Like dogwoods in bloom, Secretariat arrived on the penultimate day of March in 1970. We would not know it for a few years, but America was getting a hero just when it most needed one.
He has been gone longer than he lived, but can Big Red really be 50?
I was 15 then, learning to drive and fracturing the English language, I feel certain now, in early attempts at sports journalism. I had no idea that on The Meadow, in Caroline County, Va., a chestnut colt by Bold Ruler was nursing his dam and taking first steps in a 19-year career that he would seldom be out of the news.
Too many other things were going on then for this Arkansas kid to pay much attention to young horses.
* John Wayne, striking a blow for the Generation Gap, received an Academy Award for playing a one-eyed sheriff at the same ceremony that "Midnight Cowboy," rated X upon its release, was named Best Picture of 1969.
* The Beatles, choosing to disregard their own message ("We Can Work It Out"), truly let it be after taking popular music to the stratosphere. Speaking of music, a senseless shooting on a college campus (Kent State) that spring would prompt Neil Young to write "(four dead in) Ohio," with an opening lyric that still haunts: "Tin soldiers, and Nixon's coming."
* The same Richard Nixon who watched a football game in Arkansas a few months earlier was sending American troops to Cambodia -- not to expand the war in Vietnam, he said, but to end it. Nixon, one reads, was thus inspired by Gen. George S. Patton, whom George C. Scott would portray on screen in that year's Oscar-winning Best Picture -- moving someone to say that perhaps before making his next policy decision the president should watch "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
That Nixon, by 1973 embroiled in the Watergate scandal that would end his presidency, would be overshadowed nationally by a racehorse seemed unthinkable. And yet, in a five-week stretch without parallel in American racing, Secretariat made the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.
Big Red, as he would be called, was to the manor born, debuting on the track the year that older stablemate Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. If not for an injury that sidelined half-brother Sir Gaylord (by Turn-To) in 1962, Secretariat might have been a second-generation Derby winner.
From the start, Somethingroyal's 1970 foal was something special. The word was out before his career debut July 4, 1972, though he placed a troubled fourth at Aqueduct on America's birthday. It's said that a man in the press box rose from his chair after the race and said, "There's my Derby horse right there." Secretariat would not lose on the track again until the following spring, although disqualified in that fall's Champagne Stakes.
Billed by some as "the perfect horse ... the horse God built," Secretariat turned 3 as the Derby favorite and given a chance as the first Triple Crown winner since Citation swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1948.
The only flaw anyone could see was the so-called Derby jinx surrounding his sire. Bold Ruler, Horse of the Year at 3, placed third in the 1957 Derby as 6-5 favorite -- the one won by Iron Liege when Bill Shoemaker, riding Gallant Man, misjudged the position of the finish line. With Bold Ruler dying in 1971, Secretariat represented perhaps the last good chance for Bold Ruler to sire a Derby winner. But could any son of Bold Ruler, it was asked then, get a mile and a quarter, the Derby distance
History recorded that answer on May 5, 1973, when Secretariat set a track record of 1:59 2-5 in the 99th Derby at Churchill Downs. Trailing the field early, Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. He finished 2 1/2 lengths clear of Sham, perhaps the Derby winner in some other year, while Our Native was eight lengths farther back in third. Only one other horse, Monarchos in 2001 at 1:59.97, has won the Derby in less than 2 minutes.
Like a snowflake, each of Secretariat's Triple Crown victories was different, fleshing out his legend. With a slingshot move around the first turn seldom seen in any race, much less the Preakness, Secretariat won the middle jewel by 2 1/2 over Sham with Our Native third, eight lengths farther back -- same margins as the Derby.
The only flaw on Preakness Day concerned the time of the race. The infield teletimer, later found to be malfunctioning, said 1:55 for the mile and three sixteenths; meanwhile, two other clockers reported 1:53 2-5, bettering the track record of 1:54 set by Canonero II in 1971. Not until 2012 was the matter resolved with the Maryland Racing Commission changing the time of Secretariat's win from 1:54 2-5 to 1:53.
By now an international superstar, Secretariat went to the Belmont Stakes with all eyes upon him. In a splendid biography, William Nack wrote: "Secretariat suddenly transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War." Now, all he had to do win was win the mile-and-half Test of the Champion.
That he did, with what the New York Times called "a sense of finality." People who don't know their congressman's name might have heard something about Secretariat winning by 31 lengths, "moving like a tremendous machine" (announcer Chic Anderson's words) and clocked in 2:24 flat -- the winning margin and final time both race records. While other finishes certainly were more dramatic, no performance in racing history matches that of Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes June 9, 1973.
Years later, turf writer Steven Crist summed it up in an ESPN documentary: "You're not supposed to score 100 points in a basketball game (like Wilt Chamberlain), you're not supposed to win the Masters by 12 strokes (Tiger Woods) and you're not supposed to win the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths."
Curiosity finally got the better of jockey Ron Turcotte, who in the stretch peeked under his shoulder for a quick look.
Turcotte (played by Hot Springs native Otto Thorwarth in a 2010 movie about the horse), said in 1993: "Down the backstretch, with a half-mile to go, Secretariat was clearly giving me a rocket ride. I never experienced anything like it. Faster, faster, faster. Enemy hoofbeats soon disappeared -- too far behind us on the track for me to hear. What a race. What a memory."
Secretariat merely proved wrong those who said no horse, especially one by Bold Ruler, could do all that, that his record $6.08 million syndication early in his 3-year-old would amount to just another torn ticket at the racetrack.
Secretariat, alas, was not perfect, though 16 for 21. I find only one small knock against him, that he did not distinguish himself in defeat to the degree Zenyatta did against Blame in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Classic or Seattle Slew, a later Triple Crown winner, against Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup. I do not mind being in the minority on this matter.
Secretariat proved a useful sire, not one for the ages perhaps but good enough to produce a dual-classic winner like Risen Star and a Horse of the Year, Lady's Secret. It can be argued endlessly that no horse had a better 3-year-old season, Secretariat adding an Eclipse Award as male grass champion in 1973 while repeating as Horse of the Year.
He made the national news one last time after dying of laminitis, a painful foot disease. Other horses won more races and made more money, but Secretariat is gone and there won't be another one like him.
Gracious owner Penny Chenery, who lived until age 95, told author Lawrence Scanlon that Secretariat, "next to having my children, was the most remarkable event in my life."
So, happy birthday, big fellow!