Wirth, of The Saturday Post
In 1969, an ordinary coin was tossed into the air that held three sides – winning, losing, and everything beyond the two polar outcomes.
The outcome of the coin toss was a testament to the principle that an extraordinary life doesn’t lend itself to pre-existing realities or expectations. It is a life that surveys common notions and ideas, and ultimately, carves out a new definition for the world.
Secretariat did just that.
Before Secretariat ever set a hoof on this earth, he twirled a simple coin flip into a monumental loss to the seemingly straightforward winner.
Ogden Phipps had technically won the coin-toss that governed the existing Phipps-Chenery breeding arrangement when Secretariat was among the three foals to be picked between the parties. However, the win only allowed Phipps to receive first choice between two foals born in 1969. In losing the coin flip, Penny Chenery automatically received the second foal born in 1969, as well as the only Bold Ruler foal that would be born in 1970 – Secretariat.
Through a two-sided coin, Secretariat had already redefined “winning” before he even entered the world.
Yes, Secretariat did just that.
On January 20, 1972, Secretariat left his home and set out on an extraordinary journey in his life. He arrived at Hialeah Park in Florida and began training to be a race horse. It was no small endeavor.
You see, before Secretariat became a “Superhorse,” he was just a red horse that garnered little respect. His groom, Eddie Sweat, stated “I didn’t think much of him when we first got him. I thought he was just a big clown. He was real clumsy and a bit on the wild side, you know.”
And, his trainer, Lucien Lauren, didn’t mince words when reporting to Chenery on Secretariat’s progress at the track. Lauren’s updates to Chenery were reportedly filled with remarks like, “I have to teach him how to run. He’s big, awkward, and doesn’t know what to do with himself.”
Yes, Secretariat started out just like that.
As a two-year-old, Secretariat experienced the feeling of defeat. Lauren would report to Chenery, “He hasn’t shown me much.” And, in his first maiden race, Secretariat didn’t.
Yes, Secretariat started out just like that.
He was defeated in his first race.
And then, Secretariat felt the feeling of victory.
In July of 1972, Secretariat won his first maiden race while finishing six-lengths in front of the rest of the field. Writer William Nack, reported, “Secretariat had raced the fastest six furlongs of his life,” at the time of his maiden victory.
Nack went on to comment, “Secretariat raced as if he had a future.”
Yes, Secretariat did it just like that.
He saw the future laid before his eyes.
In his third race, Secretariat had his first brush with fame.
While he was being saddled for an allowance race, a circle of people had collected at the paddock to view him. Among the crowd, was veteran turf writer, Charles Hatton.
When Hatton first laid eyes on Secretariat, he would later report, “You carry an ideal around in your head, and boy, I thought, ‘This is it.’ I never saw perfection before. I absolutely could not fault him in any way. And neither could the rest of them and that was the amazing thing about it. They body and the head and the eye and the general attitude. It was just incredible. I couldn’t believe my eyes, frankly.”
Yes, Secretariat was just like that.
A vision of perfection.
And, by the end of his two-year-old season, Secretariat was infamous.
Between July and November of 1972, Secretariat had officially won 7 of his 9 races and became the first two-year-old in history to be named “Horse of the Year.” His breeding rights were syndicated for a world-record total of 6,080,000 before he even began his three-year-old career.
Yes, Secretariat did all of that.
He broke records before he ever began his bid for the Triple Crown.
And then, Secretariat set out to become unstoppable in his three-year-old career.
When he entered the post parade for his first race as a three-year-old in the Bay Shore Stakes, Trainer Syd Walters reportedly told Lauren, “Good luck… You get one of those in a lifetime.”
And, when he won his three-year-old debut by 4 ½ lengths, Roger Lauren was said to exclaim from his box seats, “He’s too much horse! They can’t stop him! They can’t even stop him with a wall of horses!”
Yes, Secretariat was all of that.
He appeared to be unstoppable.
And then, Secretariat experienced doubt.
As Secretariat headed toward the Derby, the rumor mill swirled about Secretariat’s soundness after losing the Wood Memorial. Jimmy Snyder, an odds maker, reportedly told an Associated Press reporter that he had heard Lucien Lauren was icing one of Secretariat’s knees. Lauren was incensed when he heard the remark.
In response, Lauren offered to fly Snyder to Kentucky, allow Snyder to pick his own veterinarian, and personally view an examination of Secretariat’s knees to prove the soundness of the horse.
When Snyder didn’t accept the offer, Lauren reportedly went on to publicly bet Snyder a thousand dollars that Secretariat was sound. Snyder refused the bet.
Yes, Secretariat saw all that.
He bet on his own ability.
And, Secretariat experienced friendship.
During his racing years, Secretariat would reportedly wait for Eddie Sweat, his groom, every morning in his stall.
When Sweat approached, Ron Turcotte reported, “He’d grab the tip of Secretariat’s tongue to wish him ‘Good Morning.’ Before you knew it, every time Eddie passed his stall, the horse stuck out his tongue.”
You see, Sweat had a philosophy about being a friend to a racehorse that Secretariat seemed to admire in his groom. He reportedly told writer William Nack, “Only way horses win is to sit there and spend time with ’em. Love ’em. Talk to ’em. Get to know ’em. Now, that’s what you gotta do. You love ’em and they’ll love you too. People may call me crazy, but that’s the way it is.”
Secretariat didn’t find it crazy.
People noticed the beautiful bond that Sweat had formed with Secretariat. Ted McClain, Barn Foreman for Lucien Lauren, provided a testament on their relationship to writer Lawrence Scanlan, in saying “Eddie and that horse were like brothers. Eddie lived with him; traveled with him. They were joined at the hip.”
Yes, Secretariat treasured all of that.
He appreciated the value of a good friend.
And then, Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby.
He had awoken at 4 o’clock in the morning and spent most of the day hanging around the back of his stall. According to Sweat, this was a good sign. He reportedly didn’t want to be bothered on race days.
When the gates opened, Secretariat delivered a beautiful response to his critics. He ran every quarter mile faster than the preceding quarter. And, in the home stretch, he passed his final rival – Sham – to claim a 2 ½ length victory.
Secretariat set a new winning track record of 1:59 2/5 for the Kentucky Derby.
Yes, Secretariat did just that.
He holds the Kentucky Derby track record to this day.
And then, Secretariat set his gaze on the second jewel of the Triple Crown – The Preakness.
Once he broke from the gate, Secretariat did something astounding. As he headed into the first turn, Secretariat was dead last. Within seconds, Secretariat passed the entire field by the end of the first turn and drove through the rest of the race like a big red Bentley. Secretariat ultimately captured a 2 ½ length victory in the Preakness.
Ron Turcotte never used his whip during the race. Turcotte would later comment, “The pace was slow and he wanted to run… He was determined to run. I figured, if this is the way he wants to do it, I’ll let him have his way.”
Those who watched the race were in awe of Secretariat’s performance in the Preakness. Baltimore Handicapper, Clem Florio, reportedly shook his head in amazement and said, “Horses just don’t do what he did here today… They just don’t do that and win.”
Yes, Secretariat could do all that.
He could make a person marvel over his ability to accomplish a seemingly impossible feat.
And then, Secretariat performed pure magic in the Belmont.
Prior to the race, Secretariat had a fun secret that he wasn’t sharing. He was going to change the very definition of “Winning the Belmont.”
Penny Chenery noticed his mood. Prior to the race, she reportedly stated that Secretariat had come back from a workout wanting to play, “as if he thinks racing is a game we thought up for his amusement.”
And, Lauren also saw that Secretariat had something up his sleeve. The night before the Belmont, the trainer reportedly stated, “I think he’ll win by more than he’s ever won in his life.”
As Ron Turcotte talked with Lauren before the race, Lawrence Scanlan wrote that the trainer reportedly told the jockey, “Neither send the horse nor hold him back. Just let him roll. Use ton proper jugement. Use your own judgment and let your horse use his.”
And Secretariat had made a judgment call.
When he broke from the gates, Secretariat set out to deliver what is arguably one of the finest performances in horse racing. Secretariat and Sham stood alone from the first turn through the middle of the second turn in an apparent match race. When Sham faded, Secretariat stood all alone in an otherworldly moment.
Turcotte hadn’t used a whip and the rest of the field was nowhere to be found.
The jockey would later explain the moment in saying, “I heard Sham’s hooves disappear behind me… And then, there was nothing. All I could hear was Secretariat’s breathing and his hooves hitting the ground. It was very quiet.”
Turcotte hand-rode Secretariat to a 31-length victory. The horse had not only broken the Belmont track record, but also, he set the world dirt track record for running a mile and a half in 2:24 flat.
He was coronated the first Triple Crown Winner in 25 years.
And, Secretariat did it just like that.
He raced in the Belmont in a way no one had imagined to be possible.
Later that year, Secretariat retired from racing.
After a farewell ceremony at Aqueduct, Secretariat was flown to Lexington, Kentucky to being his stud career at Claiborne Farm.
As Secretariat’s plane headed for the Bluegrass Airport, the airport tower reportedly called to the pilot, Dan Neff, “There’s more people out here to meet Secretariat than there was to greet the governor.” The pilot allegedly responded, “Well, he’s won more races than the governor.”
Secretariat was led down the ramp and a police escort followed his van to Claiborne Farm. He was placed in the stall of Bold Ruler, his father, to begin his own legacy as a sire.
Eddie Sweat, his longtime groom, reportedly stared at Secretariat in his new stall and mourned the end of his racing career in saying, “Well, it’s all over now. They’ll never forget you, big fella. Never.”
And, Secretariat would later show that he didn’t forget Sweat’s friendship that existed throughout his racing days.
A year later, Sweat returned to Claiborne to pick up a foal for Lucien Lauren. Sweat told a reporter that he was in awe that Secretariat remembered him. “Secretariat, he came over and pulled on my shirt, just like he always did.”
Secretariat missed his racing friend.
And, Secretariat showed all that.
He walked right up to him and greeted him as if they were at a reunion.
And through the years, Secretariat would entertain many guests who came to visit him at Claiborne Farm.
In 1974, an Ohio-based reporter wrote that Secretariat played “pickup sticks” during their visit. Secretariat would hold a stick in his mouth and wait for the reporter to take it from him and give it back.
Secretariat also loved the camera eye. Retired Farm Manager John Sosby explained, “With a camera, he’d pose. He was showman, but he was kind. You could walk right up and get your picture taken with him.”
John Asher later told of how Secretariat posed for him when he went with a groom to see the horse in his paddock. “He was at the top of the hill. The groom I was with didn’t speak loudly. He just said, ‘Hey, Red.’” In a flash, Asher recalled Secretariat charging toward them, “BOOM! Here he comes. Flying down the hill. Absolutely flying down the hill. He gets to the fence at the end of the paddock where we were standing… Stops. And poses.”
Vickie Byrd told the story of how she visited Secretariat during a business trip. She reflected, “The big star in the barn was Secretariat. We were allowed to pet him and pose for pictures. It was like getting our picture taken with a movie star.” And, Secretariat left quite an impression on film. Byrd stated, “The funniest thing was after we got our pictures developed, we looked at one and saw that Secretariat had his tongue sticking out… Like a little kid!”
Secretariat also entertained children who came to visit the farm. Michele Valenta recalls that she visited Secretariat as a five-year-old girl, “I got to pet his nose and we turned around and walked away, looking at the other horses in the barn.” Valenta continued, “Shortly after, we heard clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop. We turned around to see Secretariat in all his red glory.” Valenta stated, “He was obviously perturbed when he was escorted back to this stall. Ears back, very annoyed.” She reflected, “He stole my heart then. He was so full of personality and I could see it, even at a young age.”
When Robin Porcelain visited Secretariat with her husband, Warren, he proved himself a showman. She stated, “Secretariat obviously knew how special he was and majestically pranced and strutted for us.”
Dorothy Henderson, wife of Secretariat’s final groom at Claiborne, Bobby Henderson, remembers him for his kind nature. “I’ve never seen a horse like him. He was just like a big pet. He had a big heart, it was almost as big as two hearts, and you could almost see that.”
And finally, John Sosby reminisces about Secretariat’s sharp intellect during his time at Claiborne Farm. Sosby joked, “He never learned to play checkers because we didn’t know how to teach him.”
Through racing and retirement, Secretariat proved himself to be everything.
And, his legacy remains intact.
Years after Secretariat left the racing, Charles Hatton marveled at his perfection, “He’s the greatest horse that anyone has ever seen. Don’t let anyone kid you. He could do anything, and he could do it better than any horse I ever saw. No question about it in my mind.”
And it seems, Secretariat knew that.
Through his entire life, he demonstrated the beauty of being everything.
He was called awkward before he was deemed perfect.
He was defeated before he knew victory.
He was a celebrity and an icon.
He was a Triple Crown Winner.
He was a friend.
He was a father.
He was Secretariat.
And, Secretariat was everything.