Gawking At Greatness: On Seeing Secretariat In The Flesh

We were standing near the rail as the horses emerged for the post parade, a pair of racetrack rubes poised to gawk at greatness.

It was May 19, 1973. Preakness day at Pimlico. A chestnut colt won the Kentucky Derby in record time and, having never before attended a horse race, a couple of curious college students drove to Baltimore to see what the buzz was all about.

Sham, a brilliant horse born the wrong year, was first on the track for the day’s feature race. He wore the No. 1 saddle cloth indicative of his post position, and carried the young Laffit Pincay Jr. on his dark bay back. He looked sleek and powerful to the untrained eye — as he surely did to the smarter money — every bit what you would imagine a racehorse to be.

Then we caught a glimpse of Secretariat. And he looked like a monster. Or, as Pimlico general manager Chick Lang put it, “like a Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens.”

Fifty years later, memories may be unreliable. But I distinctly remember being struck by Big Red’s shiny coat, his broad chest and his imposing muscles and thinking, as Nicely-Nicely Johnson had, “I got the horse right here.”

He was running last when we lost sight of him entering the first turn that day at Pimlico, but he rocketed to the lead by the time he came into view again on the backstretch, and was still first to the finish line, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Sham. Nearly 40 years later, correcting a clock malfunction, the Maryland Racing Commission decided Secretariat had run another record time: 1:53. 

“He could have won by 10 more, 15 lengths more,” jockey Ron Turcotte said in an April telephone interview. “I was satisfied that he was running good, to save for the Belmont.”

A $2 win ticket, worth $2.60 that day, was priced at $4,000 recently on eBay. 

Silly me, I cashed my ticket. 

Secretariat would ultimately own the fastest times in all three Triple Crown races, and still does 50 years later. If he was not the greatest racehorse in history – and Man o’ War may be the only other thoroughbred worthy of consideration – he retains a mystique unmatched in his sport. 

“He’s Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods. . .” trainer Tom Amoss said. “When you watch Secretariat run, it’s the rare horse you can watch on video and see him actually visibly accelerate on the screen. The horse that accelerates so much that you can see it with the naked eye, that’s what separates Secretariat.” 

There have been four Triple Crown winners in the half-century since Secretariat swept the three races in 1973 – Seattle Slew, Affirmed, American Pharoah and Justify – but none of them have inspired as much idolatry as the one known as Big Red. The great golfer Jack Nicklaus confessed in an interview that he cried while watching Secretariat win the Belmont by 31 lengths, but wondered why. 

“All of your life, in your game, you’ve been striving for perfection,” CBS’ Heywood Hale Broun told him. “At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.” 

Though born in Virginia and raced only once in Kentucky, Secretariat is the subject of a new three-story mural in Paris, Kentucky; he has inspired multiple statues in the state. In a 2020 computer simulation produced for NBC, Secretariat beat Citation by a head in a race matching racing’s 13 Triple Crown winners.

Dead since 1989, his legacy lives on.

“I know as a boy I could remember sitting in front of the television watching him run,” Louisville-based trainer Kenny McPeek said. “I think I was 10. And I know today it’s the reason I’m in horse racing.

“He was beatable, but he certainly captured the hearts and minds of racing fans and others. Putting him on the cover of Sports Illustrated was a big deal. He definitely fueled my interest in horse racing as a boy.” 

Amy Lawyer, chair of the University of Louisville’s equine industry program, encountered Secretariat as a young girl during his stud career at Claiborne Farm. The granddaughter of the late Kentucky basketball coach Joe B. Hall, Lawyer remembers her brush with equine greatness vividly.

“He was out in his paddock and he was impressive,” she said. “He knew he was gorgeous, he knew he was special, and he knew people were there to see him. He came running at a full gallop up to the fence and just stopped. I remember reaching through the fence and petting his shoulder and how vividly bright he was, so much more than other chestnuts.”

I saw him there, late in his life, on a pilgrimage from Cincinnati. Swaybacked but still majestic, he was led out of his stall to receive visitors. We gawked again at his greatness.