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The Man Who Trained a Flying Horse Lucien Laurin had retired in obscurity before Secretariat carried him to fame

July 10, 2000
July 10, 2000

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July 10, 2000

The Man Who Trained a Flying Horse Lucien Laurin had retired in obscurity before Secretariat carried him to fame

For six months in 1973, from the afternoon of Secretariat's
record-shattering triumph in the May 5 Kentucky Derby to that
crisp November afternoon in Kentucky when the chestnut strode off
the racetrack and into stud at Claiborne Farm, his trainer,
Lucien Laurin, paced the colt's corner of the planet with a look
of perpetual wonder on his elfin face.

This is an article from the July 10, 2000 issue

Almost 30 years later I can still see Laurin on that early
morning of March 14 at Belmont Park, when he hoisted jockey Ron
Turcotte aboard Secretariat for the colt's final
three-eighths-of-a-mile workout leading up to his first race in
that magical Triple Crown season. "Let him roll, Ronnie," Laurin
said. A few minutes later there was Laurin, draped on the rail
with stopwatch in hand, as Secretariat raced through the Belmont
stretch, running as fast as a horse can run, making the back of
Turcotte's jacket billow. Snapping the watch as the horse
crossed the wire, Lucien cried, "Oh, my god! He went 33 and
three fifths!" Horses rarely break 34 seconds going three
eighths. Laurin looked ashen. Moments later he was telephoning
the clocker, Jules Watson, in his aerie high above the track.

Laurin's mouth dropped open as Watson read him the message.
"Thirty-two and three fifths?" Laurin repeated. A full second
faster than his own clocking, it was one of the swiftest workouts
ever recorded in New York.

For the Canadian-born Laurin, who died on June 26 at age 88,
nothing could have seemed more unlikely in the summer of 1971
than that rush to glory. After all, Secretariat was an unknown
yearling on a Virginia farm, and Laurin had just retired as a
horse trainer. He had begun as a jockey but had been suspended
for three years when he was caught carrying an illegal battery--a
device used to shock horses into running faster--at Narragansett
Park in 1938. Laurin claimed that he had been framed, saying
someone had slipped the buzzer into his pocket, but he never
recovered as a rider, and in 1942 he turned to training horses.
By '71 he had prepared one champion, the brilliant filly Quill,
and he had saddled the winner of the 1966 Belmont Stakes,
Amberoid, but they were notable exceptions in a 30-year career
during which he trained a long line of mostly forgettable horses.

At 58 he was looking forward to a long retirement when his son,
Roger, also a trainer, made what turned out to be the most
momentous decision of his and his father's lives. Roger was
training for Penny Chenery's Meadow Stable in New York, with a
promising 2-year-old, Riva Ridge, in his barn, when he accepted
the job of training for the powerful Phipps family stable of
horses. That left Chenery without a trainer, and when she asked
the departing Roger whom she should hire, he said, "How about my
dad?"

So she did, as her "temporary" trainer, just as racing's Jupiter
was aligning with Mars. Lucien turned Riva Ridge into America's
1971 2-year-old champion. The next year Riva Ridge won the
Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Laurin could hardly fathom
his good fortune. "Can you believe this?" he muttered more than
once. He regarded himself as the luckiest trainer who ever lived.
And that was before Secretariat raced as a 2-year-old. By year's
end Laurin had managed Secretariat through a brilliant campaign
that ended with his being voted America's 1972 Horse of the Year.

Secretariat's record-breaking charge through the 1973 Triple
Crown season transformed the formerly retired horseman into the
most famous trainer on earth. Through that five-week ordeal,
Laurin fretted openly. "I wish this thing were over," he'd say.
He beamed as Secretariat roared through the stretch in the
Kentucky Derby, winning what remains the fastest Derby ever run,
and fairly danced into the winner's circle at Pimlico two weeks
later, when the red horse won the Preakness. The night before the
Belmont, I called Laurin at his Long Island home to talk about
what the horse might do. "I think he'll win by more than he's
ever won by in his life," he said, his voice rising. "I think
he'll win by 10!"

The colt won by 31 lengths, smoking through the 1 1/2 miles in
2:24 flat, still a record, and became only the ninth Triple
Crown winner--the first in 25 years--as well as the horse of the
century. No wonder Laurin walked around for weeks grinning like
a Cheshire cat, pinching himself and muttering incredulously at
his good fortune. The Belmont was his crowning moment,
propelling him on the shortest, fastest journey ever taken to
the Racing Hall of Fame.

Riva Ridge held the door. Secretariat carried Laurin inside. He
belongs with them there.

B/W PHOTO: BETTMANN/CORBIS
No wonder Laurin walked around grinning like a Cheshire cat and
pinching himself.