When Secretariat was beaten in such mystifying fashion by Angle Light and Sham in the Wood Memorial three weeks ago, the axiom was recalled: "If a horse is great, you won't have to say, 'Throw that last race out.' The great ones never need that kind of excuse."
After the happening' at Churchill Downs last week, the old saw may need revising. Secretariat—and his team of Owner Penny Tweedy, Trainer Lucien Laurin and Jockey Ron Turcotte—were gloriously redeemed. No colt in history ever picked a better time or place to line up his opponents and mow them down, one by one, with brutal effectiveness. Before the largest crowd to see a horse race in this country (a squirming, screaming and sweating 134, 476), Secretariat threw a 23-second final quarter at his "grudge" rival Sham and won the 99th Kentucky Derby in the track-record time of 1:59[2/5]. Crossing the finish line, the magnificent chestnut drew a roar of approval. The 3-to-2 favorite on a perfect May day had helped stimulate nearly $8 million into the mutuel windows (including $3,284,962 on the Derby alone). As Turcotte rode back to the winner's circle, doffing his blue cap, the prerace doubters muttered, "Wood Memorial? Throw that race out. We've seen greatness today."
They had. Some Derbies are so fraught with traffic problems or nuisance incidents that it seems every horse in the race but the winner goes back to the barn with a tiresome excuse. And the colts' jockeys and trainers spend the two weeks until Preakness Day boring everyone with all sorts of ear-bending nonsense. Well, it can't happen this year, for Secretariat's Derby was free of serious incidents (the usual minor bumping on the clubhouse turn affected the outcome not a whit), and the only apology the beaten can offer is that they happened to be contemporaries of a special and thrilling animal. Certainly it can't be said that Sham, the Santa Anita Derby winner, didn't run his race. In March he had turned in the fastest mile and an eighth (1:47) of any horse in America this year. And, in finishing 2½ lengths behind Secretariat at Louisville, he ran the mile and a quarter in less than two minutes, good enough to have won any other Kentucky Derby, for he broke Northern Dancer's 1964 Derby record of two minutes flat. His owner, Sigmund Sommer, dazedly and sportingly admitted after the race, "Secretariat won it fair and square."
Things did not always sound so fair and square around Barn 42 during Derby Week. Heavily guarded—the shed row looked like Stalag 17—Barn 42 was home to most of the Derby's "name" horses. At one end were Lucien Laurin and his two colts, Secretariat and Wood Memorial winner Angle Light. "I've got Secretariat in the same stall, No. 21, as I had Riva Ridge in before his Derby win last year. I'm in the same room, No. 413, at the Executive Inn as last year, and on Derby Day I'd wear the same suit and tie if I could remember what they were," said Laurin in one of the week's rare moments of levity. At the other end of Barn 42 was the enemy camp of Trainer Pancho Martin and Sham. Martin was garrulous and confident. He focused not so much on extolling the ability of Sham but on leveling a continuing and childish series of personal abuses at Laurin. This created a needless, awkward and embarrassing situation, since Pancho Martin, who has been an acquaintance of Lucien's for more than 15 years, knows as well as anyone around the racetrack that while Laurin occasionally is guilty of talking before thinking, he is a man without meanness. "Never in my life have I intended to say anything nasty about another person," says Laurin. "This whole thing is ridiculous, and I don't like it."
And so, while Martin held court outside of Sham's stall, looking down toward Laurin's end and telling everyone who came to call that "Lucien is always having excuses when he gets beaten," Laurin was concentrating on doing more training and less talking. He stayed away from traditional press functions, which is unlike him, and spent far less time than usual playing host to the press at his end of the barn.
There was pressure to contend with. Winning a first Derby is nerve-racking. Trying to do it two years in a row—and with a horse owned by a carload of breeders who have paid $6 million at $190,000 a share—causes added pressure. (Though Mrs. Tweedy is the principal owner of Secretariat, the Bold Ruler colt has 28 other stockholders.) "I've never been through anything like this in my life," groaned Laurin more than once during Derby Week. "First I get the bit about Bold Rulers not being able to go a mile and a quarter. Then, people say my horse has bad knees and won't even start in the race. A few drops of blood came out of Angle Light's nose on Friday morning, nothing serious at all, and total strangers tell me they hear he's to be scratched."
By Derby afternoon Laurin was so jumpy that he took momentary refuge in the office of Racing Secretary Doc Lavin. Churchill Downs had been receiving calls from New York requesting confirmation of rumors that both Angle Light and Secretariat were Derby scratches. "What's going on, Doc?" asked a tired and puzzled Laurin. "Nothing, really," replied Lavin. "It's the Derby, you know, and anything can happen."
What would happen in the race itself, many thought, was that Secretariat would make liars of his critics by winning big or he would run well for a mile or so and then finish, say, fourth, just like his daddy. Secretariat would not be beaten by a nose or a head. With him, it would be all or nothing.
And it was a magnificent all. Everyone in Louisville, from professional handicappers to the engine room crew of the Belle of Louisville, knew that the sprinter, Shecky Greene, would go to the lead and hold it as long as he could. He did just that, breaking from the No. 11 stall in the 13-horse field and cutting over smartly to the rail as the colts thundered by the stands the first time. Jockey Laffit Pincay had gotten Sham away perfectly, and after being fifth at the start he moved into third. Secretariat broke with the field but immediately took himself back so far that soon he was running head and head with Warbucks in last place. Shecky Greene reeled off steady fractions—:23[2/5] for the first quarter, :47[2/5] for the first half mile, 1:11[4/5] for six furlongs. When weariness overtook Shecky it was Sham who elected to lead the parade. He hit the mile in 1:36[1/5] with a lead of less than a length. But now it was not a tiring Shecky Greene in second place but Secretariat, who had moved beautifully from sixth midway up the backstretch into a long steady drive leaving the half-mile pole. "He was doing everything on his own," Turcotte noted later. "I never asked him to run. He wanted to. So after we got around the clubhouse turn I just eased him out and figured I'd take a chance on losing ground on the rest of the turns. He felt from the start as though he was running well enough to win." Sham, on the inside, and Secretariat, going almost over-cautiously wide, swung past the quarter pole at the head of the long Churchill Downs stretch. The handsome colts stormed toward the wire, running the next furlong as a phenomenal team, but approaching the eighth pole it was apparent that Sham had met more than his match. Secretariat, brilliantly hand-ridden by Turcotte, inched away from his rival, and although Sham was running a race of remarkable distinction (he lost part of two teeth by banging his head against the starting gate), Secretariat's performance was more. That final quarter in 23 seconds was faster than Shecky Greene's first quarter and the final time of 1:59[2/5] was not all that far off the world record of 1:58[1/5] set by Noor on a rock-hard California track in 1950 and equaled by Quack at Hollywood Park last season. None of the rest of the Derby field threatened. The Flamingo winner, Our Native, closed well to finish third but he was eight lengths behind Sham. Behind him, in order, came Forego, Restless Jet, Shecky Greene, Navajo, Royal and Regal, My Gallant, Angle Light, Gold Bag, Twice a Prince and Warbucks.
Although Derbies have been won before in consecutive years by individuals, this marked the first time that the same owner-breeder, trainer and jockey had accomplished the feat. As the victors celebrated, their concerns of the past couple of weeks eased and smiles and laughter appeared again. The late Arthur (Bull) Hancock is a man who might have enjoyed this Derby as much as anyone. It was Hancock, the most influential breeder of the past few decades, who stood Bold Ruler at his Claiborne Stud in Paris, Ky. Hancock also bred Sham (who was sold for $200,000 to Sommer after Hancock's death last fall). Sham's sire, Pretense, is at stud at Claiborne, as is Forli, the sire of fourth-place finisher Forego. Princequillo, sire of the dams of both Secretariat and Sham, was another Claiborne stallion.
After watching Secretariat paraded off to the happy end of Barn 42, Penny Tweedy sighed, "Well, that's one Bold Ruler who can go the distance." When Lucien Laurin was asked if he had any thoughts about Pancho Martin now, he replied, "He's a wonderful trainer." Laurin thought about that for a moment and then added, with a twinkle, "and he should be made to pay the man who gave the information to Jimmy the Greek that Secretariat had a bad knee."
So it could be that Secretariat's mind was wandering on the day of the Wood Memorial, after all. Or that he had a bellyache. Or that he plain didn't feel like running. And you can throw out that race, despite the axiom. "I'll never understand what happened to him," said Laurin, "but he made up for everything today, all in less than two minutes."
Laurin had a distant look in his eyes as he continued: "I've got a half-brother to Secretariat and a half-brother to Riva Ridge. They are 2-year-olds. As God is my judge, either one—or both—might be better than Secretariat...."
Hold it. Hold it. When Laurin starts talking again, without thinking, you know everything's just fine with him and Penny Tweedy's Meadow Stable. Until the 100th Derby Day, that is.