Syndicated before his 3-year-old season, Secretariat paid large dividends

Kate Chenery Tweedy, daughter of Secretariat’s owner, talks of Doswell-born Secretariat winning horse racing’s Triple Crown.

Temperatures hovered near freezing in Central Virginia as 1972 arrived, the dawn of a seismic year for Meadow Stable and its founding family.

As patriarch Christopher Chenery’s health continued to decline, his daughter, Penny Tweedy, had asserted more control over the thoroughbred racing and breeding operations, and she knew that her father’s estate would be taxed at a rate approaching 70%.

The Meadow needed an equine savior. Or two.

Enter Riva Ridge, Secretariat and their Canadian handlers: trainer Lucien Laurin and jockey Ron Turcotte.

Sired by The Meadow’s First Landing, Riva Ridge lacked Secretariat’s imposing size and striking good looks. But he was the nation’s top 2-year-old in 1971, status he affirmed with victories in the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

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Only a fourth-place finish in the muddy Preakness — longshot Bee Bee Bee won the race — kept him from becoming the first Triple Crown champion since Citation in 1948.

Secretariat And Riva Ridge

The day after his 1973 Preakness victory, Secretariat, left, was back in his stall at Belmont Park peering at Meadow stablemate Riva Ridge. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

Meanwhile, Laurin and Turcotte stirred more Triple Crown hopes as Secretariat’s 2-year-old season unfolded. Known by his Meadow caretakers as Big Red, a nod to his coloring, Secretariat had left his comfortable Virginia home in January for Florida’s Hialeah Park.

Turcotte, 81 and living in Canada, still recalls seeing him for the first time.

“Well, I’ll tell ya, it was love at first sight with Secretariat,” he said, “and … it was love at first ride also. He was just a beautiful ride. He was as calm as could be. You’d swear he’d been doing it all his life. That’s how good he was. He was unafraid of other horses.

“I told Lucien, I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this horse.”

Turcotte’s fun began in Secretariat’s third start, after apprentice jockey Paul Feliciano had ridden the colt to a fourth-place finish followed by a maiden victory. In the irons for each of Big Red’s seven subsequent races as a 2-year-old, Turcotte steered him to six wins.

The one exception was the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park, where Secretariat finished two lengths clear. But track stewards ruled that Secretariat impeded runner-up Stop the Music and reversed their order.

Esteemed writer and handicapper Andrew Beyer noticed Secretariat’s promise when he surged from last place to win his first stakes race, the Sanford at Saratoga, by a comfortable three lengths.

“Secretariat came of age in the decade that the American thoroughbred was at its peak, a period that also produced Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Ruffian, Forego and Spectacular Bid,” Beyer wrote in a Washington Post review of the Disney film “Secretariat.” “Experts can endlessly debate the relative merits of such horses, but Secretariat did things that even other great ones didn’t do.

“If you watch videos of races without knowing who the horses are, there may be little to distinguish a high-class race from a cheap one. A film of Affirmed going to the lead and fighting off Alydar’s challenge doesn’t look much different from a $5,000 claimer doing the same thing. But Secretariat’s athleticism was unmistakable.”

On Nov. 18, the Saturday before Thanksgiving, Secretariat closed his 2-year-old campaign by blistering the field in the Garden State Stakes at 8½ furlongs. Ridden by Turcotte’s brother Rudy, stablemate Angle Light was a distant second.

The National Turfwriters Association and the Daily Racing Form voted Secretariat the 1972 Horse of the Year, just as they had Riva Ridge 12 months earlier. In ’72 alone, the colts earned Meadow Stables more than $850,000 in purses, an infusion of cash the enterprise desperately needed.

Christopher Chenery had lived to see, though not appreciate, the fulfillment of his dream: a Meadow horse, draped in the stable’s blue-and-white silks, winning the Kentucky Derby. Eight months after Riva Ridge’s victory, on Jan. 3, 1973, he died in a New York hospital at age 86.

He was buried at the Woodland Cemetery in Ashland next to his wife. With estate taxes that granddaughter Kate Tweedy’s book, “Secretariat’s Meadow,” estimated at $11 million soon due, Secretariat was quickly syndicated for $6.08 million (32 shares at $190,000 each).

Big Red would race as a 3-year-old for Meadow Stables and then be retired to stud at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky.


Heroes need rivals. Secretariat’s was Sham.

Sham was, William Nack wrote in his biography of Big Red, “a rangy elegant-looking bay horse with a leggy leanness to him.”

He was, Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., believes to this day, the fastest horse he ever rode.

Pincay won the 1984 Kentucky Derby and Belmont with Swale. He replaced Steve Cauthen aboard 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed in ’79. He piloted other champions such as Genuine Risk and John Henry.

“When people ask me about all the horses I rode, I always say Affirmed because he ran on different tracks and he was very consistent,” Pincay, 76, said from California. “But in just the (sheer) ability to run, I think Sham was probably better.”

Trained by Hall of Famer Frank “Pancho” Martin, Sham did not cross paths with Secretariat in 1972, and when the Derby preps commenced the following year, they raced on opposite coasts, Sham in California, Secretariat in New York.

Sham won four of five starts out West, punctuated by a record-setting performance in the 1⅛-mile Santa Anita Derby. His team confident, Sham jetted East for the first of four encounters with Secretariat.

He would never win again.

Two weeks before the Kentucky Derby, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct also was 1⅛ miles, a test foreign to Big Red. Moreover, Bold Ruler’s offspring were renowned as sprinters, not distance specialists.

Fueling doubts about his pedigree, Secretariat, hampered by a painful abscess under his upper lip, ran a listless third in the Wood behind Angle Light and Sham, who lost by a mere neck. The 99th Kentucky Derby would be even more grueling, an eighth-of-a-mile farther against a larger field.

Secretariat and Sham were more than ready. Both raced the 1¼ miles in less than two minutes, the fastest Derby in history, Secretariat prevailing by 2½ lengths.

A half-century later, a span that includes four Triple Crown winners — Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and Justify — Big Red’s time of 1:59⅖ remains the Derby standard.

“If Affirmed had run in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, he would have finished third,” Pincay marveled.

On the heels of Riva Ridge’s ’72 Derby victory, Turcotte, Laurin, Penny Tweedy and groom Eddie Sweat were celebrities. The question now was whether Secretariat could end racing’s long Triple Crown drought.

As in the Derby, and many of his races, Secretariat broke poorly two weeks later at the Preakness. But rather than surge late, he stunned virtually everyone — Laurin, Turcotte and Pincay included — with a first-turn rush that appeared unsustainable.

But Secretariat didn’t fade, again defeating runner-up Sham, again by 2½ lengths.

Attending the Varina Races that afternoon, Mert Bailes, the first man to ride Secretariat at The Meadow, gathered with his family to watch the Preakness on television. Big Red’s early move had them on their feet.

“The yelling and excitement and screaming. The room was just electric,” said Bailes’ daughter Renee Bailes Webb. “I don’t know how else to describe it.”

Since Citation’s Triple Crown in 1948, six horses had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Tim Tam in 1958, Cary Back in ’61, Northern Dancer in ’64, Kawai King in ’66, Majestic Prince in ’69 and Canonero II in ’71.

None won the Belmont. But Secretariat felt inevitable.

“SUPER HORSE,” proclaimed the covers of Time and Newsweek featuring Big Red the week of the Belmont.

“TRIPLE THREAT” was Sports Illustrated’s banner headline the same week with cover photos of Secretariat and Penny Tweedy.

As Martin prepared Sham for a final clash with Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, his jockey was resigned.

“I (didn’t) think I could beat that horse,” Pincay said. “But you never know. I’ve won many, many, many big races when I didn’t think I had a chance.”

No one had a chance against Secretariat at the Belmont.

The Times-Dispatch is publishing six stories to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown. Timed to coincide with each of the Crown races, they will appear in three sets of two.

1. Exploring Big Red’s Virginia roots.

2. Jockeys Ron Turcotte and Laffit Pincay Jr. relive the Kentucky Derby.

3. Secretariat’s stirring prelude.

4. Turcotte’s bold Preakness move.

5. Secretariat’s enduring legacy and The Meadow today.

6. The pinnacle at the Belmont.

Secretariat at 50: Celebrating a Virginia legend

The Times-Dispatch is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown with a series of stories, videos and archival photos.

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Fifty years ago this spring, Caroline County-born Secretariat won the Triple Crown with a five-week tour de force not witnessed before or since.

Ron Turcotte’s first, and only, doubt about Secretariat emerged at the worst possible time — less than two weeks before the Kentucky Derby.

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