It is rare for officials in any sport to rectify a lingering, embarrassing mistake. It is even rarer when a silver-lined opportunity presents itself to correct the error, especially when it would benefit everyone connected to the sport.
That is precisely the opportunity Maryland racing officials have this week as they salute the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's spectacular Triple Crown sweep in conjunction with the 123rd running of the Preakness.
You see, 25 years ago, while the great horse was winning the hearts of millions in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, Maryland racing officials failed to honor him with their best effort - robbed him, in fact, of the singular most amazing feat in Triple Crown history.
Few people may realize it, including those who follow the sport, but Secretariat accomplished something that may never be duplicated:
Secretariat not only won the Triple Crown, he set new track records in all three races. Yes, he did, even though there is no possible way to know that if you trust official Maryland racing records.
Secretariat was denied the full measure of his achievement by the most embarrassing mistake ever committed by Maryland racing officials. The mistake certainly should have been addressed long ago, but there is still time. In fact, this week, while Pimlico officials offer their fitting tributes to this great horse, what better way to honor him than by officially recognizing the record he earned 25 years ago?
Some recounting of the facts is in order. Sandwiched between his storied performances in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, Secretariat did win the Preakness with a spectacular, wide sweeping run from last place around the first turn. Unfortunately, Pimlico's electric teletimer - which had malfunctioned on numerous occasions in the early 1970s - did not run as well as he did.
When the clocking for the Preakness was posted, the great horse was credited with a pedestrian 1:55 clocking for 1-3/16ths miles, a full second slower than the official track mark set by Canonero II in 1971. Proof of this historic malfunction surfaced immediately when Daily Racing Form's chief clocker, Eugene "Frenchy" Schwartz, and his Maryland-based associate, Frank Robinson, quickly informed track officials (and members of the press) that they had timed Secretariat independently from different locations in 1:53-2/5, a new track record by 3/5 seconds.
Within days, it was not difficult to make a compelling case that Secretariat had at least run faster than Canonero's 1:54 clocking; a time comparison of their respective videotapes clearly revealed that Secretariat's tape was a few feet shorter.
Clem Florio, an experienced clocker and handicapper for the old Baltimore News American, took the next step, repeatedly timing Secretariat's Preakness on video. Florio also reported that his clocking was 1:53-2/5, identical to the separate times recorded by the two DRF clockers.
The collected evidence - with considerable documentation - was shared immediately with Chick Lang, general manager of Pimlico, and members of the Maryland Racing Commission in the belief that they would not allow such an obvious error to override such a historic achievement. But to a young reporter's surprise, each brushed off the matter with complete disdain.
"There's no reason at all to rectify a clocking already in the books as official," said one official.
"Only a handful of horse players really care about race clockings in the first place," said another.
Most racing fans would beg to differ, not only on behalf of Secretariat's true records, but on the notion that millions of dollars are bet legally on horse races every day with the understanding that all handicapping information is supposed to be as accurate as possible. Didn't Secretariat deserve to be credited with the first and only perfect Triple Crown sweep, a sweep of all three races in track record time? Didn't fans deserve an accurate clocking? Didn't this great horse deserve better treatment by those who "reviewed" the matter during the summer of 1973?
Some more facts: The evidence was delivered to Bill Creasy, producer of CBS Triple Crown telecast. Within a week after Secretariat's 31-length triumph in the Belmont States, Creasy used the provided material to produce a half-hour TV special that clearly showed Canonero running slower than Secretariat in side-by-side videotape replay. This demonstration convinced Secretariat's owner Penny Chenery-Tweedy to join CBS in formally requesting a racing commission review of the Preakness clocking. Fans were buoyed by the possibilities. But CBS did not bring a properly prepared case to the hearing. Instead of presenting an accurately calibrated tape of both races to the commission, CBS merely presented the Canonero and Secretariat tapes side by side on a split TV screen. CBS did not present a clear way to discern the official starting pole, or the split-second clocking.
Although the crude demonstration firmly established that Secretariat had indeed run a few beats faster than Canonero, the missing mathematical detail left the Maryland Racing Commission with wiggle room to admit only that the official teletimer had failed. Instead of accepting the DRF clocking (1:53-2/5), the commission sidestepped the matter and substituted the clocking of 1:54-2/5, posted late by E.T. McLean, the track's "official timer." (McLean later conceded that he had timed the race with his stopwatch from a poor vantage point in the Pimlico infield.)
To be sure, this matter will not save or lose lives. And there is no question that Secretariat survived the series of errors to become the most celebrated horse of modern times. But we are talking about the accurate records of a great champion who is being honored this week. Something far more dramatic would make a telling point. Will the present owners of Pimlico seize the opportunity to acknowledge the record clocking Secretariat earned in 1973, a clocking still unsurpassed by any Preakness winner in a quarter-century? Wouldn't it be the perfect 25th anniversary tribute to the most electrifying horse most of us will ever see? And most of all, wouldn't it simply be the right thing to do?
Steve Davidowitz, a free-lance writer/handicapper, covered his first Triple Crown in 1973 as senior editor of the Baltimore-based Turf and Sport Digest magazine.
Pub Date: 5/10/98