Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Secretariat Comes to Arlington

Secretariat (with Ron Turcotte up) at Arlington Park,
37 years ago today. Trainer Lucien Laurin (in gray coat)
and owner Penny Chenery Tweedy (with black purse)
are visible in the background. 

     In the 1973 Triple Crown races, a colt named Sham admirably demonstrated both talent and heart. He ran the mile and a quarter of the Kentucky Derby faster than it had ever been run in the 99-year history of the race. Likewise, he covered the mile and three-sixteenths of the Preakness in record time. But he finished second in both races, beaten by two and a half lengths each time. In the Belmont Stakes, he battled gamely with the horse that had defeated him in the other two races. Finally, the strain of trying to keep up with the immortal Secretariat proved to be too much for Sham, who faded out of contention on the backstretch and eventually finished last. He never raced again.
     Having disposed of Sham, Secretariat continued to accelerate—though no other horse was in a position to challenge him. He was running now only against the limits of his own greatness. Jockey Ron Turcotte, who had been in the habit of restraining Secretariat at times to conserve his strength, let him go. “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine!” cried track announcer Chic Anderson.
     In the home stretch, Turcotte heard the cheering of the crowd, but he could hear no other horses. He turned around to look over his left shoulder and was astonished to discover that there were none in sight. Secretariat crossed the finish line 31 lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer. When the timer showed 2:24 flat, trainer Lucien Laurin thought it had malfunctioned. But the time was correct: Secretariat had beaten the world record for the mile and a half by two full seconds—or about 10 lengths! The people who were fortunate enough to be at Belmont Park that day saw not only what they’d come hoping to see, the coronation of the first Triple Crown champion in a quarter century, but also the greatest race ever run.

     The Triple Crown series is a grueling ordeal, and most horses are given time off afterwards for rest and relaxation. But Secretariat wasn’t like most horses. Just three weeks after his brilliant victory in the Belmont, he was on the track at Arlington Park. Realizing that the horse had won with something in reserve despite the incredible time, Laurin advised owner Penny Chenery Tweedy to run Secretariat in the hastily arranged Arlington Invitational Stakes on June 30. Mrs. Tweedy agreed. She saw it as her duty to give something back to the sport, and she felt that fans in the Midwest deserved a chance to see her famous big red colt in the flesh.
     Only three other horses showed up at Arlington to challenge him, but 41,223 humans were on hand—and they were not disappointed.
     Secretariat was sent off at odds of 1-20. Though he was left behind at the gate, he wasted little time in overpowering his three adversaries. He assumed command shortly after entering the clubhouse turn, even with Turcotte keeping a tight hold on him. Once Secretariat got to the front, the race was over. He galloped to the finish line nine lengths ahead of My Gallant, a veteran of the Kentucky Derby and Belmont who was already familiar with the view of Secretariat from behind. The time was 1:47 for the mile and an eighth, only one-fifth of a second slower than the track record by Damascus.
     “I could have broken the track record if I wanted,” said Turcotte. “The horse was not quite on his feet when the gate was sprung. Rather than rush him, I let him settle himself. I kept him 10 to 12 feet off the rail all the way.”
     Track record or not, Secretariat gave Chicago-area racing fans a shining moment and almost single-handedly salvaged a profitable season for Arlington. “It was a wonderful thrill, the reception we got here,” Laurin said. “I’m glad we brought him.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert


  1. I thought the only bet available was "Secretariat or THE FIELD". Could be wrong. Anyway, nice article.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Troll. You are probably right about that. The past performances in Daily Racing Form shows .05 to $1, but that doesn't necessarily contradict your recollection. Thanks again.