It was just about what everybody expected. Penny Tweedy and her trainer, Lucien Laurin, brought the great horse to the Midwest, keeping their promise to let the people watch him run, and he performed as he should have. Perhaps there were a few moments of worry—but largely for the overly superstitious. Secretariat was trying for his 13th win, and Arlington Park, in the northwest area of Chicago, is known as the ""Graveyard of Favorites." It was there that four famed horses coming off victories in some or all of the Triple Crown races—Twenty Grand, Johnstown, Whirlaway and Iron Liege—were upset.
Secretariat's start in last week's $125,000 Invitational was poor; a stutter-step as he came out of the gate put him off last behind his three opponents—My Gallant, Our Native and Blue Chip Dan. But before the horses even turned up the backstretch, Jockey Ron Turcotte had moved Secretariat into the lead. By the half-mile pole the l-to-20 favorite had settled into that absolutely steady motion of a racehorse in high gear, smooth and clean, and behind him the competition began hobby-horsing, like boats bouncing in a wake, and he came home nine lengths in front of a weary My Gallant. His time was 1:47, just one-fifth of a second off the track record for the mile and an eighth. With a better start, a horse to press him and less bow to his turns, Secretariat might have posted a time that would have stood for a century.
The largest Arlington crowd in three decades—41,223—was on hand for the exhibition, and there was constant applause from the moment the horse appeared on the track. There were many young people on hand, including college girls with bare midriffs and painful-looking sunburns, and in the infield, opened for the first time in memory, bands played, a large group had a beer keg set on a wheelchair, and as Secretariat turned into the stretch the infield crowd roared him home and hundreds of arms shot up in the power salute.
Once again, racing has a people's horse. Man o' War was the first of these. As one of the obituaries said of him when he died 25 years ago: "He touched the imagination of men, and they saw different things in him. But one thing they will all remember, that he brought an exaltation into their hearts."
July 8, 1973
Since then the idols of racing fans often have been thoroughbreds who seemed to have emerged from nowhere...like Stymie of the '40s, the claimer from nonillustrious parents (his 10 closest relatives won a total of $1,615), whose habit was to study the crowds on his way to the starting gate, and whose eventual winnings totaled almost a million dollars; or little Carry Back, the product of two nondescripts named Saggy and Joppy, and yet his stretch runs left racing men heady; or Silky Sullivan, with an equivalent background, the flash-in-the-pan Western horse who came out of the starting gate as if answering a doorbell at two a.m., and who introduced the split screen to television race viewing because his stretch drives started from so far back (31½ lengths to win in the Santa Anita Derby) that a special camera was used to keep an eye on him; and more recently Canonero II, the big copper colt who was sold for $1,200 as a yearling and was brought from Venezuela by three men who couldn't speak English and shouted "viva!" into anything that looked like a microphone as their horse won two legs of the Triple Crown before going lame and failing in the third.
Who were some of the others? Tom Fool, whom Marianne Moore wrote poetry about. Native Dancer, the first equine television star, whose light gray stood out on the screens as he mugged for the cameras, rearing in the winner's circle. An intelligent, playful animal, the country knew him as "The Dancer," and through the 19 years he has been retired to stud he has continued to receive fan letters, especially on Valentine's Day ("Native Dancer, I love you"). And Kelso, the plain, smallish gelding who was Horse-of-the-Year for five straight campaigns (1960-1964), running in the handicaps with the weights piled on him until at the end he must have felt he was pulling a garden roller out of the starting gate.
Sometimes it was a physical characteristic that caught the public's eye and extended the horse's popularity—the odd deformed left forefoot of Assault that got him nicknamed "The Club-Footed Comet," or the simple visual delight of Whirlaway's long tail that reached below his fetlocks and streamed far behind him when he ran.
But what about this newest name on the list—why this enormous affection and adulation for Secretariat? Not the oldest hand at Belmont could recall such a welter of noise as came out of the stands when he won the Triple Crown—a particular phenomenon since a frenzy of that sort is usually produced by a close race, a pack of horses coming down the stretch with everyone yelling for his favorite. But at Belmont, Secretariat was miles in front—and yet there was ear-splitting bedlam. The tumult seemed to buoy Secretariat along, speeding him toward the finish like the crest of a wave carries the surfer, and he had his extraordinary record, knocking 2[3/5] seconds off the time for the mile and a half.
Such was the exhilaration at Belmont that even the jockeys on the losing horses were caught up in it. They joked and carried on after the race, intoxicated by what had happened, as if they were pleased, even though vanquished, to have been identified with Secretariat's historic triumph.
Perhaps it can be said that one of the reasons for these outbursts of affection is that Secretariat has provided a necessary tonic at a time when so much of sport, beginning with the horror of the Olympics, has seemed caught up in the complex throes of power plays, and personality thrusts, and venality, and hints of scandal and fraud—all of it a reflection of the national scene where heroic qualities seem at a minimum. In a sporting event where the public so often looks for the metaphor of simple, uncomplicated excellence, the big red horse has come along and provided it, and made the air seem a little cleaner and nicer to breathe. Perhaps that is why so many young people have turned up to see him run. He is uncorruptible, and strong, and beautiful (the girls' mouths drop open slightly when they see him from the rail), and he eats enormously, and yawns a lot, and he is wholesome, and above all he is unbelievably good, not only in performance but also in demeanor. He has perhaps done three things in his life which he would regret. In the Champagne Stakes he bumped Stop the Music in the shoulder during the stretch run and was dropped from first place; when he was a 2-year-old he accidentally stepped on a kitten in his stall and did it in; in this year's Wood Memorial he ran a sloppy race, his mind on something else, possibly that kitten, and he finished third.
The public joy he causes has not been diminished a jot by these indiscretions. Nearly 6,000 winning tickets ranging from $100 to $2 denominations have yet to be cashed in from Secretariat's victory in the Belmont. Presumably they are being pasted lovingly into scrapbooks, an act of devotion that represents an unexpected $20,200 bonanza for New York State. Mrs. Tweedy autographed dozens of these tickets at Secretariat's last morning workout at Belmont before he was shipped by air to Chicago for the Arlington Invitational.
His fan mail is considerable, ranging from 50 to 200 letters a day, and an extra secretary has been called in to handle it. Mrs. Tweedy opened a letter the other day and read, "You're so beautiful. I'd like to put my arms around you and give you a big hug."
"But then I noticed the top of the letter," she said. "It was addressed to Secretariat, not to me."
Another letter asked what Secretariat's stud service fee was going to be. The writer wanted to breed him with his Appaloosa pony. Mrs. Tweedy did not have the heart to reply that breeding shares in the horse cost $190,000 before he even won the Triple Crown, and now they would fetch a great deal more.
For some people the fan letter is not enough. They must come to see him. When Secretariat arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, an elderly couple, the Ray Klings from Glenview, Ill., were there to meet him. They had waited four hours. Apparently the Klings have a penchant for going to arrivals of this sort. They had seen Whirlaway unloaded at Midway Airport years before. "He was some ham, that Whirlaway," Mrs. Kling said, thinking back to that day. Secretariat was only in sight for 10 seconds or so as he came down the ramp from his Electra turboprop and disappeared into a van. Asked if the four-hour wait was worth it, Mrs. Kling replied, "Yes, heavens yes. This is much more exciting than Lindbergh's landing. And I was there," she added defiantly.
At the Arlington barns his fans came by the hundreds to look for him.
"Where's the Big Horse?"
"Where's the one that did it?"
They aim their Instamatics past the guards lolling in the beach chairs at the end of the shed row and whistle for Secretariat to peer out of his stall. They ask for souvenirs, a clip of chestnut hair from his mane. They gossip about him like a movie star.
"How does he sleep?"
"Horses sleep standing up a lot of the time."
"He's a star. He sleeps in the nude, standing up."
"Hey, look! He's looking out."
Secretariat likes to peer out of his stall from underneath the protective webbing across the open door so that looking down the shed row one sees the line of horses' heads at the normal eye level, and then beyond, a horse peering out of his stall at kneecap level.
"What's wrong with that horse? He's either lying down or he's got awful short legs."
The guard leans forward. "That's Secretariat."
The Instamatics click.
Secretariat is not the object of just the public's attention. Jockeys and trainers come around and stare at him as if he were an innovation in their profession. When he was being saddled for the Arlington race, 15 or 20 jockeys in their silks were standing about the paddock, an odd sight for anyone chancing on the scene since only four horses were available for them. Jockey Larry Melancon couldn't keep his eyes off Secretariat. "There's not a pimple on him," he said. "I've never seen anything like him."
To insiders around the barns Secretariat is called "Red" or "Big Red," which is, of course, what Man o' War was nicknamed. It could be a natural tag for any horse whose chestnut coat glows like an ember; but in Secretariat's case it probably evolved from the awestruck remark of Trainer Henry Forrest who saw him one day last winter in Florida and exclaimed, "Such a good-looking horse; he looks like a big red apple!"
Secretariat's fame has turned Mrs. Tweedy's Meadow Stud team into celebrities. In eating places around the race tracks someone calls out, "Hey, there's the guy who gallops Secretariat," and people stand up from the tables and ask, "Where? Where?" and some of them pick up napkins and gather around Charlie Davis, who is The Meadow's top exercise boy, looking for his autograph.
"What's it like, man? What's it like to ride the big horse?"
Charlie Davis leans back in his chair and says that he's never been on a horse like him. "Most all big horses come down hard, boom, boom, when they run, but Red, he carries hisself so smooth and easy that it's like sittin' here at the table eatin' pork chops and sometimes I can't scarcely believe he's goin' that fast, except that my eyes water from the speed, and I talk to him, 'Easy, Red. Easy.' "
The other Meadow celebrity from the barns is Eddie Sweat, Secretariat's groom and his closest companion since the first of the year. He has a nasty set of tooth marks on his upper arm where a horse picked him up and tossed him around the stall a few years ago. His relationship with Secretariat is much gentler. The two of them push each other about in the stall and Secretariat nips at the groom's knit shirt and pulls it out with his teeth and then lets it go so that it snaps back against Sweat's shoulder. Sweat has taught the colt how to retrieve his halter when he tosses it in a corner, the big horse turning in his stall and picking up the halter in his teeth and leaning over the webbing at the stall door to drop it at Sweat's feet.
Eddie Sweat has become so publicly identified with Secretariat that last week he found himself part of a package deal offered by a Las Vegas hotel. Mrs. Tweedy, Lucien Laurin, Ron Turcotte and Sweat were requested (for a flat fee of $25,000 a day) to walk Secretariat around before an audience for 15 minutes. Mrs. Tweedy had a perky reason for refusing: "Why, in 15 minutes he can make much more than that." In less than two minutes at Arlington Park he earned $75,000.
What Secretariat is going to do before he retires to stud in November, short of not appearing in a Las Vegas hotel, is still a matter of speculation. A question often put to Mrs. Tweedy and her trainer concerns racing him in early October in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the world's greatest racing prize and perhaps the only challenge left for such a horse. No American-raced horse has ever won the Arc. A number have tried, Carry Back and Tom Rolfe among them, but have been unable to adapt in a short time (they were flown over two to three weeks before the race) to such changes as racing on grass with a required European shoe, negotiating an up-and-down course with irregular turns, and running clockwise rather than counterclockwise. Lucien Laurin, who went over to scout the race and the course last year, said recently that it would take at least six months to prepare Secretariat properly.
So he will probably stay with us, appearing in the Whitney at Saratoga, then in the Travers, the Woodward and possibly the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup. The Woodward will be interesting because in it he surely will face the best older horses including Key to the Mint, last year's handicap star, and possibly his own stablemate, Riva Ridge.
But in the meantime, whatever he does, it is simply good to have Secretariat around to bring whatever exaltation he can into the hearts of the public.