Secretariat wins again.
More than 39 years after the super horse won the Preakness on his way to a Triple Crown, the Maryland Racing Commission ruled Tuesday that he had set what was then a track and is still a race record, covering the mile-and-three-sixteenths in 1:53.
Secretariat now holds the race record in all three Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont) events.
"It's nice to finally have this recognized, because the sport depends on accuracy," said Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, who helped pushed for the adjustment. "This probably won't change the way people feel about Secretariat, but it's nice to get it right."
The decision came swiftly and unanimously, as the seven members of the board who were present needed 10 minutes of deliberation. The hearing – conducted about 25 miles from Pimlico in Laurel Park's Ruffian Room, named for a colt who was a yearling in 1973 – had lasted almost two-and-a-half hours, incorporating expert testimony, video analysis and photographs.
"We just felt the evidence was overwhelming," commission chairman Lou Ulman, a lawyer, said. "The up-to-date scientific evidence was compelling, and proved that we were doing the right thing."
Chenery's spokesman, Leonard Lusky, slowly built his case by calling on a former CBS director and video experts from Kentucky and Colorado to testify that tape of the 1973 race had not been doctored and indeed reflected real time. Digital technology allowed them to break down film frame-by-frame and create a comparison to other Preakness races.
When Lusky finally showed three videos on the screen at once, stacked, the only immediately discernible difference was the quality of the film. The top block showed Louis Quatorze's win in 1997, the middle showed Tank's Prospects' 1985 victory and the bottom Secretariat's run. Though the productions used slightly different camera angles, the races clearly unfurled in unison.
At the end, Secretariat hit the finish line at least a length and a half ahead of the other two — even though Louis Quatorze and Tank's Prospects had started the day sharing the race record of 1:53 2/5.
"People don't like to be told something that, by implication, they got wrong," Chenery said. "So we had to be pretty delicate in presenting this. I just had to hope that they would listen to the evidence and not think about the precedent of overturning history. But we see it all the time in sports now. It's accepted, with replays. It's completely consistent with the way sports are conducted now, that we use all the analytical tools possible."
The electronic scoreboard at Pimlico originally timed Secretariat in 1:55, which immediately raised protest. Several hand clockers from the Daily Racing Form reported timing the run at 1:53 2/5. But the track's official timer recorded a time of 1:54 2/5. While Pimlico officials quickly admitted that the electronic timer had malfunctioned, state racing rules dictated that only the time from the official time keeper could be used as a backup. Chenery challenged the ruling later in the summer, and again in the late 1990s. That later appeal caused the commission to change its rules to allow for a time adjustment if compelling evidence could be presented.
Film shown Tuesday appeared to clear up what happened with the official clock in 1973. All of Secretariat's fractions, as determined by the video, matched those recorded by the track clock — except the opening quarter mile, which was two seconds longer than it should have been.
Timing a horse race does not begin when the gates open, but when the runners hit the first pole (in the Preakness, that's the 3/16th pole.) In 1973, Pimlico utilized an automatic starter triggered by movement.
Jack Harmon, the official timer for Maryland tracks, has been working at Pimlico since 1976 and has a background in both electronic and hand timing. He told the commission that he believed something caused the clock to start prematurely in 1973, and Lusky later isolated a piece of video that showed an assistant starter standing near the 3/16th pole prior to the start of the race.
Harmon and four others told commissioners that 1:53 was the proper time; he'd hand-timed the race based on the tape, and was "110 percent sure." Amy Zimmerman, the executive producer of Horse Racing Television, used video analytics to come up with about the same time, as did the video experts. A letter submitted by Tom Westenburg, an engineer who has worked extensively with the U.S. Olympic Committee on timing issues, posted the same.
Chenery, 90, let out a cheer when the ruling was read. Portrayed by Diane Lane in the 2010 film "Secretariat," she famously took time away from her husband and children in Colorado to resurrect her father's horse racing operation in Virginia and made the breeding decision that brought the farm a foal they'd eventually nickname Big Red. But the film glossed over how difficult the time was on Chenery's family — she would later divorce her husband — and the fact that she'd had a horse named Riva Ridge win the Preakness and Belmont the year before.
Her son, John Tweedy, accompanied her on the trip to Baltimore.
"When he won in 1973, I was a 12-year-old boy celebrating in the living room in Colorado," he said. "What a lot of people don't know, because the movie left it out for dramatic reasons, is that we'd won two the year before and so had a taste but also understood the magnitude."
He did not think his mother, portrayed as headstrong in movies and books, saw the fight to change the Preakness time as essential to what became her life-long goal of ensuring Secretariat's legacy.
"I don't think it's true that my mother had anything to prove," he said. "She felt like Secretariat has proven himself in all the ways possible, and certainly my mother, too. This is more of a service to the sport and the standards of the sport."
Chenery did say it brought some closure to the most "exciting time of" her life, and was fitting for the "strongest, fastest, best-looking horse that we've had."
"I do think it closes a chapter," she said. "It brings closure — and accuracy."
twitter.com/chriskormanCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun