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Secretariat - Winning the 1973 Derby and Preakness

Bill Nack, a sport's writer who watched Secretariat's triple-crown races, wrote a definitive biography about the great champion.  The film - "Secretariat" - is based on that book.

Describing Big Red's run at Churchill Downs, Nack tells us he was sure Secretariat could not win the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby (in 1973):

...I was resigned to the worst, and Secretariat  looked hopelessly beaten as the field of 13 dashed past the finish line the first time.  He was dead last.  Transfixed, I could not take my eyes off him.

In the first turn, [Ron] Turcotte [Secretariat's jockey] swung him to the outside and Secretariat began passing horses, and down the back side I watched the jockey move him boldly from eighth to seventh to sixth.  Secretariat was fifth around the far turn and gaining fast on the outside.  I began chanting:  "Ride him, Ronnie!  Ride him!"

Sham[who was trained by Poncho Martin] was in front, turning for home, but then there was Secretariat, joining him at the top of the stretch.  Laffit Pincay, on Sham, glanced over and saw Secretariat and went to the whip.  Turcotte lashed Secretariat.  The two raced head and head for 100 yards, until gradually Secretariat pulled away.

He won by 2 1/2 lengths.  The crowd roared, and I glanced at the tote board:  1:59 2/5!  A new track and Derby record.  (Secretariat:  The Making of a Champion, by William Nack, page 355.)

It wasn't just a win that day.  It was one of the greatest Derby races of all time.  Nack continues:

I had just witnessed the greatest Kentucky Derby performance of all time.  Secretariat's quarter-mile splits were unprecedented - :25 1/5, :24, :23 4/5, 23 2/5 and :23.  He ran each quarter faster than the preceding one.  (Nack, page 356.)

Two weeks later, it was time for the Preakness at Pimlico.  Once again, Secretariat was last out of the gate.  He didn't stay there for long:

In its own way, Secretariat's performance in the 1 3/16-mile Preakness was even more brilliant than his race in the Derby.  He dropped back to last out of the gate, but as sthe field dashed into the first turn, Turcotte nudged his right rein as subtly as a man adjusting his cuff, and the colt took off like a flushed deer. 

The turns at Pimlico are tight, and it had always been considered suicidal to take the first bend too fast, but Secretariat sprinted full-bore around it, and by the time he turned into the back side, he was racing to the lead.

Here Turcotte hit the cruise control.  Sham gave chase in vain, and Secretariat coasted home to win by 2 1/2.  The electric timer malfunctioned, and Pimlico eventually settled on 1:54 2/5 as the official time, but two Daily Racing Form clockers caught Secretariat in 1:53 2/5, a track record by three fifths of a second.  (Nack, pages 356-57.)

After Big Red's back-to-back victories, national news magazines published his picture on their covers:

Secretariat suddenly transcended being a racehorse and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.  (Nack, page 357.)

Although his 1973 runs at the Derby and Preakness made Secretariat  famous, his breathtaking performance at the Belmont Stakes - where his track record still stands - was even more impressive.

See, also:

Video - Secretariat Wins the 1973 Belmont by 31 Lengths

Video - Secretariat's Last Run

Video - Secretariat and His Big Heart


Media Credits

Clip from SportCentury's "Classic Triple Crown Performances," online courtesy ESPN.  The entire documentary, plus two additional videos about Secretariat, are available from Secretariat.com.

Quoted passages from Secretariat:  The Making of a Champion, by William Nack, online courtesy Google Books.

 

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