The biggest assignment of my fledgling sports writing career put me at Belmont Park on June 9, 1973, shadowing Penny Tweedy, the powerful chestnut’s aristocratic owner. I wrote what is known as a sidebar; not the main story about the race, but rather, a piece cataloguing the reactions of the horse’s inner circle.
The new movie “Secretariat” brought back all the memories and the wish that I’d saved a few dozen of the race programs. Wouldn’t that have been an eBay bonus! I probably have just one, buried deep among the boxes in my cavernous attic (think of the anonymous crate into which they put the Arc of the Covenant in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” before wheeling the box into a vast warehouse where it vanished into the gloom.)
At the start of that special Saturday, I hung out with a few dozen other members of the media by the barn where Secretariat was stabled, happily aware of the great privilege my newly bestowed press pass imparted, though I wasn’t too sure what to do with it.
My initial in-person glimpse of Secretariat was fulfillment. His presence was far more powerful than it had been on television, where I first made his acquaintance. You’ve read the adjectives; they all apply, from the striking color of his coat to his rippling musculature and look of confidence. He definitely knew who he was.
When the time arrived for the walk to the paddock, I became part of the parade, buoyed by the feeling–growing every minute–that something far beyond a mere horse race was about to happen. There was just one question hanging over the proceedings: Could Secretariat win the prize that had eluded every great horse since Citation swept the crown in 1948?
I wore a distinctive black and white dress with big polka dots. The wardrobe choice paid off, as it enabled me to spot myself in photos of the march to destiny by Sec (as headline writers called him) and his entourage.
The tree-shaded paddock at Belmont, where Secretariat’s statue now stands, is at once grand and intimate. The horses are close for a turn or two after being saddled before stepping out on the track. In those days, the race’s theme song was “The Sidewalks of New York,” and it struck a chord in me that was untouched by the anthems of the previous two triple crown races, the Kentucky Derby’s “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Maryland, My Maryland” for the Preakness.
This was it, the big moment. How big it would be, I never guessed and I doubt that anyone else did, either. I wish I had every one of those minutes back, so I could polish and appreciate them properly. Watching a movie just doesn’t do it.
I stuck close to Penny Chenery Tweedy, the elegant Meadow Farm owner played in the movie by Diane Lane, who was only eight when Secretariat took the crown. I see that Penny is now 87; I hate to think how old that makes me.
Nothing would get between me and my quarry. Football linebackers were my inspiration as I turned aside interlopers while following her to the box from which she would view the race. She was grace; I was determination. I had yet to develop the tactful hovering technique eventually perfected for other horse races as the years went by when I did the sidebars on owners. Eventually, I came up with a way to remain on the fringes without being too obvious, yet close enough to eavesdrop when necessary for “color” and quotes.
My approach with Mrs. Tweedy (I still tend to call her that, though she is long-divorced and goes by her maiden name) was respectful but persistent. She was quite patient with me, giving thought to all my questions, despite the fact that they were similar to queries she’d answered dozens of times along the path of Secretariat’s many triumphs. Rather more forthcoming than I expected someone of her standing to be, she still commanded respect. I’d call her an approachable aristocrat, always ladylike, but kind, though perhaps a bit less soft than Diane Lane’s portrayal.
Mrs. Tweedy had been here before; her less glamorous Riva Ridge won the Derby and Belmont the previous year, missing out on the Preakness when the track came up muddy and not to his liking. I, however, had not been to Belmont previously, nor had I ever seen a race of this caliber anywhere but on TV. For me, it was like going from zero to 60 in 10 seconds of elevation to the big time.
It was a thrill to see Secretariat in Meadow’s blue and white silks, with his trademark checkered blinker hood, heading to the starting gate with Ron Turcotte aboard. My gaze flicked between him and his owner, a marvel of self-control, though I would think her butterflies certainly outnumbered mine exponentially. Earlier in the year, she had syndicated Secretariat for a record $6.08 million, and I’m sure those who had bought shares were expecting a lot for their money. They got it.
The race began with an “And they’re off!” roar from the crowd as the field of five broke. Sham, the Triple Crown perennial second banana, challenged Sec’s lead, but couldn’t keep up and would eventually finish a discouraged last. As Big Red pulled away from his non-rivals, I forgot my mission and stopped watching Mrs. Tweedy, focusing only on the colt who had become a galloping machine. To some, it may have looked as if he were running off, but the more knowledgeable realized that his jockey was just letting him do his thing. The crowd’s noise increased with every stride, coming to a crescendo like the roar of 1,000 freight trains. We all were one, total adoration and admiration as Secretariat galloped toward a finish line to put an exclamation point on his performance, setting a world record with his 31-length victory in 2:24 for the mile and a half.
Mrs. Tweedy was delighted but restrained; someone with less class would have been freaking out, but that wasn’t her style. As she went to the winner’s circle, I headed off to write; a different reporter was assigned to the press conference.
It had been quite an afternoon, but the excitement of the moment was amplified over the years as Secretariat’s legend grew and I appreciated even more what I had witnessed firsthand and in very special company.
Although I went on to cover the subsequent triple crowns of Seattle Slew (1977) and Affirmed (1978), they weren’t the same. When Affirmed won, it actually seemed as if the Triple had become routine in a sense, but the fact that no horse has been able to take all three races since underlines the fact that it’s a stupendous achievement to top the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont over the space of five weeks. Do the math: it’s been longer since Affirmed’s Triple than it was between Citation’s and Secretariat’s.
On another racing occasion a few years later, I ran into Mrs. Tweedy again and threw her a question to which I thought I knew the answer.
“Who was your favorite horse?” I asked, sure that she would say “Secretariat.” How could she not respond that way; he was everybody’s favorite horse.
Instead, she replied, “Riva Ridge,” explaining that it was because his 1972 victories had helped save The Meadow by averting the sale of the financially troubled farm.
For me, however, and for millions, there is only Secretariat. He was the Man O’ War of our age, and I was privileged to be present for his coronation. How wonderful that there is now a movie which makes it possible for so many others to share that special afternoon.
June 9, 1973 – Only four other horses took on Secretariat at the Belmont for it was expected that the 1-10 favorite would win. What wasn’t expected was the performance Big Red would give.
In the most demanding test of his young life, Secretariat rushed to the lead. He was soon challenged by Sham, who had finished second to Secretariat in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. They raced the half mile in 46 1/5, a suicide pace for a mile and a half race.
But then Secretariat began pulling away as he ran the mile in a stunning 1:34 1/5. The Meadow Stable colt reached the mile and a quarter in 1:59, faster than he ran in setting the Kentucky Derby record. Alone, Secretariat wasn’t racing against other horses, but against the clock, against history. When he finished the last quarter in a mind-blowing 25 seconds, there wasn’t another horse in the same zip code. The magnificent chestnut finished an amazing 31 lengths in front.
“You couldn’t find the other horses with two pairs of binoculars,” said columnist Charlie Hatton.
In winning the Triple Crown, Secretariat set a world-record 2:24, breaking Gallant Man’s Belmont mark by an incredible 2 3/5 seconds.
“He’s the greatest horse that has yet developed in this century,” said Holly Hughes, the senior trainer of America who saw Man o’ War run and saddled the 1916 Kentucky Derby winner. “Yes, he’s the Horse of the Century.”
- Secretariat still holds the record for the Derby (1:59 2/5) and Belmont. No horse has come closer than two seconds at the Belmont.
- The previous biggest margin of victory at the Belmont had been 25 lengths, by Count Fleet in 1943.
- Secretariat was named for the executive secretary (Elizabeth Ham) of Meadow Stable owner Christopher Chenery. Five other names had been rejected before the racing authorities accepted the name Secretariat.
- Secretariat was trained by Lucien Laurin, who at 59 was considering retirement before taking over Meadow Stable’s horses in 1971.
- Ron Turcotte was Secretariat’s regular jockey, sitting atop the horse for 18 of his 21 races. He didn’t ride Secretariat the first two races because he was injured and missed the last race because he was suspended.
- While Secretariat had good pedigree, there were some who thought he wouldn’t be a champion because as a two-year-old in training he was too fat.
- In his first start, Secretariat went off at $3.10 to $1. It was the only race he would go off at more than 3-2. He didn’t get off to a storybook start, being slammed inward almost into the rail. Way out of contention, he made an impressive recovery to finish fourth, only 1? lengths behind the winner.
- To excavate Meadow Stable out of financial difficulty, Penny Chenery Tweedy (the late Christopher Chenery’s daughter) syndicated Secretariat for a record price of $6.08 million in February 1973. The price was based on 32 shares at $190,000 each, with Meadow Stable retaining four shares.
- In winning the 99th Kentucky Derby, Secretariat accomplished the unheard of in a mile and a quarter race — he ran successively faster quarters (25 1/5 seconds, 24, 23 4/5, 23 2/5 and 23).
- While Secretariat is the only horse to ever officially break two minutes in the Derby, Sham was clocked unofficially in 1:59 4/5.
- After Secretariat won the Preakness, Pimlico general manager Chick Lang said, “It is as if God decided to create the perfect horse.”
- On Nov. 6, 1973, nine days after his final race, Aqueduct in New York held “Farewell to Secretariat” Day. A crowd of 32,900 came out on a Tuesday to see Big Red’s final public appearance.
- Outside the paddock at Belmont Park is a statue of Secretariat, who has both his front feet in the air in a classic pose.
- After Secretariat died in 1989, an autopsy revealed that his heart was 2? times larger than that of the average horse.