Hard by the hedge, snorting steam in the raw twilight like some mythical beast running across a faded storybook, he drove alone through the mist and almost, it seemed, out of the low lake clouds, and won at his leisure, from here to there. "Thank you," said the jockey. "Hello, you beautiful thing," said the owner. And now goodby, Secretariat.
So quickly it was over. This magnificent horse's career, compressed, by probate pressures—as sure indeed as death and taxes—into a few short months of majesty, was finished. Secretariat had won the Canadian International Championship in Toronto by 6½ lengths, and, like his stablemate Riva Ridge the day before, had then been retired to stud at Claiborne Farm. It was only 16 months since he had first run a race; for that matter, barely 3½ years since he was foaled.
Whatever Secretariat leaves now in bloodlines will be only a small part of his legacy. He was not allowed the time to change racing, but some changes will follow, flowing directly from his influence. Secretariat alone was responsible for the Marlboro Cup, the first grossly commercial incursion into U.S. racing. With the largest racing television audience ratings for his Derby and his Belmont, he brought more races to the TV screen. That Secretariat also needed an agent to merchandise his spangled product line; that thousands of kids brought box breakfasts and Kodaks to watch him work out mornings; that he made the covers of the national newsweeklies; that perhaps $100,000 worth of sentimental uncashed tickets remain out on him; that his pictures are hawked as presidential portraits once were—all this certainly suggests that he touched something out there beyond the usual exacta lines.
"I think he absolutely revitalized racing," says Jimmy Kilroe, the California racing secretary. "We must believe in something."
"He was a power that transcended racing," says Jack Krumpe, president of the New York Racing Association. "You didn't have to know a thing about racing to appreciate this great mass of power, this beauty."
Secretariat's triumph was primarily personal, but his valedictory at Woodbine was diminished all the same in that his regular rider, "the all-Canadian kid," Ron Turcotte, was suspended and ineligible. While it may not quite have been, as a Toronto columnist wrote, a case of destroying "the greatest homecoming act since the swallows came back to Capistrano," it was wrenching for Turcotte and unfair to all. It broke up that familiar set of four—the horse, Rider Ron, Trainer Lucien Laurin, Owner Penny Tweedy—and the reliable post-victory TV chorus: "Congratulations again, Mrs. Tweedy/Thank you, Jack/And way to go, Lucien/Thank you, Jack/When did you know you had it won, Ron?"
So closely had the four been associated that when someone asked Laurin the day before the race, "When does Eddie get in?" the trainer's lumpy leprechaun face screwed up in abject confusion. "Eddie? Eddie who?" he asked. Eddie was Eddie Maple, the substitute jock for Secretariat.
This change in riders was the only drama. Much was made of the similarities between Secretariat's and Man o' War's departure from racing: both 3-year-olds nicknamed Big Red, both running their 21st and last race—and in Ontario—and both completing the greatest money-winning year in history to that time. But Man o' War was in a classic match race against the noble Sir Barton, while Secretariat—in at 117 pounds, his lightest weight since he was a maiden—had only to deal with an undistinguished field of hangers-on.
After three weeks of golden autumn sunshine, Sunday came up drizzly, dour, windy and mean. Awake at 3 a.m. and chipper, acknowledging a steady stream of admirers ("Admittance By Attendance Only" the sign on Barn No. 8 said), Secretariat alone remained unperturbed that it had rained on his last parade. He accepted, with bemusement it seemed, the cheers—or often just the approving murmurs of a country more knowing in the ways of nobility than of thoroughbreds. At last on the turf, he broke easily on the outside, moved up to Kennedy Road's flank, never took a bad step, accepted one little love tap from Maple, went by Kennedy Road at the 3/8ths pole and led by 12 lengths at the top of the stretch. Without any challenge, his time in the rain was only four-fifths of a second off the track record.
The day before, in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in New York, Riva Ridge had better weather but a bitter parting. It might have figured. Riva was somehow always slighted. He won the Derby, won the Belmont, won a million dollars and was syndicated for $5 million at stud, but invariably he was cast as a second banana. Were it not for ole Jupiter Pluvius and a State Fair speedball named Bee Bee Bee, he would have taken the Triple Crown in '72, and his would have been the gloried name on all the lips and all the sweat shirts. Mrs. Tweedy calls him "friendlier" than Secretariat, and Turcotte places him "closest to my heart." Yet it was Secretariat that Turcotte chose to ride the only time the stablemates met, and together Turcotte and Secretariat soundly whipped Riva.
Secretariat was the It horse, the Wow horse, the people's horse. Riva Ridge was the horse's horse—playing Gehrig to Secretariat's Ruth, Johnston to his Tilden, Mikita to his Hull. Even his final race Saturday was on national television only because CBS had gambled Secretariat might be in it. As it was, Riva went head to head in a 1:37[1/5] first mile with Prove Out, the Allen Jerkens surprise that upset Secretariat in the Woodward, then fell back. Prove Out went on to win in hand by 4¾ lengths, while Riva collapsed to a sad dead last.
Now both Meadow champions return to Claiborne, where Secretariat was conceived and Riva foaled that magic spring of '69. Since so much is at stake, both will be quickly put to trial. First, they will be bred to test mares. Most new young stallions have little knowledge of what is supposed to be natural. Next, their semen will be examined. Eventually they will be required to service "a full book" of 40 mares in the rush-rush season that runs from February to June. For this first year, however, they probably will see no more than 28 mares.
Besides mating, studs do little but eat and sleep, so it is almost impossible to bring these fat and happy rascals back into training if they do not cut the mustard in the breeding shed. Up to 5% of would-be stallions are either sterile or noneffective—and it can happen in the very best of families. Assault, the 1946 Triple Crown winner, had no seed; Riva Ridge had a half-brother, Hydrologist, who disappointed a lot of mares before his owners gave up.
The odds, though, are about five cents on the dollar ($2.10, out, out) that Mrs. Tweedy's two champions can produce, and that they departed the madding crowds for good this weekend. The last flowers they put on Secretariat were carnations, white and red, and then they took them off and he left. So the best thing racing had seen in years—some would say ever—was gone, gone in his prime, gone in his glory, gone away to his tea and scandal in the Blue Grass, while the exactas and doubles stay behind to entertain the old men with their Racing Forms. How strange is this enterprise that takes away the hearts and leaves the numbers.
The groom, Eddie Sweat, had him by the bridle as they walked round the clubhouse turn back to the race barn, back for the last time. He kept patting him on the withers. It was very nearly dark by now, and one could only wave after Secretariat, remember him, marvel at him, and cry out (after Shelley): Why didst thou leave the trodden paths...too soon?