secretariat raced under the wire. “Oh, my god!” he cried. “Thirty-three and three fifths!” Horses rarely break 34 seconds in three-furlong moves.
Looking ashen, fearing the colt might have gone too fast, Laurin headed for the telephone under the clubhouse to call the upstairs clocker, Jules Watson: “Hello there, Jules. How fast did you get him?”
I watched Laurin’s face grow longer as he listened, until he looked thunderstruck: “Thirty-two and three fifths?” A full second faster than Laurin’s own clocking, it was the fastest three-furlong workout I had ever heard of. Tweedy smiled cheerily and said, “Well, that ought to open his pipes!”
Oh, it did that. Three days later, blocked by a wall of horses in the Bay Shore, Secretariat plunged through like a fullback, 220 yards from the wire, and bounded off to win the race by 4½ lengths. I could hear a man screaming behind me. I turned and saw Roger Laurin, Lucien’s son, raising his arms in the air and shouting. “He’s too much horse! They can’t stop him. They can’t even stop him with a wall of horses!”
I had ridden horses during my youth in Morton Grove, Ill., and I remember one summer I took a little black bullet of a thoroughbred filly out of the barn and walked her to the track that rimmed the polo field across Golf Road. I had been to the races a few times, had seen the jockeys ride, and I wanted to feel what it was like. So I hitched up my stirrups and galloped her around the east turn, standing straight up. Coming off the turn, I dropped into a crouch and clucked to her. She took off’ like a sprinter leaving the blocks—swoooosh!—and the wind started whipping in my eyes. I could feel the tears streaming down my face, and then I looked down and saw her knees pumping like pistons. I didn’t think she would make the second turn, the woods were looming ahead, big trees coming up, and so I leaned a little to the left, and she made the turn before she started pulling up. No car ever took me on a ride like that. And no roller coaster, either. Running loose, without rails, she gave me the wildest, most thrilling ride I had ever had.
And there was nothing like the ride that Secretariat gave me in the 12 weeks from the Bay Shore through the Belmont Stakes. Three weeks after the Bay Shore, Turcotte sent the colt to the lead down the backstretch in the one-mile Gotham. It looked like they were going to get beat when Champagne Charlie drove to within a half length at the top of the stretch—I held my breath—but Turcotte sent Secretariat on, and the colt pulled away to win by three, tying the track record of 1:33⅖.
By then I had begun visiting Charles Hatton, a columnist for the Daily Racing Form who the previous summer had proclaimed Secretariat the finest physical specimen he had ever seen. At 67, Hatton had seen them all. After my morning work was over, I would trudge up to Hatton’s private aerie at Belmont Park and tell him what I had learned. I was his backstretch eyes, he my personal guru. One morning Hatton told me that Secretariat had galloped a quarter mile past the finish line at the Gotham, and the clockers had timed him pulling up at 1:59⅖, three fifths of a second faster than Northern Dancer’s Kentucky Derby record for 1¼ miles.
“This sucker breaks records pulling up,” Hatton said. “He might be the best racehorse I ever saw. Better than Man o’ War.”
Those were giddy, heady days coming to the nine-furlong Wood Memorial, the colt’s last major prep before the Kentucky Derby. On the day of the Wood, I drove directly to Aqueduct and spent the hour before the race in the receiving barn with Sweat, exercise rider Charlie Davis and Secretariat. When the voice over the loudspeaker asked the grooms to ready their horses. Sweat approached the colt with the bridle. Secretariat always took the bit easily, opening his mouth when Sweat moved to fit it in, but that afternoon it took Sweat a full five minutes to bridle him. Secretariat threw his nose in the air, backed up, shook his head. After a few minutes passed, I asked, “What’s wrong with him, Eddie?”
Sweat brushed it off: “He’s just edgy.”
In fact, just that morning. Dr. Manuel Oilman, the track veterinarian, had lifted the colt’s upper lip to check his identity tattoo and had discovered a painful abscess about the size of a quarter. Laurin decided to run Secretariat anyway—the colt needed the race—but he never told anyone else about the boil. Worse than the abscess, though, was the fact that Secretariat had had the feeblest workout of his career four days earlier when Turcotte, seeing a riderless horse on the track, had slowed the colt to protect him from a collision. Secretariat finished the mile that day in 1:42⅖, five seconds slower than Laurin wanted him to go. Thus he came to the Wood doubly compromised.
The race was a disaster. Turcotte held the colt back early, but when he tried to get Secretariat to pick up the bit and run. he got no response. I could see at the far turn that the horse was dead. He never made a race of it, struggling to finish third, beaten by four lengths by his own stablemate, Angle Light, and by Sham. Standing near the owner’s box, I saw Laurin turn to Tweedy and yell, “Who won it?”
“You won it!” Tweedy told him.
“Angle Light won it,” I said to him.
“Angle Light?” he howled back.
But of course! Laurin trained him, too, and so Laurin had just won the Wood, but with the wrong horse.
I was sick. All those hours at the barn, all those early mornings at the shed, all that time and energy for naught. And in the most important race of his career. Secretariat had come up as hollow as a gourd. The next two weeks were among the most agonizing of my life. As great a stallion as he was, Bold Ruler had been essentially a speed sire and had never produced a single winner of a Triple Crown race. I couldn’t help but suspect that Secretariat was another Bold Ruler, who ran into walls beyond a mile. In the next two weeks Churchill Downs became a nest of rumors that Secretariat was unsound. Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder caused an uproar when he said the colt had a bum knee that was being treated with ice packs. I knew that wasn’t true. I had been around Secretariat all spring, and the most ice I had seen near him was in a glass of tea.
All I could hope for, in those final days before the Derby, was that the colt had been suffering from a bellyache on the day of the Wood and had not been up to it. I remained ignorant of the abscess for weeks, and I had not yet divined the truth about Secretariat’s training: He needed hard, blistering workouts before he ran, and that slow mile before the Wood had been inadequate. The night before the Derby, I made my selections for the newspaper, and the next day, two hours before post time, I climbed the stairs to the Churchill Downs jockeys’ room to see Turcotte. He greeted me in an anteroom, looking surprisingly relaxed. Gilman had taken him aside a few days earlier and told him of the abscess. Turcotte saw that the boil had been treated and had disappeared. The news had made him euphoric, telling him all he needed to know about the Wood.
“You nervous?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t think you’ll win,” I said. “I picked My Gallant and Sham one-two, and you third.”
“I’ll tell you something,” Turcotte said. “I’ll beat these horses if he runs his race.”
“What about the Wood?” I asked.
He shook me off. “I don’t believe the Wood,” he said. “I’m telling you. Something was wrong. But he’s O.K. now. That’s all I can tell you.”
I shook his hand, wished him luck and left. Despite what Turcotte had said, I was resigned to the worst, and Secretariat looked hopelessly beaten as the field of 13 dashed past the finish line the first time. He was dead last. Transfixed, I could not take my eyes off him. In the first turn Turcotte swung him to the outside, and Secretariat began passing horses, and down the back side I watched the jockey move him boldly from eighth to seventh to sixth. Secretariat was fifth around the far turn and gaining fast on the outside. I began chanting, “Ride him, Ronnie! Ride him!” Sham was in front, turning for home, but then there was Secretariat, joining him at the top of the stretch. Laffit Pincay, on Sham, glanced over and saw Secretariat and went to the whip. Turcotte lashed Secretariat. The two raced head and head for 100 yards, until gradually Secretariat pulled away. He won by 2½ lengths. The crowd roared, and I glanced at the tote board: 1:59⅖! A new track and Derby record.
Throwing decorum to the wind, I vaulted from my seat and dashed madly through the press box, jubilantly throwing a fist in the air. Handicapper Steve Davidowitz came racing toward me from the other end. We clasped arms and spun a jig in front of the copy machine. “Unbelievable!” Davidowitz cried.
I bounded down a staircase, three steps at a time. Turcotte had dismounted and was crossing the racetrack when I reached him. “What a ride!” I yelled.
“What did I tell you, Mr. Bill?” he said.
I had just witnessed the greatest Kentucky Derby performance of all time. Secretariat’s quarter-mile splits were unprecedented—:25⅕, :24, :23⅘, :23⅖ and :23. He ran each quarter faster than the preceding one. Not even the most veteran race-tracker could recall a horse who had done this in a mile-and-a-quarter race. As quickly as his legions (I among them) had abandoned him following the Wood, so did they now proclaim Secretariat a superhorse.
We all followed him to Pimlico for the Preakness two weeks later, and he trained as if he couldn’t get enough of it. He thrived on work and the racetrack routine. Most every afternoon, long after the crowds had dispersed, Sweat would graze the colt on a patch of grass outside the shed, then lead him back into his stall and while away the hours doing chores. One afternoon I was folded in a chair outside the colt’s stall when Secretariat came to the door shaking his head and stretching his neck, curling his upper lip like a camel does. “What’s botherin’ you, Red?” Sweat asked. The groom stepped forward, plucked something off the colt’s whiskers and blew it into the air. “Just a pigeon feather itchin’ him,” said Sweat. The feather floated into the palm of my hand. So it ended up in my wallet, along with the $2 pari-mutuel ticket that I had on Secretariat to win the Preakness.
In its own way Secretariat’s performance in the 13⁄16-mile Preakness was even more brilliant than his race in the Derby. He dropped back to last out of the gate, but as the field dashed into the first turn, Turcotte nudged his right rein as subtly as a man adjusting his cuff, and the colt took off like a flushed deer. The turns at Pimlico are tight, and it had always been considered suicidal to take the first bend too fast, but Secretariat sprinted full-bore around it. and by the time he turned into the back side, he was racing to the lead. Here Turcotte hit the cruise control. Sham gave chase in vain, and Secretariat coasted home to win by 2½. The electric timer malfunctioned, and Pimlico eventually settled on 1:54⅖ as the official time, but two Daily Racing Form clockers caught Secretariat in 1:53⅖, a track record by three fifths of a second.*
* see caption above for explanation of Secretariat's revised time.
I can still see Clem Florio shaking his head in disbelief. He had seen thousands of Pimlico races and dozens of Preaknesses but never anything like this. “Horses don’t do what he did here today,” he kept saying. “They just don’t do that and win.”
Secretariat wasn’t just winning. He was performing like an original, making it all up as he went along. And everything was moving so fast, so unexpectedly, that I was having trouble keeping a perspective on it. Not three months before, after less than a year of working as a turf writer, I had started driving to the racetrack to see this one horse. For weeks I was often the only visitor there, and on many afternoons it was just Sweat, the horse and me in the fine dust with the pregnant stable cat. And then came the Derby and the Preakness, and two weeks later the colt graced the covers of time, sports illustrated and Newsweek, and he was a staple of the morning and evening news. Secretariat suddenly transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.
I threw myself with a passion into that final week before the Belmont. Out to the barn every morning, home late at night, I became almost manic. The night before the race I called Laurin at home, and we talked for a long while about the horse and the Belmont. I kept wondering, What is Secretariat going to do for an encore? Laurin said. “I think he’s going to win by more than he has ever won in his life. I think he’ll win by 10.”
I slept at the Newsday offices that night, and at 2 a.m. I drove to Belmont Park to begin my vigil at the barn. I circled around to the back of the shed, lay down against a tree and fell asleep. I awoke to the crowing of a cock and watched as the stable workers showed up. At 6:07 Hoeffner strode into the shed, looked at Secretariat and called out to Sweat, “Get the big horse ready! Let’s walk him about 15 minutes.”
Sweat slipped into the stall, put the lead shank on Secretariat and handed it to Charlie Davis, who led the colt to the outdoor walking ring. In a small stable not 30 feet away, pony girl Robin Edelstein knocked a water bucket against the wall. Secretariat, normally a docile colt on a shank, rose up on his hind legs, pawing at the sky, and started walking in circles. Davis cowered below, as if beneath a thunderclap, snatching at the chain and begging the horse to come down. Secretariat floated back to earth. He danced around the ring as if on springs, his nostrils flared and snorting, his eyes rimmed in white.
Unaware of the scene she was causing, Edelstein rattled the bucket again, and Secretariat spun in a circle, bucked and leaped in the air, kicking and spraying cinders along the walls of the pony barn. In a panic Davis tugged at the shank, and the horse went up again, higher and higher, and Davis bent back, yelling, “Come on down! Come on down!”
I stood in awe. I had never seen a horse so fit. The Derby and Preakness had wound him as tight as a watch, and he seemed about to burst out of his coat. I had no idea what to expect that day in the Belmont, with him going a mile and a half, but I sensed we would see more of him than we had ever seen before.
Secretariat ran flat into legend, started running right out of the gate and never stopped, ran poor Sham into defeat around the first turn and down the backstretch and sprinted clear, opening two lengths, four, then five. He dashed to the three-quarter pole in 1:09⅘, the fastest six-furlong clocking in Belmont history. I dropped my head and cursed Turcotte: What is he thinking about? Has he lost his mind? The colt raced into the far turn, opening seven lengths past the half-mile pole. The timer flashed his astonishing mile mark: 1:34⅕!
I was seeing it but not believing it. Secretariat was still sprinting. The four horses behind him disappeared. He opened 10. Then 12. Halfway around the turn he was 14 in front ... 15 ... 16 ... 17. Belmont Park began to shake. The whole place was on its feet. Turning for home, Secretariat was 20 in front, having run the mile and a quarter in 1:59 flat, faster than his Derby time.
He came home alone. He opened his lead to 25 ... 26 ... 27 ... 28. As rhythmic as a rocking horse, he never missed a beat. I remember seeing Turcotte look over to the timer, and I looked over, too. It was blinking 2:19, 2:20. The record was 2:26⅗. Turcotte scrubbed on the colt, opening 30 lengths, finally 31. The clock flashed crazily: 2:22 ... 2:23. The place was one long, deafening roar. The colt seemed to dive for the finish, snipping it clean at 2:24.
I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts and there yielded a part of myself to that horse forever.
I didn’t see Lawrence Robinson that day last October. The next morning I returned to Claiborne to interview Seth Hancock. On my way through the farm’s offices, I saw one of the employees crying at her desk. Treading lightly. I passed farm manager John Sosby’s office. I stopped, and he called me in. He looked like a chaplain whose duty was to tell the news to the victim’s family.
“Have you heard about Secretariat?” he asked quietly.
I felt the skin tighten on the back of my neck. “Heard what?” I asked. “Is he all right?”
“We might lose the horse.” Sosby said. “He came down with laminitis last month. We thought we had it under control, but he took a bad turn this morning. He’s a very sick horse. He may not make it.
“By the way, why are you here?”
I had thought I knew, but now I wasn’t sure.
Down the hall, sitting at his desk. Hancock appeared tired, despairing and anxious, a man facing a decision he didn’t want to make. What Sosby had told me was just beginning to sink in. “What’s the prognosis?” I asked.
“Ten days to two weeks,” Hancock said.
“Two weeks? Are you serious?” I blurted.
“You asked me the question,” he said.
I sank back in my chair. “I’m not ready for this,” I told him.
“How do you think I feel?” he said. “Ten thousand people come to this farm every year, and all they want to see is Secretariat. They don’t give a hoot about the other studs. You want to know who Secretariat is in human terms? Just imagine the greatest athlete in the world. The greatest. Now make him six-foot-three, the perfect height. Make him real intelligent and kind. And on top of that, make him the best-lookin’ guy ever to come down the pike. He was all those things as a horse. He isn’t even a horse anymore. He’s a legend. So how do you think I feel?”
Before I left I asked Hancock to call me in Lexington if he decided to put the horse down. We agreed to meet at his mother’s house the next morning. “By the way, can I see him?” I asked.
“I’d rather you not,” he said. I told Hancock I had been to Robinson’s house the day before, and I had seen Secretariat from a distance, grazing. “That’s fine.” Hancock said. “Remember him how you saw him, that way. He doesn’t look good.”
Secretariat was suffering the intense pain in the hooves that is common to laminitis. That morning Anderson had risen at dawn to check on the horse, and Secretariat had lifted his head and nickered very loudly. “It was like he was beggin’ me for help,” Anderson would later recall.
I left Claiborne stunned. That night I made a dozen phone calls to friends, telling them the news, and I sat up late, dreading the next day. I woke up early and went to breakfast and came back to the room. The message light was dark. It was Wednesday, Oct. 4. I drove out to Dell Hancock’s place in Paris. “It doesn’t look good,” she said. We had talked for more than an hour when Seth, looking shaken and pale, walked through the front door. “I’m afraid to ask,” I said.
“It’s very bad,” he said. “We’re going to have to put him down today.”
He did not answer. I left the house, and an hour later I was back in my room in Lexington. I had just taken off my coat when I saw it, the red blinking light on my phone. I knew. I walked around the room. Out the door and down the hall. Back into the room. Out the door and around the block. Back into the room. Out the door and down to the lobby. Back into the room. I called sometime after noon. “Claiborne Farm called,” said the message operator.
I phoned Annette Covault, an old friend who is the mare booker at Claiborne, and she was crying when she read the message: “Secretariat was euthanized at 11:45 a.m. today to prevent further suffering from an incurable condition....”
The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine’s Day 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died. At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Now here I was in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.