Little Current and the Year After Big Red

Pity any 3-year-old that had the misfortune to come along the year after Secretariat. Talk about a tough act to follow. Well, it could have been worse. At least 1974 3-year-old champion Little Current didn’t have the bad luck to come along the same year as Secretariat, as did the unfortunate Sham.

What Little Current did manage to do was ride along on the tail of Big Red’s comet, drawing the attention and following of all those hoping for history to repeat itself. So, Little Current became the first horse to attempt to reach the lofty standards set by the 1973 Triple Crown winner.

Little Current certainly was no Secretariat, but he did provide racing fans with some unforgettable thrills, thanks to an explosive closing punch not seen on the Triple Crown trail since the days of Silky Sullivan. The long, lanky chestnut may have faded from memory after 40 years, but he did find his niche in the history books, and became very special to one person, who watched him grow from a yearling into a champion.

Horses are like music. They take you back to a specific time and place in your life. To most everyone, the name Little Current evokes tranquil images of a gently flowing stream. To me, it evokes a different kind of tranquility; one of lazy spring afternoons and newborn foals and carefree yearlings dashing up and down rolling hills with joyous abandon. It also evokes images of one of the most unusual and memorable Triple Crown seasons.

The name Little Current brings me back to the spring of 1972. Staying at Darby Dan Farm as a guest, I was able to witness the birth of a foal for the only time in my life. The mare I saw gave birth to a chestnut filly by Stage Door Johnny on a cool spring morning was named Luiana. Coincidentally, earlier that day, I had watched Luiana's yearling colt by Sea-Bird being led out to his paddock. He was a long, lean colt with a narrow stripe down his face and he had a certain undeniable presence about him. I whipped out my new Canon AE-1 and took a photo of him as the groom stopped and allowed him to pose for the camera.

My next image of Little Current came at Saratoga in 1973 when the precocious, speedy colt, wearing blinkers, pressed the early pace going 5 1/2 furlongs before fading to fifth under Angel Cordero. In his previous start, his career debut, he set all the pace and was caught late, finishing third, beaten a half-length. It was obvious these tactics were not the way to go, especially with a son of the staying Sea-Bird. Trainer Lou Rondinello decided to teach the colt how to rate and removed the blinkers for his next start 3 1/2 months later at Aqueduct. Never before could I remember such a dramatic change in a horse’s running style, as Little Current rallied from far back in eighth to finish second, and in his next start came flying from 10th to win going away by 1 3/4 lengths in a sharp 1:22 2/5 for the seven furlongs.

The colt took his new running style to the extreme as the distances stretched out, and he became such a plodder there was no way he could make up the necessary ground coming from so far back.

As the 1974 Triple Crown season approached, everyone’s thoughts went back to the year before. Thanks to Secretariat, racing had undergone a dramatic change. It had infiltrated mainstream America unlike any other time in memory, perhaps going all the way back to Seabiscuit in the 1930s. The sport had been hammered into public consciousness by Big Red, who graced the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week. With the Sport of Kings once again being hailed and celebrated nationally and having a horse sit upon the throne that was once occupied by its immortal ancestors, all eyes turned to the 1974 Kentucky Derby, as America anxiously awaited an encore performance. Who would be the next superstar to follow in the massive footprints left by Secretariat?

In the Hutcheson Stakes, Little Current hardly looked like that horse, as he was last of 13 nearing the head of the stretch, 16 lengths back, and rallied to finish fourth, beaten 2 3/4 lengths. But that a sprint and surely he would relish two turns. Then came the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth Stakes, and Little Current actually dropped even farther back off the pace. Racing in 14th, 25 lengths back, he still was 17 lengths back at the quarter pole and 11 lengths back at the eighth pole, eventually finishing sixth, beaten 4 1/4 lengths. He certainly had the closing punch, but was leaving himself with too much to do.

The Florida Derby was no different, as he dropped back to 15th, 23 lengths back, and could only manage to finish fifth, beaten 6 3/4 lengths, while being bumped soundly making his move. These efforts were becoming frustrating to Rondinello, who was unable to get the horse closer to the pace. The only ray of hope for the big races coming up was that Little current was at least closing fast in the final furlong, albeit way too late.

Despite these plodding efforts, Little Current still was sent off at 7-2 in the 1 1/8-mile Everglades Stakes, and being a more reasonable 12 lengths back this time, he came charging home to win by a half-length. Just like that, he had become a legitimate Derby contender. But when he could only manage a fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, in the Flamingo Stakes and fourth, beaten 4 1/4 lengths, in the Blue Grass Stakes, not much was expected of him in the record 23-horse field in the Kentucky Derby other than the fact he was bred for the 1 1/4 miles.

All the elements were right. It was the centennial running of the Derby. Princess Margaret of England was in attendance. The day shone brightly. Unfortunately, of the 23 horses who cluttered up the Churchill Downs track, none had shown anything to suggest he deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as Secretariat. When Cannonade, the lesser half of the Woody Stephens-trained entry, came home victorious for his seventh victory in 22 career starts, racing's new groupies found themselves without a star to idolize.

But few had noticed Little Current hopelessly trapped in back of the massive throng of horses. Few noticed a desperate Bobby Ussery snatching him up and yanking him to the outside, winding up 15-wide turning for home. And few noticed the colt charging by 12 horses in the final quarter-mile to finish fifth.

You needed a telescope to find Little Current during the running of the race, he was so far back, racing dead-last. After a half, he still was back in 21st, 22 lengths back. Then on the turn, Little Current started picking up steam and was flying as they neared the head of stretch. But he was still back in 17th, 18 lengths behind the leaders. Running into a wall of horses, Ussery just swung him to the outside. Little Current accelerated so quickly he pretty much blew the turn, winding up closer to the outer rail than the inner rail. He passed horses at an incredible rate in the stretch, and was beaten a total of 6 1/2 lengths, giving his supporters reason to hope in the Preakness, despite the race being a sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Derby.

What made me confident enough to tout the horse heavily, was looking at a ground level photo taken by DRF photographer Ray Woolfe Jr. at the head of stretch and seeing Little Current seemingly out on an island by himself, about eight horse paths wider than the horse inside him, who was himself about eight wide, I knew Little Current was going to be an overlay in the Preakness, especially at odds of 13-1.

With Miguel Rivera replacing Ussery, Little Current, breaking from post 2 in the 13-horse field, hugged the rail the whole way, and this time was no more than a dozen lengths off the lead. Around the far turn, Cannonade cruised up to challenge for the lead, but you could see Rivera was sitting on a time bomb, waiting to be detonated. When the rail opened up, Little Current put in one of the most spectacular runs in Preakness history, evoking images of, yes, Secretariat’s sensational early last-to-first move the year before.

Little Current, still 10th at the three-eighths pole, blew by everyone so quickly at the three-sixteenths pole, no one knew what hit them. He continued to open up, winning by seven lengths in 1:54 3/5, missing the track record by three-fifths of a second.

Racing fans who had been searching for another exciting, handsome chestnut to revere found one in Little Current. A new golden idol had been discovered at Old Hilltop.

Had we seen the birth of another superstar? The Belmont Stakes would help answer that question. This time, Little Current was sent off as the 3-2 favorite. No one was concerned down the backstretch when he had only one horse beat and was racing a dozen lengths off the lead through slow fractions of :49 3/5 and 1:14. This time, Little Current had clear sailing and took the outside path, once again inhaling his opponents in a flash and drawing off to another seven-length victory.

All everyone kept talking about was how Little Current, with a better trip, would have emulated Secretariat and swept the Triple Crown.

So, racing had another exciting star on the heels of Secretariat, this one a stone closer who had the ability to annihilate his foes with one blow, much like Whirlaway did on so many occasions.

But the Belmont would be Little Current’s final trip to the winner’s circle. He ran dynamite races in both the Monmouth Invitational Handicap and Travers Stakes, again turning in spectacular stretch runs, but each time his big run came up inches short of catching Holding Pattern, who was in receipt of 10 pounds at Monmouth and five pounds at Saratoga, the latter run in a sea of slop, with Filly Triple Crown winner Chris Evert finishing 4 1/2 lengths behind Little Current in third.

Looking at a possible trip to the Arc de Triomphe, Little Current tried the grass in the Lawrence Realization, but never ran a lick, finishing a well-beaten sixth.

An injury forced his early retirement, leaving behind two of the most explosive victories in Triple Crown history and two heartbreaking defeats.

He was syndicated for $4 million and retired to Darby Dan Farm, where in 1984 he was visited by Queen Elizabeth. Little Current would sire 35 stakes winners, including grade I winners Current Hope and Prize Spot. His name can also be found in the female family of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide.

Following his years at Darby Dan, Little Current stood at Buck Pond Farm near Lexington and later at Good Guys Farm in Louisiana before heading to Washington State.

Although all comparisons to Secretariat had died a quick death, Little Current's story never did die. A combination of longevity and the efforts of his number one fan, Kevin Grace, who worked at the time for Pimlico and Laurel, kept his heroics alive and brought him close to new generations of racing fans. As he grew older and departed Kentucky, he became a national equine treasure in Washington, where he was pampered like a king by veterinarians Ann and Mark Hansen until his death from colic on Jan. 19, 2002 at age 32. Racing had lost the oldest living Preakness winner and Belmont winner.

Up until Little Current’s death, the Hansens never spent a moment around the horse without feeling as if they were in the presence of greatness and they treated him as such.

Little Current didn't fill Secretariat's shoes, but the way he was treated by the Hansens, he sure lived a long time thinking he did. After four decades, Little Current’s name has become all but lost, buried in a decade of Triple Crown winners and legendary champions.

For me, I never got a chance to see Little Current again after his stay at Darby Dan as a stallion. All I have are wonderful memories and an 8"x10" color photo of a yearling who captured my heart, and for a brief moment in time the heart of America. When you come to think of it, that's plenty.


Little Current as a yearling - Photo by Steve Haskin


Little Current and Lou Rondinello the day after the Belmont Stakes - Photo by Steve Haskin

36 Comments

Leave a Comment:

shaban

You bring back some great memories, Steve.  I started attending the Derby in 1974 and Little Current was my pick that year.  With no turf track you could almost touch the horses.  His great Preakness and Belmont runs made up for my disappointment in his disastrous Derby trip.  I always thought that he deserved more respect than he received through the years.

07 Feb 2014 4:35 PM
Stretchrun

Well, you learn something new everyday. I'm off to YouTube to search "1974 Preakness"--great story Steve!

07 Feb 2014 4:53 PM
Affirmedfan5

I was a huge Little Current fan since he was owned by Darby Dan Farm. Living in Columbus, Ohio I always became attached to any Darby Dan horse. Also when I was 12 my parents started taking me to Lexington every summer to visit the horse farms. Most farms were very strict back in 1974, but not Darby Dan Farm they welcomed all visitors onto their farm. Thankfully I have some pictures of the greatest stallions of all time.

07 Feb 2014 5:35 PM
Bill Rinker

Thanks for another great story Steve, it really painted a picture of patience, beauty and strength, also loved the photos.

07 Feb 2014 5:56 PM
txhorsefan

Beautiful, Steve.  You've done it again - introducing me to a horse from past that I knew nothing about.  You certainly brought him to life for me as I followed along with his races by your eloquent descriptions.  Awesome.  I am, as always, grateful to you for sharing your memories and photos of times gone by in horse racing history.  Thank you!

07 Feb 2014 7:29 PM
Davids

Yes, Steve, through racing you can place your life history and reflect on how times have changed. I was cheering on Bering to win the Arc only to see Dancing Brave pass him - life's disappointments. For those who may not know was a grandson of Sea-Bird.

In 'And They're Off' you mentioned racing's ineptitude at promoting itself well, I think NYRA should be congratulated on the new concept surrounding the Belmont Stakes. For too long the Belmont has been a mere afterthought following the Kentucky Derby.  

I hope for great weather and a resounding success with racing fans flocking to the carnival. Imagine Honor Code running in the Belmont after winning the first 2 legs of the Triple Crown....bliss!!

07 Feb 2014 7:44 PM
Margo Palmer

I was in the infield on Preakness Day 1974 and watched a barely contained Little Current scrape the rail as he galloped by. I had a crummy camera but dutifully snapped a photo as the field passed me. It was a perfect day, complete with streaker and much imbibing all around. I didn't imbibe though - I was 15 and accompanied by my parents. Secretariat inspired me to attend the Preakness, but Little Current provided the thrills!

07 Feb 2014 8:28 PM
Brown brother

Great story about a horse with an eye-catching racing style. I remember his son Little Missouri as a stout closer as well.

07 Feb 2014 9:24 PM
Coldfacts

There have been a combined 20 Belmont winners sired Native Dancer and his tail-male descendants. Little Current was the 1st and Palace Malice was the 20th.

There have been 13 horses from the Native Dancer sire line that have won 2 legs of the Triple Crown. Little Current was the third to do so. He was preceded by Kauai King and Majestic Prince.

Apart from Kauai King who was sired by Native Dancer, it appears Little Current is the only other winner of Triple Crown races from the sire line that does not trace back to either Raise A Native or his sons.  An amazing 51 Triple Crown races have been won by horses that trace back to four sons of Raise A Native.

NB: Being a big fan of progenies of unraced mares I feel compelled to highlight the fact that Little Current was produced from an unraced mare.

07 Feb 2014 9:39 PM
Kelso1966

Once again, you tell a great tale. I love history and truly love racing history. These stories need to be told to all the new fans who never heard of these unknown heroes.

07 Feb 2014 9:53 PM
PatsyK

What a great story....my favorite part is how he was taken care of later in life....I care for a few older horses and I hope I treat all of them as though I'm in the presence of greatness. A superb reminder that there are wonderful people in the sport! Thanks Steve for another story that will stay with me!

07 Feb 2014 10:22 PM
Paula Higgins

O.k. count me as the second person going to Youtube. I have never heard of this guy before and clearly I have missed something special. It made me very happy to hear you mention your Canon AE 1. My father gave me one for my high school graduation. I still have it. A great camera.

07 Feb 2014 11:37 PM
LovedMyAlydar

Loved Little Current and was fortunate enough to visit him at Darby Dan back in the day.  He was such a cutie.  Just something about him, I loved this guy.  Thanks for giving him the attention he deserves.  What wonderful memories.  

08 Feb 2014 6:02 AM
Pedigree Ann

Steve, I do dislike seeing deep-closing runners tagged with the pejorative 'plodder.' A deep-closer has to have a 4-5f sprint that would do a Dr. Fager proud to make up as much ground late against horses who have not quit as they do; they just use it differently. Would you have called Buckpasser a plodder because he closed from the back like a rocket? 'Plodder' implies the one-paced sort who runs well in long races because they can keep on at the same pace when the others tire. Like Gato del Sol, whom I name even though he was a son of My Own True Love, His Felinity Cougar II. By the way, Coug was a deep closer with a solid late sprint.

08 Feb 2014 8:47 AM
Windolin

What a sweetheart of a story. Thank you Steve for yet another beautiful memory from the past. This is why I look forward to your posts every week.

08 Feb 2014 9:40 AM
Abigail Anderson

I just loved hearing about Little Current who was, in fact, on my "bucket list" for an article, together with the great Sea-Bird. And how fabulous to actually see him as a yearling, Steve. (Talk about being in the right place at the right time.) I don't think that I followed the Triple that year. It was my first year teaching and that's always demanding. But I came to love him when I later discovered just how many fans adored him and, as you point out, believed that only circumstance prevented him from achieving the Triple. If any here are interested, both his Preakness and Belmont are available on YouTube. As much as I loved reading his story, I was wowed by: "Horses are like music. They take you back to a specific time and place in your life." thank you, again, for a great read.

08 Feb 2014 11:35 AM
Lexington Bloodstock

Another choice piece.  Keep them coming.

08 Feb 2014 12:20 PM
derbylin

I remember going to see Little Current at Darby Dan too.  Says a lot about the connections back then letting people visit.  Farms need to be that gracious now, maybe more people would get interested in the sport.  Unfortunately, raising admission prices to the Belmont will not.  Another event I wont be able to fit into my budget. Will rely on TV and great stories like yours, Steve.

08 Feb 2014 1:49 PM
asilarabians

I personally loved Sham, and have tried to find out what happened to him. I just remember that at 3 he was 14.2, and ran stride for stride with Big Red until his heart broke. Little Current was a nice horse, but Sham was a real champ,,, like Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, or Holyfield.

08 Feb 2014 3:52 PM
Mary Pitt

Little Current is one of a handful of colts since 1970 who I believe should have been a Triple Crown winner. (The others being Risen Star, Thunder Gulch and Afleet Alex, though I'm sure others will have differing opinions). His sire, Sea-Bird, an Arc winner, is still considered one of the best horses of all time in Europe.

08 Feb 2014 7:16 PM
Racingfan

Another great article Steve.  And ColdFacts, thanks for the Native Dancer stats. He is my all time favorite - even though he died when I was a year old.  He was an incredible horse and obviously was an amazing influence in the bloodlines.  He sure needs to be given more credit than he seems to get!  :-)

08 Feb 2014 9:19 PM
Linda in Texas

I read with delight this Sunday Morning, that Havre de Grace has a lovely filly and Plum Pretty has a handsome colt. Happy Birthday to the newly foaled stars of the future, Havre de Grace's filly is by Tapit, And Plum Pretty's is by Distorted Humor.

I am sure Big Red and Little Current would not mind me sharing the good news, a lot easier to read than Chriselliam being euthanized.

And Steve thank you for your memories of Little Current. To be honest i never knew him, but i do now 12 years after his death.

09 Feb 2014 9:39 AM
Lise from Maine

Hi!

Never heard of "Little Current" as I was not into horse racing then. I became interested in horse racing in 2006 when I watched Barbaro win the Kentucky Derby and have loved it ever since.

This is a wonderful story, Steve, and thanks for sharing it with the fans.

Thank you!

Lise from Maine

09 Feb 2014 12:32 PM
equinedriven

I was a groom for Mike Moran back in the 90s. I rubbed a wonderful mare for her career...a mare that kept Liuanas female line in the racing scene. Her a name was Turkish Tryst..a grand daughter. Turkey upon retirement produced 4 black type winners her most notable being Hard Spun. As Hard Spun trots around the globe performing his stallion duties...the female line that produced Little Current is alive and well. RIP Turkey.

10 Feb 2014 2:20 AM
John D'Amato

Great!  Also forgotten are other sons of "The Great One" - Ribot.  Arts And Letters, Graustark and Tom Rolfe were amomg the very, very best.

11 Feb 2014 10:07 AM
dsarnoldjr

Thanks for the story Steve. Little Current is buried on Buck Pond Farm in Versailles, Kentucky. Many visitors from around the country come each year and lay flowers on his grave.

11 Feb 2014 11:11 AM
Bellwether

Love those blast from the past race Horse stories...ty and look forward to more...

11 Feb 2014 2:34 PM
Shelby's Best Pal

What a great story!  I certainly enjoyed reading it.

11 Feb 2014 11:09 PM
cin

Not too many horses are in the same league as Secretariat, but the comparisons for Little Current and Secretariat would HAVE to be Little Current's looks, wow, he's gorgeous!  I always thought Trappe Shot was pretty like Secretariat, but I have to add Little Current now.  Nice photos, nice article.  

12 Feb 2014 12:11 AM
ozkr

Another amazing piece, thank you so much Steve!  I have been reading your articles for quite some time and only now offer my gratitude for your work - thank you a million times.  Little Current was very important to me, becoming a fan of his during the spring of 1974.  Though my memory is not quite as sharp, my racing heroes I can recall so vividly and I have so many...  My first hero as a six year old was the black and gold clad chestnut colt, Majestic Prince.  Yes, what a start to the racing world.  Through the years, such rarely-mentioned, yet vivid in my mind, the heroes come back to me through your work:  Pink Pidgeon, Cougar II, Ack Ack, Terlago, Sham, Linda's Chief, Ancient Title, Forego (grrrrr), Crystal Water, Double Discount, Unconscious, Avatar, Fiddle Isle, Quack, Kennedy Road, Autobiography, La Zanzara, Susan's Girl, Convenience, Typecast, etc. - I could go on and on.  Your work is golden, thank you so much for your work.

12 Feb 2014 1:02 AM
dsarnoldjr

Little Current is buried at Buck Pond Farm in Versailles, Ky. He receives many visitors each year and the owner of the farm is happy to facilitate your visit.

12 Feb 2014 7:03 AM
Steve Haskin

Ozkr, thank you very much for your kind words and sharing your early memories. They are always the most special.

dsarnoldjr, thank you very much for relaying that invitation. I definitely will stop there to visit during my next trip to Lexington.

12 Feb 2014 9:05 AM
Melissa P

I had the great pleasure to meet Little Current at Buck Pond farm. I must say that he was treated there like royalty. He had completely captivated the staff. He really did have a special "something." Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories and those terrific photos. Such happy memories.

14 Feb 2014 1:58 PM
Mary Pitt

I've just been watching a video of Little Current's sire Sea Bird. He was very impressive winning the Derby, Arc and the other French races. There is a lot of him in Little Current, though Sea Bird did seem to run with his head a bit high.

14 Feb 2014 6:39 PM
Linda in Texas

Hi Steve, Happy President's Day. I always like to go back and read all comments to see if i have missed anything, so today i did, and read the note from Arnold that Buck Pond is where Little Current is buried and how nice of the farm to be so receptive to visitors. So that led me to read the History of Buck Pond, beginning with it's inception in 1783. My word how interesting their story is and over 231 years old. Being a history buff i really enjoyed the history and still in operation to this day. Thank you Steve and Buck Pond Farm.

17 Feb 2014 12:33 PM
Alysheba4ever

Cold Facts I too am a huge Raise a Native fan and feel he does not get enough kudos but also remember that Affirmed was a grandson of Raise a Native being by Exclusive Native and my personal favorite and only horse to finish second in all three jewels was Alydar a son of Raise a Native so in one year we had a son and grandson finish first and second and that was the year of our last triple crown winner. I always felt like Alydar was a triple crown winner in a round about way.

23 Feb 2014 12:56 AM

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