Kentucky Derby 1973
Belmont Stakes 1973
TRIPLE CROWN WINNER American Pharoah’s recent loss in the 2015 Travers Stakes has, I’ve noticed, occasionally been accompanied by the erroneous remark that the greatest of all Triple Crown champions, the incomparable Secretariat, had also lost that race in Saratoga, the fabled “graveyard of champions.” This misstatement, coupled with the off-hand comment by Donald Trump a week earlier that “Secretariat wasn’t one of the best,” have combined to propel me back to the summer of 1973, to recall at least some of my memories of Secretariat, and to finally record something of the impact he’s had on my life.
In terms of direct, visceral experience, my relationship to Secretariat is reducible to a furtive touch and a mere breath. Yet a similar experience with the great California-bred Swaps—winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby (his owner ignored the other two Triple Crown races) and 1956 Horse of the Year—so affected Bill Nack that it led him to a career that resulted in, among other accomplishments, the writing of the definitive biography of Secretariat, the basis of the widely-viewed 2010 film. Bill and I have become friends, discovering that we have at least two things intensely in common. He is, I quickly learned, an informed appreciator, and public reader, of poetry, not least the poetry of Yeats, the poet whose work I happen to know most about. But Bill is also, of course, not merely enamored of Secretariat, but the world’s leading expert on the horse. That brings us back, again, to that annus mirabilis, 1973.
Though Secretariat had been the phenomenon of that summer, just as The Donald has been the rather-less-glorious phenomenon of the summer of 2015, Big Red had competition for the nation’s attention in 1973. That was also the summer of the Watergate hearings, which I watched on television in the recreation room of Helen Hadley Hall at Yale University. At the time, I was a participant in a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar taught by Harold Bloom, already as spectacularly outstanding, indeed unique, in the world of literary criticism as Secretariat had swiftly become in the world of thoroughbred racing.
The national malaise attending Watergate and the dismal winding-down of the tragedy of the Vietnam War had, for many in the country and not only sports fans, been alleviated by the brilliant performances of “the People’s Horse.” It was not only his power, dazzling speed, and breathtaking come-from-behind style that made Secretariat so popular. He was extraordinarily intelligent and curious, with a playful personality almost as noticeable and appealing as his sheer physical beauty. Magnificently muscled, the “perfect horse” or “horse that God made” had a chestnut coat that shimmered like copper in the sunlight. The photos of him that appeared on the covers of three national magazines in a single week have become collectors’ items. The June 11, 1973 Time cover, one of four framed portraits of Secretariat hanging in my home, shows him looking directly at us, eyes alert, ears pricked. The words to the right of the picture say it all: SUPER HORSE.
In a curious parallel on the personal level, my despondency in the summer of 1973 over the painful breakup of the most passionate relationship of my life had been relieved by the exhilaration of working with Harold Bloom and, even more, by the thrill of watching Secretariat win the first Triple Crown in a quarter-century. Of course, he not only won; he set records in all three races. Those records still stand more than four decades later; and his culminating performance in the last and longest leg, the Belmont Stakes—winning by 31 lengths in an almost miraculous 2:24 flat—is almost impossible to imagine ever being matched let alone beaten.
But back for a moment to those remarks made in 2015, first Trump’s.
The author of The Art of the Deal brazenly claims that his exaggerations and outright falsehoods are “innocent” utilitarian untruths; the end justifies the means, he argues, and hyperbole is effective salesmanship. His art of the deal continues in the current presidential campaign, with the media-savvy huckster playing fast and loose with facts, while touching, with uncanny insight and precision, more than a few nativist nerves and appealing to a much larger Washington-weary constituency, alienated and frustrated by political polarization and dysfunction.
But, to extend to Trump the fairness he seldom extends to others, his remark about Secretariat was not directed at the horse’s legendary performances on the track but at his lesser performance as a stallion: a testosterone-centered category in which the supermodel-collecting billionaire has always flaunted his own prowess. At the overflow August 21 rally in Mobile, Alabama, where Trump made the casual reference to Secretariat, it was in the context of his characteristic boasting about his own brilliance. On this occasion, referring to his “family’s intelligence,” he announced to the crowd that he “believes in the gene thing.” It was thought, he continued in his usual teleprompter-free stream of loose association, that Secretariat “couldn’t produce slow horses. But Secretariat wasn’t all that great, if you want to know the truth.”
From the documentary Penny & Red: the Belmont Stakes extended cut
The slur, as usual with Trump, was a half-truth. It’s true that Secretariat never produced a horse of his own caliber (what sire could?), thus disappointing the unrealistic expectations of some who had invested in that expensive $6 million syndicate and were dreaming of miraculous progeny. But he did in fact sire some stakes-winning colts and a series of remarkable daughters, most notably, the 1986 Eclipse Horse of the Year, Lady’s Secret, who won many Grade 1 races and dominated the field in that year’s Breeder’s Cup Classic. She is one of the few fillies ranked among the 100 top thoroughbreds. Another of Secretariat’s daughters, Terlingua, became the dam of Storm Cat, the most successful sire (his breeding fee at the peak of his stud career was $500,000) in thoroughbred history.
Though it is as a broodmare sire that Secretariat has left his most enduring mark on breeding, he did produce several fine colts as well. His son Tinner’s Way had lifetime earnings of over $1.8 million. Another, Risen Star, was beaten (along with all the other boys) in the 1988 Kentucky Derby by the sensational filly, Winning Colors, who ran wire-to-wire. But he came back in the remaining Triple Crown races, taking The Preakness and then romping to victory in the Belmont, in what was then a time second only to that of his daddy. Another son of Secretariat, General Assembly, won a number of stakes races, most dramatically the 1979 Travers, in which, on a sloppy track, he set a new record, 2:00 minutes flat: a mark that still stands, both for the Travers and for that distance, 1¼ miles, at Saratoga.
I was there that wet day, cheering on General Assembly in the performance of his life, but also in what I saw as an act of poetic justice: payback for the medical fluke that, a half-dozen years earlier, had prevented his father from adding to his Saratoga legacy following his Triple Crown triumph earlier that summer.
I had been in love with Secretariat from the first time I saw him in the flesh and, in fact, actually touched him. That was in Saratoga in early August, 1972, in the minutes leading up to the Hopeful Stakes. I was at the paddock rail when a man standing to my immediate right pointed his camera at Secretariat. With Ronnie Turcotte in the saddle, the beautiful two-year-old, already a camera-conscious star, strode to the rail. I instinctively raised my hand, then thought better of it; after all, he would be on the track competing in just a few minutes. However, Turcotte, with a resigned and understanding nod, gave me the green light. When I stroked that muscled crest of a neck, Secretariat turned and looked right at me with those intelligent eyes. I felt the warmth of his breath on my bare forearm.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux87nv_dBOM1972 Hopeful Stakes
The young colt then went out and ran the most dazzling Hopeful Stakes in the history of a race often thought of as a preview of the following year’s Triple Crown competition. He broke languidly, then, in a sudden, breathtaking move, surged past eight horses, exploding from dead last to first in little more than a furlong. He would do the same thing the following year, in The Preakness, making the other horses look as if they were standing still as he rocketed by. But by then he was a mature three-year-old. When he made that huge move in the Hopeful, I was jumping up and down, yelling to everyone near me that we were watching the future Triple Crown champion. My friends laughed at my premature enthusiasm, but I wasn’t just responding to that unprecedented burst of speed; I was still conscious of having stroked him, still feeling his breath on my arm. Bill Nack has said that he can still remember the life-changing moment when Swaps, the first horse he loved, breathed on his hand as he was stroking him. From the day I touched Secretariat and he breathed on me, I was similarly smitten for life.
The other half-truth I referred to was a claim made in the aftermath of American Pharoah’s failure on August 29. Secretariat, too, we were told, had lost at Saratoga, with the implication sometimes explicit: that he had “lost” the Travers.
American Pharoah did indeed lose the Travers. Bill Nack, recently asked to contribute to a special American Pharoah issue of the horse magazine Equus, told the editor that he was not the right contributor since he could not bring himself to rank the horse among “the greatest in history”; the editor invited him to write instead about a few of those he did so rank. Pharoah’s performance in the Travers may confirm Bill’s skepticism, conveyed to me in an email full of wonderful anecdotes about the golden age of racing.
Prior to the Travers, not even that email could steer me off Pharoah. I was at the track and noticed, from about 40 feet away, that he was sweating as he headed out for the big race, and it seemed clear, even though he led for almost the entire trip, that he was running tired. As his trainer, Bob Baffert, observed even as he graciously complimented the winner, his horse “did not bring his A-game.” No wonder—having been flown back and forth across the country in a matter of three weeks. Following his Belmont win, capping the first Triple Crown in 37 years, Pharoah had won the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth handily, with his jockey, Victor Espinoza, coasting in the final stage of the stretch, saving his horse for what we all hoped would be the Travers. It was well known that Baffert didn’t like Saratoga, whose track-surface he considers deep and demanding; and Saratoga’s reputation as the “graveyard of champions” had been painfully demonstrated to him in past attempts to win the Big One at the Spa. Baffert had saddled five strong horses in previous Travers Stakes, winning only once, in 2001, with the great Point Given.
It was probably the combination of a dazzling work on August 22 at Del Mar, Pharoah’s home track in California, coupled with the NYRA decision to sweeten the Travers purse by $350,000 to $1.6 million in an attempt to lure the colt back across the country, that convinced the owner, Ahmed Zayat, and a more reluctant Baffert to run their horse in the Travers.
On top of the cross-country travel, Pharoah was not given sufficient time, less than three days, to acclimate himself to Saratoga. In the race, even in the lead, he did not seem his usual smooth self. Challenged at the head of the stretch by Frosted, he struggled, but regained the lead. That was the moment to close the deal, and many of us thought he was about to. But having beaten back the challenge by Frosted, Pharoah could not hold off the late rush of Keen Ice, who had also closed on him in the Haskell, cutting his lead from 5 to 21/2 lengths. But, with that race won, Espinoza had eased back. In the Travers, in sharp contrast, he was whipping Pharoah hard. But the horse was spent; Keen Ice passed him in the final seconds, to win by a full length.
His schedule may have been mismanaged, but the 2015 Triple Crown champion had his shot at the Travers and was beaten fair and square. In 1973, Secretariat had never gotten his chance. After easily winning the Arlington Invitational in Chicago, Secretariat was scheduled to run in both major races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Travers, and was overwhelmingly expected to win both. Coming back to the scene of his triumphs as a two-year-old in the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes, the Triple Crown champion was welcomed as a returning hero. The Saturday of the Whitney Stakes, August 4, was declared Secretariat Day; the town was festive, draped in his blue and white colors, and—he lost!
In an astonishing upset, he was beaten by Onion, trained by Allan Jerkins. When those of us watching in growing dismay finally realized that Secretariat, who came in second, wasn’t going to storm past Onion in the stretch, a shockwave of disbelief spread through the grandstand, stunning an adoring crowd that had come to see the triumph, on his way to the Travers, of the greatest thoroughbred since Man o’ War—whose only defeat came as a two-year-old in the 1919 Sanford at (of course) Saratoga, losing to a 100-1 longshot unbelievably but aptly named Upset.
In the eerie silence that followed my hero’s defeat, I left the track in tears. It turned out that Secretariat had not simply been the victim of Jerkins as “giant killer” or of Saratoga as the graveyard of champions, however well-earned both those reputations were. Secretariat had failed to fire in the stretch because of a virus he had been incubating, a low-grade fever that—salt in the wound—also prevented him, as he further sickened, from competing in the Travers.
His son would help make up for that by winning the Travers in the fastest time ever recorded. But that would be six years in the future. The immediate compensation for the numbing disappointment of the Whitney came just a month later, and I was there to see Secretariat’s astonishing recovery. What was originally intended to be a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge, had been cancelled when both horses unexpectedly lost. Instead, a star cast was assembled for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup Invitational.
Along with Riva Ridge and Onion, the talented field included Annihilate ‘Em (the actual winner of the 1973 Travers), Canadian champion Kennedy Road, and the 1972 three-year-old champion, Key to the Mint. I was at Belmont on that September day when, with his stablemate coming in second, Secretariat galloped to victory in 1:452/5, setting a new world record for 11/8 miles on dirt. Once again, I left the track after the feature race—again in tears, but this time tears of joy.
Secretariat in retirement, running for the fun of it
Such tearful reactions may seem excessive to those who don’t share the passion some of us have for truly great horses. So let me try one more story involving tears and Secretariat. This one takes place not long after 1989, the year Secretariat, suffering from incurable laminitis, was humanely euthanized (yes, I wept that day, but that’s not the tale of tears I’m about to tell). I was visiting Saratoga, to see friends and to take in some races. Walking on Union Avenue, I noticed that one of the great houses was serving temporarily as a museum. I went in and was immediately struck by a splendid bronze in the middle of the room.
Perhaps two-thirds life-size, it depicted Secretariat immediately after winning the Kentucky Derby. Having just broken the old Derby record (Secretariat’s 1:592/5 still stands), the horse is pumped. Turcotte is in the saddle, gripping the reins, but one feels the strength pulsing under him. Even Eddie Sweat, his groom and the man who knew “Big Red” best, can barely restrain him. Fluent in bronze, Secretariat’s muscles are sharply delineated, his eyes dilated with excitement. The sculptor had caught perfectly the stunning surface beauty of the horse and the flexed power throbbing beneath that rippling coat.
Noticing me admiring it, the curator walked over and asked if I had a minute for a story involving the sculpture. Unsurprisingly, I did. She told me that the piece was not commissioned but a labor of love, begun by the artist on a much smaller scale, but gradually possessing him until this seemed the minimum size to convey his sense of the horse. When it was exhibited, the sculptor arranged for Eddie Sweat to be flown up from Florida, where he was still working with horses.
When Eddie arrived, the sole black man in a white world of brie and chablis, he walked directly to the sculpture. He proceeded to circle it, slowly and repeatedly, without saying a word and with no discernable facial expression. At last the sculptor, concerned (the curator told me) by the lack of overt response on the part of the man who knew Secretariat most intimately, walked over to him.
“What’s the matter, Eddie,” he asked nervously, “You don’t like it?”
His eyes never leaving the sculpture, Eddie said simply:
“That’s him; that’s him.”
The sculptor, so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the room, later told the curator that lavish praise from the most distinguished art critic in the world could not have meant as much to him as those four words from Eddie Sweat.
The artist was internationally renowned equine sculptor Edwin Bogucki, who had first conceived of a tribute to Secretariat after seeing the horse in retirement at Claiborne Farm, just months before his death. Later, to reproduce the horse in his prime, he examined photos, made sketches, and took measurements. Ron Turcotte was always to be included in the piece. But when Bogucki saw a photograph of Eddie Sweat, alone and in tears, having just surrendered his beloved “Red” to Claiborne to begin his retirement, he knew that no depiction of Secretariat would be complete without the man who knew and loved him best.
The magnificent life-size version of this sculpture is now on permanent display in Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, the entrance to which is guarded by a statue of Man o’ War, its pedestal resting on the transposed grave of the only horse in thoroughbred racing history that can be considered Secretariat’s equal.
Secretariat’s own grave is nearby, at Claiborne Farm. Traditionally, even a champion thoroughbred’s body is cremated; only the symbolic head, heart, and hooves are buried. Secretariat was given the rare honor (shared only, as far as I know, by Man o’ War and the greatest of all fillies, beautiful, doomed Ruffian) of being buried whole. Even the oxygen-crunching organ that powered him to records—revealed in the necropsy to be the largest equine heart ever measured—was returned intact to his body. Visitors to that grave who also happen to love poetry may be reminded of the opening and closing lines of Wordsworth’s sonnet evoking immense power at rest: “Dull would he be of soul who could pass by/ A sight so touching in its majesty…/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
Last video of Secretariat
—Patrick J. Keane
September 2, 2015
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and a Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).