Secretariat: The Icon of the Industry

Secretariat: The Icon of the Industry

(1973 Kentucky Derby winner’s circle, credit Churchill Downs Racetrack)

Secretariat burst into the American consciousness in the tumultuous time of the 1970s with America in the midst of a divisive war in Vietnam, still recovering from the assassination of prominent political figures such as John F. Kennedy and enduring the Watergate scandal of President Richard M. Nixon that would result in his resignation. Sports writers like Louisville’s Billy Reed credit Secretariat with having an incomparable impact among race horses as the sport’s first TV star, a diversion from Watergate, and a symbol of “…nobility in the age of scoundrels.” Although his career on the race track only lasted a little more than a year, Secretariat’s athletic achievements still set the standard for Thoroughbred racing: track records in all three Triple Crown races during his 1973 sweep and winning the Belmont Stakes by an astounding 31 lengths. Secretariat garnered national headlines during his amazing run and still claims a unique position in the history of Thoroughbred racing.

A chestnut colt foaled in 1970, the St. Petersburg Times (FL) described Secretariat as barrel-chested with perfect legs and a prominent white star on his forehead. His stride measured between 25-30 feet, and he was dubbed “Big Red” by his exercise rider, Jim Gaffney. His team included owner Penny Chenery of Meadow Stable, who took over operation of the farm from her father and who went on to become a fixture in the Thoroughbred industry; jockey Ron Turcotte, who had great success in both the United States and his native Canada in the 1960s and trainer Lucien Laurin, also a native of Canada who became a jockey and later began training, joining Meadow Stable in 1971. Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat, also received much recognition for his work with the horse. Eddie had worked with Lucien for years, and joined the trainer in the transition to Meadow Stable.

The team found great success with Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge in 1972, and the emergence of Secretariat brought continued hope for the future. Winning seven of nine starts as a two-year-old, Secretariat was named Horse of the Year in 1972 (a rare feat for a two-year-old) and became the clear favorite for the 1973 Kentucky Derby. Secretariat prepped for the Run for the Roses at Aqueduct in New York. He won his first two starts that year in the Bay Shore and the Gotham Stakes, but a surprise loss in the Wood Memorial left some doubting his ability to succeed in the Triple Crown. Rumors were rampant claiming Secretariat was not completely healthy while some doubted the ability of a son of Bold Ruler to get the Derby distance.

(The Derby starters in the 1973 post parade, credit Churchill Downs Racetrack)

It wouldn’t take long to assure everyone that Secretariat was ready for the challenges of the three-year-old classics. On May 5, 1973, Secretariat came from off the pace to win the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths. With a time of 1:59 2/5, Secretariat still holds the track record for 1 ¼ miles at Churchill Downs. The pre-Derby criticisms had now turned to accolades. There were comparisons being made to Triple Crown Champions Count Fleet and Citation and hopes for an end to the 25-year Triple Crown drought were at an all-time high.

Attention turned to the Preakness Stakes, which Secretariat won, but not without controversy. The official time of the race was 1:54 2/5. However, the Daily Racing Form clocked the race at 1:53 2/5, which would have been a Preakness Record. The controversy lasted many years until Secretariat officially obtained the record via Maryland Racing Commission review in 2012, with an official time of 1:53. Despite the records in the Derby and the Preakness, no one was prepared for what would happen at the Belmont Stakes. Running at a furious pace, Secretariat set a world record of 2:24 for a 1 ½ mile race and won the Belmont by an astounding 31 lengths.

Secretariat’s athletic achievements go beyond the track records set in the Triple Crown races. During his three-year-old season in 1973, six of Secretariat’s nine victories either equaled or broke existing records. At the end of that amazing year, Secretariat was named Horse of the Year and champion three-year-old colt. His last two victories of 1973 came on grass surfaces, an achievement that led to his also being named champion male turf horse. He received Thoroughbred racing’s highest honor when he was named to its Hall of Fame in 1974, merely a year after his astounding three-year-old campaign. Upon retirement, Secretariat became a stallion at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, passing away from complications due to laminitis in 1989. Secretariat’s recognition outside the industry is one of his trademarks. He has been named one of ESPN’s top 100 athletes of the 20th century; has his own U.S. postage stamp and appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week.

(The winning team on the 1973 trophy presentation stand including owner Penny Chenery (center) and trainer Lucien Laurin (to the left of Ms. Chenery), credit Churchill Downs Racetrack)

An athlete of such importance to the industry lives on in various ways. The late Penny Chenery established permanent platforms in which to protect and promote Secretariat’s legacy. One avenue is; an online source that celebrates Thoroughbred racing’s rich past, enhances the awareness of the sport through fan education and enriches racing’s future by assisting related charities and causes. Another is the Secretariat Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission “…to assist and support various charities and organizations that meet the Thoroughbred racing community’s needs,” particularly regarding equine health. In addition, both and the Foundation are integral parts of the Secretariat Festival in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. This annual event brings fans together to celebrate the memory of “Big Red.” The Kentucky Derby Museum honors the legacy of Secretariat through its permanent exhibition, which contains many items from the collection of the Chenery family. Learn more about that here.

Chris Goodlett

Chris Goodlett

Director of Curatorial & Educational Affairs for the Kentucky Derby Museum.