OTD in History… June 9, 1973, Secretariat wins the Belmont and the Triple Crown
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On this day in history June 9, 1973, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths running away with the race but also the first Triple Crown in 25 years since Citation in 1948 and the 10th overall. With his performance in the Belmont, Secretariat was immortalized in horse-racing and is considered the best horse in the latter half of the 20th century, if not all horse racing history. He won 16 of his 21 starts with earnings of $1,316,808 and was Horse of the Year twice. Secretariat made records as the fastest horse in all of his Triple Crown races and winning the Belmont by such a distance. His legendary performance is the standard all trainers strive for with their horses. This June 9, another horse nicknamed Big Red; the undefeated Justify is racing for immortality at the Belmont and to become only the 13th horse to belong to the Triple Crown club.
Secretariat was foaled on March 30, 1970, at Meadow Stables in Doswell, Virginia, out of sire 1957 Preakness winner and horse of the year, Bold Ruler, and Somethingroyal. Even his birth and ownership was the stuff of legends, his sire Bold Ruler was retired at Claiborne Farm and owned by the Phippses. Owner Penny Chenery running the stable for her ill father Christopher Chenery entered into a foal sharing agreement with the Phippses in 1967, a coin toss would determine who would get the first foal. Losing was winning as the loser would get the foals from 1969 and 1970, Chenery loss, but won with the colt that would become Secretariat named after the Secretariat of the United Nations.
Secretariat was a massive horse, 16.2 hands, 66 inches high, and as a two-year-old was already the “size of a three-year-old;” his size earned him the name “Big Red” for his chestnut coloring, with three white stockings and a star and narrow blaze on his forehead and muzzle. As a foal he was perfect, and even more so as he grew, he had a “near perfect” conformation and stride. When training for the Preakness his stride was measured as 24 feet, 11 inches. He had a ferocious appetite and weighed 1,155 pounds before the Triple Crown and after he lost just 31 pounds. It would take him a while, however, to learn harness his strength into speed.
Secretariat commenced his two-year-old season, with Chenery sending him to be trained by Lucien Laurin at Hialeah. There the team included assistant trainer Henny Hoeffner, exercise riders, Jim Gaffney and Charlie Davis and groom Eddie Sweat. Secretariat first start was on July 4, 1972, at Aqueduct Racetrack with jockey Paul Feliciano, he placed fourth after being bumped early in the race, it was the only time he would finish outside the money. By his third race, his regular jockey Ron Turcotte took over to ride into infamy, with the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga where he showed he could win by three lengths over his competition.
Secretariat only raced a short time, only 16 months, starting 21 times, winning 16, with the rest finishing in the top 3. He was the odds-on favorite 17 times going into the races, winning 13 of those times. He won the Eclipse Award for Horse-of-the-Year, twice for his two and three-year-old campaigns. Secretariat’s first year running he won seven races out the nine he started, and he became the first two-year-old to capture the Horse of the Year honors along with Champion Two-Year-Old Male Horse. His trainer commented on his style, “In all his races, he has taken the worst of it by coming from behind, usually circling his field. A colt has to be a real runner to do this consistently and get away with it.” If his two-year-old season proved to be magical, his three-year-old would have a rough patch before the glory.
With Meadow Stud in trouble, after Chenery’s father died in January 1973, she sold Secretariat’s breeding rights to a breeding syndicate for a record $6.08 million; he would have to retire at the end of the season. Secretariat easily won his first two races in his three-year-old season, the Bay Shore Stakes at the Aqueduct on March 17 and then the Gotham Stakes at the Aqueduct on April 7. His final race before the Kentucky Derby would be the Wood Memorial, where he came in third after winner Sham, and Angle Light because of an abscess under his lip. Sham would be his rival throughout the Triple Crown, with their trainers Laurin and Pancho Martin equally sharing a rivalry.
Secretariat’s chances at winning the Kentucky Derby seemed up in the air, but luck would be Secretariat. He entered the 3–2 favorite along with angle Light, with Sham 5–2. As the Derby on May 5, was about to start one horse reared in his stall hitting another and bouncing Sham who hit his head loosening two teeth and bleeding. Secretariat lucked out with post 10 away from the mess. First Shecky Greene led then the next turn Sham, Secretariat broke last, but took the lead in the stretch, with Sham close.
Secretariat pulled away to win by 2 1⁄2 lengths with a track record 1:592⁄5. He gained speech each quarter mile, 251⁄5, :24, :234⁄5, :232⁄5, and :23. Sham finished second and Our Native third. Sportswriter Mike Sullivan commented on Secretariat’s speed, “And all of a sudden there was this, like, just a disruption in the corner of your eye, in your peripheral vision. And then before you could make out what it was, here Secretariat came. And then Secretariat had passed him. No one had ever seen anything run like that — a lot of the old guys said the same thing. It was like he was some other animal out there.” With his win, Secretariat became the hottest commodity and biggest athlete of the moment; he appeared that week on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.
Two weeks later at the Preakness Stakes on May 19, Secretariat would do it again, come from behind then win by 2 ½ lengths. After breaking from behind Secretariat the led by the first turn, leaping in the air as he did. Turcotte later explained his decision, “I let my horse drop back, when I went to drop in, they started backing up into me. I said, ‘I don’t want to get trapped here.’ So I just breezed by them.” The second quarter only took Secretariat 22 seconds.
In a Derby repeat, Sham finished second and Our Native in third. Secretariat won in record time, but it has been disputed. The infield teletimer malfunctioned the official time was 1:542⁄5, but Daily Racing Form said it was 1:532⁄5 beating Cañonero II’s 1971 record. Maryland Jockey Club, however, declared the 1:542/5 time the official one. Only in 2012, after Chenery had a forensic company review the tapes of the two horses did the club vote to make the official time 1:53, a track record.
With Secretariat the runaway favorite going into the Belmont Stakes on June 9, with 1–10 odds, only four competitors dared to run against him, including Triple Crown races’ rival Sham. At Belmont, 69,138 attended for a chance to see if there would a Triple Crown winner, with another 15 million watching at home. After he broke, Sham ran beside him pushing to the rail, the two set the quick pace of the race, 23 3⁄5 the first quarter, and 22 3⁄5 the seconds, the fastest in the track’s history and 10 lengths ahead of the rest. After six-furlongs, Sham fell behind, while Secretariat sped ahead, at 1:34 1⁄5 for the first mile beating his sire’s record.
Secretariat’s time in the Belmont was 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles, which will never be beaten as the Belmont, is the most difficult of the Triple Crown races known as the test of champions and the fastest for a dirt track ever. Winning by 31 lengths, Secretariat beat the previous record 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, who won by 25 lengths. Track announcer Chick Anderson screeched in jubilation, “Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine! He’s going to be the Triple Crown winner. Unbelievable! An amazing performance. He’s 25 lengths in front!” Turcotte was not aware they were so far ahead, commented after, “I kept hearing Chick Anderson. I finally had to turn to see where the other horses were. I know this sounds crazy, but the horse did it by himself. I was along for the ride.”
With all his energy, Chenery could not give Secretariat a rest, and he had six more starts after winning the Triple Crown, winning four and coming in second twice. Only a week and a half after the Belmont he raced at the Arlington Invitational, where he won by nine lengths in 1:47. On July 27, in an upset at the Whitney Stakes in Saratoga against older horses Secretariat lost to Onion by a length because he was suffering an infection. On September 15, he returned for the inaugural Marlboro Cup at Belmont winning against top horses completing the 1 1⁄8 miles in 1:45 2⁄5. With the race, he became only the 13th horse to earn over a million dollars.
Two weeks later he ran the 1 1⁄2 mile Woodward Stakes on a sloppy track losing to Prove Out, who won by 4 1/2 lengths. It would be Secretariat’s last loss of his career. On October 8, he ran on turf with Man o’ War Stakes, winning the 1 1⁄2mile in a record 2:24 4⁄5. Secretariat’s last race was the turf Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Ontario, Canada on October 28, 1973. It was to honor his Canadian connections with trainer Laurin and jockey Turcotte, although Turcotte could not ride him because of a suspension. Secretariat won by 6 1⁄2 lengths ending his career.
He had a parade at the Aqueduct Racetrack to honor his retirement. His trainer lamented, “It’s a sad day, and yet it’s a great day. I certainly wish he could run as a 4-year-old. He’s a great horse and he loves to run.” In 1973, he won three Eclipse awards; the American Champion Three-Year-Old Male Horse and the American Champion Male Turf Horse, and Horse of the Year. He retired to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky as a stallion, until he died unexpectedly from laminitis on October 4, 1989. Claiborne president Seth Hancock reflected, “It was a terrible day for all of us. We just couldn’t stand to see him suffer.”
Even after his death, Secretariat remained a horse-racing hero, with honors continuing to be bestowed, receiving fan mail and visitors at his farm. Secretariat was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1974, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007 and Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2013. A statue of him leaping in the air at the Preakness resides at Belmont. In 1999, ESPN named him 35th on their greatest list of athletes for the century. Blood-Horse Magazine named him the second-best racehorse of the century after Man o’ War. He was the subject of a documentary and a Hollywood movie.
Penny Chenery worked to keep his legacy alive until she died at 95 in 2017. She eulogized her beloved horse in 1989, saying, “Horse racing was in a down period. The country was in a blue mood. It was the time of Watergate and the Nixon scandals, and people wanted something to make them feel good. This red horse with the blue-and-white blinkers and silks seemed to epitomize an American hero.’’
Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a over dozen years experience in education & political journalism.