Secretariat was a star but not yet a legend when his van rolled up to Pimlico Race Course in the second week of May 1973.
The big red horse had taken off like a rocket ship to run down the field at the Kentucky Derby, winning in less than two minutes, a record.
Yet victory in Baltimore, at the Preakness, was far from a foregone conclusion. The previous year, Secretariat's stablemate, Riva Ridge, had faltered in the second leg of the Triple Crown after winning the Derby. And Secretariat's chief rival, Sham, remained a formidable threat.
Forty years later, as Baltimore prepares for the 138th running of the Preakness on Saturday, history has only buffed Secretariat's achievements to a more brilliant sheen. He still holds the time records in the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes. And with the wait for another Triple Crown winner now at 35 years, his magnificence looms ever larger over all the thoroughbreds that have followed, including this year's Derby champion, Orb.
But that's getting ahead of the story, which remained in its middle chapters as Secretariat prepared to race in Baltimore.
"It was hell week," recalled Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, now 91 and in town for a Tuesday gala celebrating the 40th anniversary. "There was so much tension."
Her horse inherited brilliant speed from his father's lineage and unfailing stamina from his mother's. Before he ever raced, he charmed onlookers at Belmont Park with his good looks and cheeky personality. And boy, could he run. As a 2-year-old, Secretariat won eight races and snatched Horse of the Year honors from Riva Ridge, who had won the Derby and Belmont.
Doubts did not creep into the narrative until the Wood Memorial, Secretariat's last and most important prep race for the Triple Crown. He "ran like a goat" in the words of biographer William Nack, flinching every time jockey Ron Turcotte jerked the reins to ask for more speed. What few knew at the time was that Secretariat started the Wood with a painful abscess on his upper lip. He could not comfortably take his bridle.
Once Turcotte learned this and saw how sharply Secretariat trained after the abscess drained, he scoffed at the many handicappers who counted his horse out for the Derby. It's hard to overstate how well Secretariat ran at Churchill Downs on May 5.
"The running time was so spectacular and the whole performance was so unique that people were shocked," said Nack, who spent almost every day with the horse that spring.
Nonetheless, Sham's supporters remained confident the story would be different in Baltimore. Secretariat's nemesis had dislodged two teeth when he cracked into the starting gate at Churchill Downs, meaning he likely tasted blood early in the Derby. Frank "Pancho" Martin, Sham's cigar-chomping trainer, seized on this accident as the cause for defeat and told anyone who listened that his horse would win the Preakness.
"I thought he had a very good chance," said Laffit Pincay Jr., who rode Sham and went on to become the sport's all-time winningest jockey.
Pincay believed Secretariat would again start well off the pace and that given the shorter distance at the Preakness, he might not have time to catch Sham in the stretch.
Those who watched the duels recall Sham as a wonderful horse in his own right, one who would've had a strong shot at the Triple Crown in an average year.
'He was a showoff'
Around Secretariat's stall, meanwhile, a mixture of confidence and unease pervaded. Turcotte had no doubt he sat atop the best horse. Trainer Lucien Laurin felt the same but had lost the Preakness three previous times.
"I was nervous because the year before, Riva Ridge did not win, and it seemed like a jinx," Chenery said. "But Riva Ridge and Secretariat were entirely different horses."
The colt ran a hard workout on Sunday, six days before the Preakness. Nack was stunned to see that his time for six furlongs, which included one furlong of relaxed galloping, matched the winning time from a sprint race at Pimlico the previous week. Even warming up, Secretariat "did things you just weren't supposed to do."
The horse had also grabbed the public imagination. Sun sports editor Bob Maisel couldn't believe his eyes when 10,000 people crowded into Pimlico, just to watch Secretariat work out. A then-record crowd of 61,657 streamed in on race day, May 19, to see if he could win again.
Secretariat had stretched his legs in an early-morning workout, and the track was dry under a sunny sky