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Secretariat still breed apart Horse: Twenty-five years after he put a country on his back for an unforgettable Triple Crown ride, Secretariat remains in winner's circle.


Because of a computer error, fractions were dropped from an article on the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown in Saturday's editions. The colt won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by 2 1/2 lengths, and he won the Belmont in world-record time for 1 1/2 miles.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It has been 25 years since Secretariat took America on a white-knuckled joy ride, but his fans refuse to let go of the reins.

Fresh flowers adorn the grave of the Triple Crown winner, nine years after his death. Cards arrive on his birthday. Souvenirs from Secretariat's races sell quickly at sports memorabilia shows. And everyone wants to reminisce with Penny Chenery, the woman who raised the colt who stole the heart of a nation addled by Watergate.

"My role now is to listen to people say how much they loved him, and where they were when he won the Belmont Stakes [by 31 lengths]," Chenery said. "I just stand there and smile. They need a place to put this love."

Secretariat stirs feelings even among Generation Xers too young to have seen him race. "I get poems from people who couldn't have known him, but who fell in love with a legend," Chenery said.

People like Joseph Zowd, 24, of Laurel, whose bedroom is an equine shrine to the chestnut colt: Secretariat photos, statues and racing programs from the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1973. Last month, Zowd paid $250 for a faded $2 mutual ticket bet on Big Red at the Preakness. Clearly, he is one with his idol, right down to the Secretariat tattoo on his right shoulder.

"I love that horse so much," Zowd said.

At Claiborne Farm (Ky.), where Secretariat stood at stud, people still come to pay homage. They lay bouquets beside his simple gray headstone: roses in April, black-eyed Susans in May, carnations in June. Crowds at the farm have dwindled since Secretariat's death in 1989. During his retirement, 8,500 people a year came to see the horse who smashed two Triple Crown track records and was probably gypped of the third, in the Preakness.

His visitors included a queen (Elizabeth II) and The Duke (John Wayne). Everyone knew who was king.

"Oh Lord, he was the horse," said John Sosby, Claiborne's assistant farm manager. "Secretariat wasn't the most expensive, the top winner or the best sire here. He was the most famous.

"Others achieved more, but he is etched in our minds -- and the legend lives on."

Twice Horse of the Year, Secretariat won 16 of 21 races, set four track records and earned $1,316,808. Though he raced for only two years, he ranks among the greatest ever, alongside Citation and Man o' War.

He was the Babe Ruth of racing, a barrel-chested, spindle-legged galoot with an effeminate name and a home run gait, a lovable ham who ate like a horse and mugged for the press. And while The Babe enjoyed a good stogie, Secretariat surely would have smoked a Cigar or two in his day, admirers say.

Ask those who rode against him.

"Greatest horse I ever saw," said Laffit Pincay Jr., still racing at age 51.

"I watched his tail a lot of times," said Angel Cordero Jr., a member of the National Jockeys Hall of Fame. "I feel honored to have been whipped by Secretariat. It's like getting your butt beat by Muhammad Ali."

Twenty-five years later, Braulio Baeza can still hear the hooves crashing past as Big Red churned by him in the Belmont.

And then the horse just vanished. Baeza's mount ran second that day, losing by the length of a football field.

"By the time my horse got to where Secretariat had been, the dust had already settled," said Baeza, another Hall of Famer. "Beat him? Only with a jet."

'Clark Gable of horses'

The Belmont gave Secretariat the Triple Crown, the first sweep of racing's trinity since Citation in 1948. The public adored him. The colt was red; his silks, white and blue. Disillusioned by politics and the Vietnam War, and hungry for heroes, America embraced the horse as if he were human. Sonny and Cher wooed him for their TV variety show. A Las Vegas hotel offered Secretariat $15,000 to trot on stage. Sport magazine named him its Man of the Year.

"He was a beautiful-looking horse, anatomically perfect, the Jim Palmer of horses," said William Nack, Secretariat's biographer. "He had charisma, star power and, had he been able to talk, he probably would have been endorsing McDonald's."

The colt "could have made it in the movies," said Chick Lang, then general manager at Pimlico Race Course. "Heading to the track, with a horde of photographers chasing him, he'd stop, turn and almost inhale, like Charles Atlas.

"To hell with Trigger -- Secretariat was a matinee idol."

His appeal transcended his looks (Vogue called him "the Clark Gable of horses.") It wasn't just that he'd reached racing's inner sanctum, it was the way he'd done it, with Hollywood flair. He took the Derby Capra-style, roaring from last place to first at 38 mph and passing the leader in the stretch. In the Preakness, Secretariat circled the pack on the tight first turn, a madcap move that froze his rivals and would have finished a mortal horse. In the Belmont, he simply torpedoed the field.

"There were times when he ran that I thought he would wind up in the sky, like a bird," said Lucien Laurin, his trainer.

Rock scare on Preakness roll

In the spring of 1973, the world turned upside down. There were burglars in the White House and gas lines at the pumps. The Colts had traded John Unitas -- was nothing sacred? -- without a proper send-off. Closure would come at the Preakness, where Unitas' jersey would be retired.

As one Colt packed to go, another rode into town. Secretariat arrived at Pimlico on a roll, having run the first sub-2-minute Derby ever (1: 59 2/5). He was also the first to race each quarter-mile faster than the last, gathering speed like a runaway train. He won the Derby by 2 1/2 lengths and then, famished, downed a three-day tub of feed in 90 minutes.

At Pimlico, he settled into the stakes barn and made a beeline for the bluegrass nearby. "He grazed with a vengeance, like a guy eating at The Prime Rib," said Lang, the Pimlico GM. Seeing the big-shouldered colt, the paparazzi moved in. One photographer dropped to the ground and crept in for a close-up. Secretariat ignored him. Then, said Lang, "just as the guy went to focus, the horse raised his head and shook it, Brrrrrr, spraying saliva all over him and his camera."

During a Sunday workout at Pimlico, race officials decided to measure his enormous stride -- "He ran like a giant wolf," said handicapper Clem Florio -- and compare it to those of past greats. To no one's surprise, Secretariat came within an inch of the 25-foot mark set by Man o' War in 1920.

Few know how narrowly the colt escaped injury that day. After the workout, Lang discovered a sharp stone on the track, inside one of Secretariat's hoof prints. The pyramid-shaped pebble was the size of a quarter and scarred on the edge, as though grazed by the animal's foot.

Lang scooped up the stone and palmed it discreetly. "Had he struck it an inch the other way, the horse could have fractured his foot," he said.

Boldly swinging wide

The Preakness loomed as a rematch between Secretariat and his cousin, Sham, a gutsy bay colt and the Derby runner-up. Sham also had smashed the record at Churchill Downs despite banging his head on the starting gate, jarring loose two of his teeth.

A then-record crowd (61,657) jammed Pimlico on race day, creating a Beltway backup three exits long. Actor Jim Nabors sang the national anthem, accompanied by the Colts Marching Band. Then Unitas motored down the stretch in a convertible, waving to fans.

It would be a day for those clad in white and blue.

True to form, Secretariat broke dead last. Then he veered outside, hit the gas and passed the field on the first bend.

"Historically, horses who swing wide on that tight clubhouse turn wind up at a Chinese laundry on Belvedere Avenue," said Nack. Secretariat took Dead Man's Curve and barreled on.

The bold maneuver defined horse and rider forever. Jockey Ron Turcotte (3,033 career wins) calls the Preakness "my greatest race," though admitting he teetered between brilliant and bonehead. "If I'd got beat, I might as well have hung up my tack," said Turcotte. "But I had a V-12 under me, so why not let him run?"

Down the stretch blazed Secretariat, with his shadow, Sham, closing on the outside. "I really thought I had that horse beat," said Pincay, aboard Sham. "But he got his second wind somehow -- and Turcotte never used the whip."

If anyone tapped Secretariat at the end, it was a boozy fan. During the race, infield rowdies broke through a snow fence, scaled a hedge and clambered onto the main rail. Turcotte believes someone touched his mount "because all of a sudden he accelerated a bit, like I'd hit him."

'Robbed' here; infamy in N.Y.

Secretariat won by 2 1/2 lengths (again), sending second-place Sham to the showers. The tote board flashed his time (1: 55), one second off the Preakness standard set in 1971 by Canonero II.

Or was it?

In the pressbox, two veteran clockers for the Daily Racing Form glanced at their stopwatches, then the tote board. Frank Robinson caught Secretariat in a numbing 1: 53 2/5. Gene "Frenchy" Swartz did the same.

Had the colt been bamboozled? The debate raged for days. Ultimately, Secretariat settled for a clocking of 1: 54 2/5 recorded by E.T. McLean, Pimlico's official hand-timer. But McLean had watched from the porch of the jockeys' room, nearly one-quarter mile from the starting gate.

"Hell, I was closer to the finish than the start," McLean said last week from his home in South Carolina. "Maybe those [Daily Racing Form] guys had a better perspective than I did."

CBS-TV staged a celluloid match race between Secretariat and Canonero II, running videotapes of their Preakness victories simultaneously on a split screen. Secretariat won, to no avail. The Maryland Racing Commission denied the protest.

"I've timed the videotape [of the race] dozens of times, and it's always a track record," said Florio, handicapper for the Maryland Jockey Club. "Secretariat got murdered; he was robbed."

Undaunted, Secretariat headed for the Belmont Stakes and mythdom. A nation held on for the ride. The colt made the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. Artists jockeyed to paint his portrait. Bumper stickers touted him for president.

Secretariat won by a landslide. He blew past Sham early, doubling and re-doubling his lead. Three lengths six 12 24.

Far back, Cordero, Baeza and their mounts struggled to stay within camera range. Cordero actually believed they were gaining on the leader.

"Every time I looked up, Secretariat looked smaller and smaller, which is what happens when a horse gets tired -- he looks scrunched up," Cordero said. "So I'd yell over to Baeza, 'We're getting close -- look how little he is.' "

At the sixteenth-pole, Baeza shouted back: "Forget it. He just finished the race."

Secretariat won in 2: 24, a world dirt-track record for 1 1/2 miles. He erased the 1957 Belmont mark set by Gallant Man, whom he would have trounced by 13 lengths.

Sham finished last, 43 lengths back, and never raced again. "It broke his heart, trying so hard to beat that horse," Pincay said.

Secretariat barely broke a sweat, running into history.

"Those three races should be hung in the Walters, beside the Monet exhibit," Nack said recently. Witnesses called it an epiphany. At Belmont, more than 5,300 racegoers kept their winning tickets as keepsakes, rather than cash them.

'Jail,' sales and sire

Secretariat's 31-length victory roused 30 million viewers. As the Belmont unfolded, golfer Jack Nicklaus fell to his knees before his TV set, cried and pounded his fist on the floor. His reaction disturbed him. "Why me? I'm not a racing fan," Nicklaus told CBS race commentator Heywood Hale-Broun.

"Jack," he said, "your whole life is a quest for perfection, and you saw it in the Belmont, and it moved you." Nicklaus nodded.

The race was on to peddle the horse. Vendors hawked Secretariat hats, posters, T-shirts, figurines and playing cards. One man wanted to pelletize and sell the horse's manure. Chenery demurred. "We wanted ancillary income from him, but we wanted it done with taste," she said.

Secretariat started six more races, winning four. In November, 1973, he retired to stud as part of his $6.08 million syndication, a deal Chenery struck when he was 2 years old. The money saved the family farm but pasteurized the horse before his prime.

"We never saw the true Secretariat, because horses mature at age 5," Turcotte said. "The last four times I rode him, I could see how much lighter on his feet he was, how he skipped over ground, how he was learning to race."

And then he just vanished.

"He was miserable that first winter [at Claiborne Farm]," Chenery said. "He didn't know why he'd been taken away from the crowds, in peak form, and stuck in the country with nothing to do.

"I remember seeing him look through the barred window in his stall and thinking, 'Buddy, you're in jail and don't know why.' "

The next spring, Secretariat began foaling around. Of his 663 offspring, 46 percent have won races, including Risen Star, the 1988 Preakness and Belmont champ.

"He wasn't a bad sire, he just never reproduced himself," said Dan Liebman, executive editor of The Blood-Horse magazine. Secretariat's legacy will be as a sire of broodmares: His daughters have produced 120 stakes winners (17th all-time). Northern Dancer leads with 206.

Big Red was euthanized in 1989, at age 19, the victim of a degenerative hoof disease. His necropsy revealed a 21-pound heart, nearly twice normal size. "It explained why he was able to do what he did on the track," said Dr. Thomas Swerczek, professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky.

Secretariat's heart is the largest he has ever seen, said Swerczek, who has examined thousands. "Only one came close, and it weighed 19 pounds."

The heart belonged to Sham.

Those touched by Secretariat cherish his relics. Nack has two horseshoes. Turcotte, 56, still has the colt's saddle and the whip he rarely used.

"I last saw him in 1977," Turcotte said. "I went to his pasture and called, 'Hi, Big Red.' He pricked his ears and approached. I reached over and kissed his snout, and he rubbed his head against me. Then he walked away and I thought, 'God, this horse could run today.' "

A year later, Turcotte was thrown during a race and paralyzed below the waist. He never saw Secretariat again, but says he hopes to ride him in heaven:

"That thought brings tears to my eyes."

More on Secretariat

Pimlico Race Course commemorates the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown today, with a celebration that includes appearances by Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, and his jockey, Ron Turcotte. It begins a week of festivities leading up to next Saturday's Preakness.

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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