Secretariat: 'He was something else - I'm still waiting to see one as good'
James Burn talks to the superstar's inner circle including jockey Ron Turcotte
Fans' Favourites is a weekly feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they tug on our heartstrings. This week's subject: Secretariat
The contest for greatest Flat horse of all time is, according to some historians, strictly a three-runner affair.
Sea-Bird, who won the 1965 Derby on the bridle and then followed up by winning the Arc – Europe's other most iconic race – is an obvious pretender to the throne, while unbeaten modern-day champion Frankel needs little introduction to younger audiences.
The third leading contender is Secretariat, a big, red emblem of horseracing in the States, where he became the first Triple Crown winner for 25 years in 1973 thanks to his jaw-dropping displays that still resonate despite the grainy video footage from the time.
He was brought to life again in 2010 in a Disney film, which starred Hollywood big guns Diane Lane and John Malkovich, who played owner Penny Chenery and trainer Lucien Laurin.
Secretariat's jockey Ron Turcotte, portrayed by real life rider Otto Thorwarth, says there was plenty of Tinseltown touches to the production, which may have been unnecessary given the story the strapping son of Bold Ruler penned during a sublime career that qualifies him for mention in the same breath as Sea-Bird and Frankel.
Bred by Chenery's father Christopher at Meadow Stable in Virginia, Secretariat was born in 1970 by which time his connections had lost a coin toss in a foal-sharing arrangement with Ogden Phipps, an influential owner-breeder who stood Bold Ruler and, as part of the agreement, picked a filly instead of the future superstar.
Laurin, a French-Canadian, was responsible for training the chestnut, who possessed size and scope – hence his Big Red nickname – but was not necessarily a two-year-old flying machine.
Speaking from his home in New Brunswick on the eastern edge of Canada, Turcotte recalls: "The first time I saw him I was astonished. He had this manner in his box and I said to Lucien, 'Who's this pretty boy?'
"I remember coming back from my vacation in New Brunswick and Lucien told me to put my tack on him and see what I thought. It was like getting on an older horse. He was so calm and relaxed, unbelievable. He was very sensible and intelligent and it was love at first sight.
"We had to gallop him and work him slower to build him up. We took our time as he was a big horse who carried a lot of flesh. He was a big doer – by which I mean a big eater – and would have 18 quarts of oats a day."
That equates to 10kg of grub, 2kg more than legendary chaser Kauto Star would munch in his pomp.
It did not take long for Turcotte to realise he was on something special – "about his fourth workout" – but Secretariat was beaten on his first start at Aqueduct under Paul Feliciano, who then won on him at the track soon after.
"I rode him on his third start and could do anything with him," adds the Hall of Famer, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes on Riva Ridge the previous year.
"I went through holes that were unbelievable for a two-year-old. There was no doubt in my mind he'd go on and he ended the year as champion two-year-old. I was very sweet on him and I'd been on a lot of good horses – Northern Dancer, Dahlia, Damascus and Riva Ridge – but he was incomparable.
"I couldn't compare him to anything I'd ridden before; he was such a generous, intelligent horse and would give you everything he had. He was beautiful to ride. There was a lot of excitement at the end of his two-year-old season."
Perhaps keen to capitalise on that excitement, Secretariat's team syndicated him as a stallion for a record-breaking $6.08 million, around $37m today, but the money men may have been worried when the colt suffered a shock reverse in the Wood Memorial.
"He wasn't right," Turcotte stresses. "I didn't know before, but he had a big abscess, the size of a plum, on his upper lip and he was running a fever. No-one told me though and he kept throwing his head in the race, and wasn't responding like he could, but I didn't know anything about it until we got to Kentucky for the Derby. A vet, Dr [Manuel] Gilman, asked me if I'd worked him and I said I had and wasn't happy.
"He asked if the abscess had come to a head and I yelled, 'What abscess?!' He told me the whole story and that's why he got beat in the Wood. He then worked beautifully and was ready for the Derby. I didn't think he could get beaten. I was very confident. When he was right, there wasn't a horse in the world who could beat him."
His date with destiny began at Churchill Downs on May 5, 1973 when the emerging darling of not just the sport, but an entire nation, lined up in the Kentucky Derby.
"I took him back to last, but on the back side we picked up horses like they were standing still," Turcotte says. "He just kept going and going. Sham was in front of us when we turned for home and I wanted Secretariat to switch leads and tapped him, and he took off."
The 80-year-old, left a paraplegic following a career-ending fall in 1978, did not need anything else to increase his faith in his horse of a lifetime but before the Preakness Stakes – the second leg of the Triple Crown – he got it.
"Coming to the Preakness, he produced a workout at Pimlico faster than horses were running on the track – nobody could believe he could work that fast," says the former jockey, who was soon to enjoy another wow moment.
"I again took him back to last in the Preakness and let him gallop the first sixteenth of a mile and then, on the first turn, we just passed every horse. We set our pace and could have won by ten lengths more than we did – he was just amazing. That really strengthened my belief that the Belmont would be a cinch because I knew he could run all day. Other people worried about his stamina but I never was.
"We had three weeks until the Belmont so I had to give him some strong workouts, but he was working in record time, working faster than horses were running the same afternoon. His last workout was faster than he ran the Kentucky Derby. I was so sure he'd win and I went out for dinner with Lucien after his last workout and I told him if the horse was beaten I'd retire; that's how certain I was."
The 1973 Belmont Stakes is one of most famous races in US history as Secretariat and old rival Sham, who also finished second in the Preakness, duelled at a gut-busting gallop that only one of them could sustain.
"Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!" racecaller Chic Anderson bellowed as the three-year-old romped to an astonishing 31-length victory, sealing the Triple Crown in the process.
"I had plenty of horse and never really asked him to run, but he still set a world record," reflects Turcotte without even a hint of hyperbole.
That record still stands today, so was there any surprise? "No, not according to the way he was working," he replies.
Laffit Pincay: 'Sham would have been a champion in any other year'
Laffit Pincay, whose 9,530 victories once made him racing's most prolific jockey, is, as Sham's rider, well placed to comment on Secretariat, even if he was left scratching his head in disbelief at times.
"The best I ever saw," he says from California with unflinching certainty.
"I knew he would be tough to beat in the Derby, but it was a mile-and-one-quarter race and the rumours were that Bold Ruler's progeny would not go that far.
"The night before the Derby, Frank Martin, Sham's trainer, said, 'Listen Laffit, tomorrow this horse is going to do something that no other horse has done in the Derby', and Sham ran a phenomenal race. He broke the track record too and horses now don't even come close to that time. Frank was right; he knew he had something special in Sham, who never quit, but there was something extra special in another horse."
Pincay retained optimism for the Preakness, but that did not last long. "Secretariat made that big run on the first turn, which was suicidal, and I thought for sure I'd beat him coming down the stretch and he'd get tired, but he just kept going," he goes on. "I've never seen a horse make a run like that in the first turn and still have something left at the end to beat everybody else. I haven't seen it since."
The charismatic Panamanian still talks in hushed tones when discussing the Belmont that had a touch of the mythical about it.
"Then he won the Belmont by so many lengths, and not only that, going the pace we were," he adds. "We were going half a mile in 45 seconds, which you never see at Belmont, and he still finished strongly at the end – you've never seen that before or since."
Pincay went on to partner Affirmed, the 1978 Triple Crown winner under Steve Cauthen and America's last until American Pharoah came along in 2015.
"I rode Affirmed and a lot of people ask me how good Sham was and I say this, 'If Affirmed had run in that Kentucky Derby he would have finished third', definitely," the 74-year-old states.
"I still say he's the best horse I rode because he did everything, but if he'd been in the Derby that year he'd have finished third behind Secretariat and Sham.
"I'm pretty sure Sham would have been a champion in any other year. I've never seen anything come close to Secretariat and, to me, he's the best horse who ever lived. He went to the post perfect, like he knew what he was doing. I'm glad I got to ride against him; he made me famous too. I've been signing so many autographs since it's not even funny. People always say, 'You rode Sham – the horse who finished second to Secretariat'."
'I can't fault him in any way'
Turcotte, who grew up around horses as his father, a lumberjack, used them before mechanical replacements, fell into racing when moving to Ontario with his brother to work as a roofer and is not about to disagree with his former weighing room colleague's assessment of Secretariat.
"I took everything one day at a time with him," he says. "My life was good. I'm a quiet kind of guy, a family man. I got invited to lots of parties, but I was never really great at that, so I tended to my work more than anything else.
"He drew in the crowds and they'd go crazy over him. He was something else. He was a show off, but in a nice way, playful. I have a feeling, and people would say the same, that he knew that he was the best and how good he was. He's the best horse I've ever ridden or ever seen.
"Hollie Hughes, who trained the winner of the 1916 Kentucky Derby, came to me before the Belmont and told me he thought Secretariat was the greatest horse he'd ever seen. Not only that he was the best-running horse he'd seen, but the best-made as well. He had everything and was good looking with it too. I can't fault him in any way. I had a Hall of Fame career before I rode him, but to be known as the jockey of Secretariat was something else. I'm still waiting to see one as good." Turcotte is not the only one.
Read more from our Fans' Favourites series:
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