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
As he made his way from the stakes barn to the saddling area that afternoon, patrons pressed four-deep against the grandstand fence, fighting to get as close to him as possible. Nack recalled their roar of approval when the great horse paused to defecate.
"He was a showoff," Chenery said, recalling how Secretariat pricked his ears whenever the cameras clicked around him. "A performer responds to his audience, so Secretariat was having a good time."
The key juncture of the 1973 race happened much more quickly than anyone anticipated. Secretariat began in the back of the pack, as expected. Turcotte said he entered with no specific strategy, figuring he could read the field's behavior and react appropriately.
As they approached the first turn, Turcotte saw the pacesetter, Ecole Etage, lift his head. He took that as a sign that the horse's rider, George Cusimano, wanted to keep the race slow. In this, Turcotte saw an opportunity.
Pimlico is known for its tight turns, which Nack described as a visual illusion created by the track's relative flatness compared to Churchill Downs. Regardless, common wisdom held that if you tried to take the first turn too fast, you might end up on Belvedere Avenue, having careened completely off the track.
But with a subtle shift of his hands, which he equated to a man straightening his shirt cuff, Turcotte let Secretariat know it was time to run. In a quarter-mile, the colt surged from sixth and last to neck-and-neck with Ecole Etage. Cusimano told writers that Secretariat sounded "like a freight train" coming up on him.
Did he move too early?
Many in the stands, including Laurin, gasped at this audacious move, worrying that Turcotte had wasted Secretariat's burst too early in the race. The great New York sports columnist Red Smith turned to Maisel and said, "He'll have to run out of gas, won't he?"
Reflecting post-race on the speed of Secretariat's move around the first turn, longtime Pimlico handicapper Clem Florio muttered: "You just don't do that."
Pincay, though surprised, liked what he saw from aboard Sham. He thought he had an excellent chance to catch Secretariat in the stretch.
Only it never happened.
As the crowd roared, hoping for a showdown, Secretariat simply held the two-length lead he had established with his brilliant move. Pincay whipped Sham relentlessly, to no effect.
"My horse was working very hard," the Hall of Fame jockey recalled. "But he just couldn't catch him. I think any other horse who made that move, we would have gotten him. To withstand Sham that day, he had to be a very special horse."
Turcotte said he never worried as they charged to the wire, feeling Secretariat had more power in him and could establish an even bigger lead if challenged. "I told Lucien after the race that I thought I could have won by 10 or 15 lengths if I wanted," Turcotte said.
The crowd pressed in as Secretariat neared victory, with a few fans mounting the rail separating the track from the infield. None of it, however, distracted the horse. He remained calm, even as the throng celebrated around him in the winner's circle.
The only controversy arose over the official race time, a postscript that would last until 2012.
The electric timer at Pimlico malfunctioned, and no one believed the time of 1 minute, 55 seconds that flashed on the scoreboard. Two experienced timers from the Daily Racing Form clocked the race in just over 1 minute, 53 seconds, which would have been a record.
But Pimlico resorted to its official timer, E.T. McClean, who clocked the race at 1:54.40 — fast but no record. Nack happened to watch the race beside the fedora-topped McClean from the jockey's porch at Pimlico. He recalls McClean telling him that he was working crowd control that day and not timing the race. Certainly, the porch offered no proper vantage to catch the beginning of the Preakness.
Nack could never reconcile this, nor could Turcotte.
"I'm a numbers person when it comes to sports," Nack said. "Batting averages, how many passes you complete, how many touchdowns thrown and how fast a time a horse has run. That's important stuff in sports. And I like to get it right."
Several attempts to challenge the time failed before the Maryland Racing Commission. But Secretariat's supporters finally got their happy ending 39 years after the race, when frame-by-frame video evidence convinced the commission to award Secretariat the record in 1 minute, 53 seconds.
"It's a sense of completion," Chenery said of the belated decision. "We knew that time was wrong."
Secretariat left Baltimore a bona fide sensation. Nack knows better than anyone because he rode with the horse back to Belmont Park. As he and Secretariat leaned out of the van window to glimpse at traffic on I-95, Nack flashed a sign to surrounding drivers with the colt's name on it. They honked and thrust their thumbs in the air. One man just about drove his convertible off the road at the sight of the big red champion.
"It was so much fun," remembered Nack, sitting in his Washington home across from a portrait of the horse.
Secretariat would run to even greater glory at the Belmont, where he won by an unfathomable 31 lengths and crushed Sham's spirit for good.
Many consider him the greatest thoroughbred there ever was. And those who went through the Triple Crown with him hold that period among their most cherished memories.
"I'm telling you, there was no one like him," said Pincay, the jockey who tried to beat him.
"I covered everything, from World Series to heavyweight championship fights, and I still think that Triple Crown is the most exciting of all," said Maisel, who, like Nack, keeps a portrait of Secretariat on his wall.
Pimlico was the place where Secretariat erased the last doubts about him.
Said Nack: "The Derby made him a star. The Preakness made him spectacular. And the Belmont made him immortal."
Baltimore Sun reporter Chris Korman contributed to this article.
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