Maverick Life


Horse racing: The Summer of the GOAT

Horse racing: The Summer of the GOAT
General view of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Belmont, New York. Tabasco Cat won the race with jockey Pat Day aboard.

It began in May 1973 and continued into June. And it hasn’t really ended yet.

On Saturday, 6 May, one of horse racing’s most prestigious events takes place at the legendary Churchill Downs in Kentucky, US. Twenty top three-year-old thoroughbreds will be participating in the Kentucky Derby, renowned for introducing the US’s best equine youngsters to the racing world. 

The winner is garlanded in roses (inspiring the anthemic song Run For the Roses). The Derby is also the first leg in the hotly contested, lucrative and super-demanding Triple Crown, a challenge so brutal that only 13 horses have won it in 144 years.

Fifty years ago, on 5 May 1973, the pre-race build-up at Churchill Downs caught everyone’s attention.

No horse had won the Triple Crown in 25 years, not since Citation in 1948. But now there was a promising contender — a handsome chestnut colt — that appeared on the scene with a bit of a buzz about him.

To be teamed with a young career jockey, Ron Turcotte (who said it was “love at first ride”), the well-bred Secretariat was sired by the 1957 horse of the year, Bold Ruler, owned by Penny Chenery and trained by the eccentric Lucien Laurin. He seemed made of champion stuff, but the Everest of racing lay ahead.

First up, the Kentucky Derby.

May 1990: Unbridled (center) runs in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville Kentucky. Unbridled won the race. Mandatory Credit: Ken Levine /Allsport

2 May 1992: General view of the action during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Mandatory Credit: Ken Levine /Allsport

May 1988: Gary Stevens rides Conquer during the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

May 1988: General view of fans watching the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

May 1988: General view of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport

An archive picture of Secretariat; Turcotte rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown title in 1973. Image: Flickr

A statue of Secretariat. Turcotte rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown title in 1973. Image: Amanda on Flickr

Run over 1¼ miles (2km) on dirt, it is a formidable opener, demanding plenty from its young participants, who, at three years, have experience of only a handful of races.

Secretariat, with Turcotte on board, aced it. They didn’t just win the Kentucky Derby; they set track and world records by completing the distance in one minute 59 seconds. It was the first time a horse had ever finished the race in less than two minutes. Could it be that a new star was born?

Two weeks later: the Preakness Stakes — 1,900m at Pimlico, Maryland. Secretariat again nosed out his challenger, Sham, this time by 2.1 lengths, finishing with a record-breaking time of one minute 53 seconds. That course record has still not been broken. 

But the horse wasn’t done yet.


Next up, the final leg and the most challenging. Belmont is punishing, partly because it’s run a mere three weeks after the Preakness and five weeks after the Derby; the equine entourage has to travel from Kentucky to Maryland and then to New York; and it involves the stresses of training and settling-in time at an unfamiliar stable yard.

Many Triple Crown contenders win the first two legs; very few have been able to complete the triple at Belmont.

In 1973 in New York and throughout the US (and wherever racing enthusiasts were paying attention), the anticipation was massive.

Only five runners showed up for the final challenge — at 2,400m, the longest race in the Crown. The pressure was huge on horses, trainers and jockeys. Some observers said the distance was too far for Secretariat; others warned that he was likely to experience burnout and falter after what he’d already done.

3 MAY 1995: Steams rise off of three horses while they are washed outside the barn of trainer d. Wayne Lukas on Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky the site of Saturday’s 121st Kentucky Derby. mandatory credit: Andy Lyons/al

27 Oct 1995: General view of a statue at the Breeders” Cup at Belmont Park in Belmont, New York.

‘Like a tremendous machine’

Last out of the starting stalls, as always, Secretariat gave no indication of what he had in mind. Briefly lingering at the back, he soon quietly moved up to go head-to-head with his rival Sham. After exchanging the lead for a few strides, he started his run in earnest, pulling rapidly away from Sham and the rest of the field, moving faster with every furlong.

The ever-widening gap took every spectator’s breath away.

Seasoned racing commentator Chic Anderson gasped in incredulity: “Secretariat by 10 lengths… by 12… by 16… He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” Secretariat was so far ahead that the race cameraman, filming the race from the commentary box, couldn’t keep all the horses in frame.

“He had zoomed up close on Secretariat, leaving the lens just wide enough to capture the horse and a few feet of track. Then, about half a furlong before the finishing line, the camera stops tracking the leader and holds still. Secretariat rockets out of the frame [towards the finishing line], leaving the screen blank, or rather, filled with empty track.”

“When he wanted to run,” Turcotte noted afterwards, “I just let him do what he wanted.”

Famously, and unusually for any jockey in such a high-stakes race, Turcotte never struck his mount. “I didn’t need to use the whip once,” he said. “I just went along for the ride… My only thought was to make sure I didn’t get in his way.”

Seemingly without effort, Secretariat streaked to the finish an astonishing 31 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. He broke the course record (two minutes 24 seconds) which, to this day, remains unbroken.

In addition to the packed and roaring stands at the track, 11 million people watched on TV a record in 1973. Thousands of winning tickets were never cashed; people kept theirs as a memento of the most exciting race they would ever witness.

27 Oct 1995: The breeders cup statue at Belmont park, New York.

The legacy continues

Fifty years after his Triple Crown win with Secretariat, Turcotte, now 81, believes that “Big Red” was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. And he channels the horse’s spirit to overcome the setbacks of his riding accident in 1978, which left him a paraplegic, and to help former jockeys adjust to the challenges of living with disabilities.

3 Jun 1999: Former jockey Ron Turcotte watches as D. Wayne Lukas addresses the media after morning workouts in preparation for the 131st Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Belmont, New York. Turcotte rode Secretariat to the Triple Crown title in 1973. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Stockman/ALLSPORT

He supports the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund, created in 2006, which provides financial assistance to former riders who’ve also suffered life-altering injuries.

His support is treasured by ex-riders like Gary Birzer.

“Ron would get me to laugh. He would get my mind off things that were really bothering me,” says Birzer, who was paralysed after falling off a horse in 2004. “For, like, 10 minutes, he’d crack me up, get me laughing, and sit there and tell me, ‘Just keep digging and just keep going.’ ”

For Turcotte, the memory of the summer of 1973 has never faded. “I still get goosebumps when I watch the Belmont.”

Meanwhile, after the sensation that was the 1973 Triple Crown, Secretariat thoroughly enjoyed his fame, playing to the crowds with cheeky aplomb. On his “off-duty” days, when the public was allowed to visit him at home at Kentucky’s Claiborne Stud, he’d take a look, face the cameras and pose…

A superstar, ready for his close-up.

A showman. A legend. DM/ ML

The Kentucky Derby, a horse race held annually in Louisville, Kentucky in the US, will run on 6 May starting at 3pm SA time.


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