If you recall opening an issue of the weekly Thoroughbred Record dated March 24, 1973 and reading that 1972 champion Secretariat had made a successful debut to his 3-year-old season with a come-from-behind victory in the Bay Shore Stakes at Aqueduct, probably the only surprise in the recollection is that it was 50 years ago.
There are cliches that express the swiftness of time, the ease of its passing, and that sort of thing. They are dull expressions, however, and much less effective than the sharp wonder and kindling joy that the chestnut son of Bold Ruler produced in millions of people. That was half a century past, and yet time has done little to dull the enlivening sensation of that time, that colt, and the things we shared as he progressed toward the Triple Crown, then won it, and, amidst the adulation that followed, somehow found greater heights of accomplishment to test and attain.
This story, so fabled and fabulous, wasn’t supposed to be, actually. The tale of Secretariat’s accomplishment is too improbable. The best-looking colt, the death of the elderly breeder, the need for cash to settle estate taxes. The looming fears that something could go wrong and let everyone down, when that’s normally what happens, in racing and in life, amid the hopes that this time, the dream would come true. It’s a tale too far. Screenwriters and producers in Hollywood would never believe it.
Secretariat’s record-price syndication for $6,080,000 was an indication of the depth of the hopes surrounding this colt in spite of the fear of the unknown. In the racing program set out before him, Secretariat was physically challenging accepted reasoning, first that a son of Bold Ruler could win at 10 furlongs and second that any colt, no matter the sire, could win the Triple Crown again, after the most enthralling accomplishment of the turf had lain dormant for 25 years.
The worries about the colt’s pedigree were real and well-justified. Nearly all the Bold Rulers were milers; he himself had been an exceptional seven- to nine-furlong racer who handled 10 on sheer speed and class. Nearly all of Bold Ruler’s many gifted offspring wanted a mile, were taxed when raced much beyond that, and few had won important 10-furlong stakes.
Even champion Bold Lad (the best Bold Ruler prior to Secretariat and the one most like him in appearance and pedigree) had failed to handle 10 furlongs, or even nine furlongs, as Bold Lad had finished third in the 1965 Wood Memorial. In 1972, Secretariat had towered over his contemporaries for talent, and as a result of his dominance among juvenile colts, he was elected Horse of the Year, not an honor normally given to first-season racers. As a result of all the known information, Secretariat’s potential for winning the Derby was genuine, but the chance that it could fall flat was every bit as evident. That Seth Hancock could syndicate the colt in a day, before Secretariat had even started at 3, talking to professionals who knew the risks, is a testament to understanding the challenge and taking it because those involved believed.
They thought there was something special about this colt by Bold Ruler out of the grand producer Somethingroyal, and they were correct. The assumption of greatness, however, did not come to Secretariat and the people who believed in him through a series of empty blows.
There were challenges at every step of the quest that led from the colt’s seasonal debut in the seven-furlong Bay Shore to the graduation to a mile in the Gotham, the test of nine furlongs (longer than Secretariat had raced at 2), the immense uncertainty of the 10 furlongs on the First Saturday in May, the ability to step back a sixteenth for the Preakness in Baltimore, and then the highest hurdle of 12 furlongs in the Belmont Stakes that would be required to complete the Triple Crown.
The memories that come down like rain belie the distance in time of these events. Their clarity and the acuteness of the sensations they produced startles even me, because I, I remember.
(I would invite readers to post their own recollections, observations, photos, ideas, and suggestions because the memories of this horse and this time deserve our attention and careful reflection.)