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It seems all but impossible that 36 years ago today Secretariat made the final start of his racing career in the Canadian International at Woodbine.

The modern “Big Red,” in a conscious parallel to the final start of the legendary Man o’ War, was sent across the border to race in Canada. In a wicked twist of circumstance, Canadian-born Ron Turcotte was under suspension and was unable to make the final ride on the great son of Bold Ruler after being his partner for fame and glory in the Triple Crown of 1973.

After wrapping up the first Triple Crown in 25 years with a stunning 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes, many of the breeders who were invested in Secretariat as a stallion wanted to retire him at the peak of his celebrity. Penny Chenery resisted this and sent Secretariat out to race for gold and glory and the undying appreciation of his thousands of fans.

The colt lost two of his six subsequent starts, but Secretariat left no doubts about his place in American racing history or about his superiority to all his contemporaries. In the wake of the Belmont, Secretariat went to Arlington for a special race against his confirmed inferiors, then in the fall won the inaugural Marlboro Cup over one of the greatest fields ever assembled (champion and classic winner Riva Ridge, plus champions Key to the Mint, Cougar, and Kennedy Road, and Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em and Whitney winner Onion).

Secretariat also won his final two starts, the 12-furlong Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont and the 13-furlong Canadian International, both on turf. A horse with extraordinary strength and stride, Secretariat was probably the greatest racer ever over a firm turf course on a relatively level track. My friend and fellow scribbler in England, Tony Morris, would aver that Sea-Bird could have handled Secretariat and perhaps so on undulating ground like Longchamp or Epsom that would favor a change of pace, but for a galloping course like Woodbine, Belmont, or Doncaster, I would take Secretariat over anything.

The decision to take the champion to Woodbine was a grand stroke of luck for the Canadian racecourse and provided me with my first opportunity to see racing in Canada, although I knew they had plenty of good sport there.

But the most memorable part of Secretariat’s victory by 6 1/2 lengths over the high-class racer Big Spruce was the Great One’s effortless stride. The chestnut’s magnificent propulsion drove him around the far turn lengths ahead of his competitors, and due to the chill air, he actually looked like some magical beast. At every stride, the air he breathed was superheated in his great lungs and then expelled in twin plumes of mist from his nostrils.

This supernatural scene in the growing dusk of the Canadian afternoon, coupled with the emotions of seeing the champion’s last race, made the Canadian International an unforgettable experience.