Viva Big Red!

So, after nearly 40 years, the Maryland Jockey Club, after hearing two hours of testimony and forensic analyses, finally has awarded the Preakness stakes record to Secretariat. When Penny Chenery first began her crusade to change Big Red’s time in 1973, it appeared as if the true time was 1:53 2/5 instead of 1:54 2/5 instead of 1:55.

It was unanimously agreed upon that the original time of 1:55 was a tote board malfunction. The commission decided to go with the Maryland Jockey Club hand held time of 1:54 2/5 and not the Daily Racing Form hand held time (by two clockers) of 1:53 2/5.

When CBS ran Secretariat’s Preakness from start to finish on a split screen with the 1971 Preakness won by Canonero, who held the track and stakes record of 1:54, it clearly showed Secretariat hitting the wire three lengths ahead of Canonero, another indication that Secretariat’s final time was indeed 1:53 2/5. But that evidence was dismissed by the Maryland commission.

Now, 39 years later, the commission not only decided to change Secretariat’s time once again, they went right by the originally sought after 1:53 2/5 and gave him a time of 1:53 flat. While that establishes a new stakes record, it still is not a track record, which was set in 1991 by Farma Way, who won the Pimlico Special in 1:52 2/5.

So, what does this new ruling actually mean in the grand scheme of things? To yours truly it is mainly window dressing to an already legendary career. It is not going to make Secretariat a better horse in the history books or in the eye of the public. It can now be said that Secretariat set track records in all three Triple Crown races. A sensational feat, yes, but that’s pretty much it. Most people felt he had accomplished that feat anyway. Had it been awarded to him in 1973, it would have had a far greater impact.

The most important aspect of this ruling has nothing to do about time in our opinion. What it does is bring the 1973 and 1971 Preakness back into public awareness and bring attention to two of the greatest, most memorable, and most shocking moments in Triple Crown history.

We watched the 1973 Preakness from atop the Pimlico roof and got a tremendous view of Secretariat’s explosive last to first move on the clubhouse turn, a move no one had ever seen before. Horses just don’t make that kind of move on the first turn. At first, when we saw the opening quarter of :25 flash on the tote board, we couldn’t understand how Big Red could be last off such a slow quarter. No sooner had we completed that thought when Secretariat decided to take matters in his own hand. He ignited his own afterburners and took off with such force it looked as if were about to become airborne. It was Ray Woolfe’s photo of Secretariat seemingly leaping in the air beginning his move that was used as the model for the horse’s statue that has become such a familiar sight in the Belmont Park paddock.

No one could believe what they were seeing as they watched Big Red inhale the entire field on the first turn, going from last to first in a matter of seconds. Turcotte said years later that the move caught him by surprise and he nearly fell off when Big Red launched his move. He was moving so fast he blew the number off the sleeve of jockey George Cusimano, who was aboard the front-running Ecole Etage. Cusimano said it sounded like a freight train coming up on his outside.

Track record or no track record, it was Secretariat’s jaw-dropping move that will forever define the 1973 Preakness. And as a side note, how about Sham, who now has set two track records in the Triple Crown and didn't win either time.

When Canonero shocked the racing world by coming from 18th, 20 lengths back in the Kentucky Derby, and blowing his field away to score by nearly four lengths, it was considered by almost everyone to be an aberration; a freak occurrence. After all, how else could you explain a gangly, crooked-legged horse coming here from Venezuela of all places, with every one of his ribs showing, and smoking the best 3-year-olds in America in the Kentucky Derby? It made no sense and offered no logical explanation.

The Preakness would be a different story. It was a shorter distance, which would favor speed-oriented horses such as Eastern Fleet and Executioner, respective winners of the Florida Derby and Flamingo Stakes. And there was also the Preakness Prep winner, Sound Off. Eastern Fleet, owned by Calumet Farm, was coming off a pace-stalking fourth-place finish in the Derby, and there was no doubt he would fare much better at the shorter distance and around the seemingly tighter turns at Pimlico.

Also, Eastern Fleet and Executioner had drawn well in posts 5 and 6, respectively, while Canonero had to break from post 9 in the 11-horse field. The Venezuelan colt was expected to drop back to the rear of the field anyway, as he had done in the Derby, but this time it was not going to be easy to make up 20 lengths or even 15 lengths. And even if the race did set up for a closer, which seemed unlikely, the Derby runner-up, Jim French, was a far more likely recipient following a rough trip at Churchill Downs.

At the break, Eastern Fleet broke alertly and quickly moved up to take the lead. But, wait, is that Canonero running third on the far outside, now second? How can that be after coming from 20 lengths back in the Derby?

Eastern Fleet opened up by two lengths passing the wire the first time, but Canonero was moving strongly and getting closer with every stride. His jockey, Gustavo Avila, like Ron Turcotte, was now merely a passenger, as Canonero set his sights set on Eastern Fleet. Before they even hit the backstretch, Canonero was eyeballing Eastern Fleet, and even stuck his head in front for an instant. Down the backside, Eastern Fleet, determined from the start to set the pace, maintained a head advantage over a tenacious Canonero, who refused to let him get away. The pair quickly opened five lengths on the pack. It appeared they both were on a suicide mission, especially after running the third quarter in a scorching :23 2/5, while hitting the three-quarter mark in 1:10 2/5, faster than they ran most sprints at Pimlico.

No one could believe what they were witnessing. Canonero had ripped the past performance lines to shreds and tossed all logic aside. He just wasn’t supposed to be doing what he was doing. Horses don’t run this fast after coming form the clouds and going a mile and a quarter in 2:03 1/5. In fact, in terms of lengths, Canonero had run his six furlongs 23 lengths faster than he ran in the Derby.

Canonero and Eastern Fleet continued at each other’s throat down the backstretch and around the far turn, with no one else within six lengths of them. By the time they passed the three-sixteenths pole, they had run the mile in a swift 1:35 flat. If they could keep it up, they were on course to break Nashua’s track record of 1:54 3/5, set 16 years earlier. But surely, at least one of them had to crack.

Canonero, as he did in the Derby, refused to changed leads. But shockingly, it was Eastern Fleet, who caved in from the pressure and the blistering three-quarter and mile fractions. Canonero began to draw clear, still on his left lead, and hit the wire 1 1/2 lengths in front of Eastern Fleet, who had 4 1/2 lengths on third-place finisher Jim French. By coming home his final three-sixteenths in a brilliant :19 flat, Canonero, shattered Nashua’s track record by three-fifths of a second.

To this day, the sight of Canonero moving up to challenge Eastern Fleet and going head and head with the Calumet speedster through such fast fractions, remains the single most shocking moment we have ever witnessed on a racetrack. Right behind it was Secretariat’s amazing move two years later.

So, thank you, Maryland Racing Commission, not so much for giving Secretariat the record, but for bringing back memories and focusing attention on two of the most  remarkable races and indelible moments in Triple Crown history.

(A documentary on the amazing life and times of Canonero is near release and will serve as a preview to a full-length motion picture to be released at a later date. We will provide more details on both as they become available. This is one story that even a Hollywood script writer cannot improve upon).

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