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Horse Racing / Bill Christine : Secretariat Was Champion of the People, Both Young and Old

October 05, 1989|BILL CHRISTINE

Dear Secretariat: How is it in the stallion barn? Who all do you know there? I wish I could meet you, but you see I don't live anywhere near you. I live in Lincoln, Neb. Please send me a picture of you. I'm sending you a picture of me so you will know what I look like. --Letter from a girl to a horse

The first time I saw Secretariat at stud, at Claiborne Farm in the rolling hills of Northern Kentucky, he was in a big paddock next to Riva Ridge.

What a sight and what a contrast they were: The horses that won the Kentucky Derby in successive years, Riva Ridge in 1972 and Secretariat in 1973.

Riva Ridge was wearing a muzzle. His groom said that he was so ornery that he was capable of savaging himself. Riva Ridge looked like an equine Darth Vader.

In the next paddock was Secretariat, Mr. Personality. At the sight of the cameras he galloped over to the rail. There he stood and looked his visitors in the eye and posed, his near-red coat glistening in the bright morning sunlight. He came close enough for some of the people to hug him.

Trainer Lucien Laurin, the gray-haired French-Canadian who trained both Derby winners, went to see Secretariat at Claiborne every spring, including the last one. A former jockey, Laurin fidgeted his way through those two Derbies, and went all the way with Secretariat, who gave racing its first Triple Crown champion in 25 years when he also won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1973.

Early Wednesday morning, Don Grisham of the Daily Racing Form called Laurin at his apartment near Arlington International Racecourse in the Chicago area, telling him that Secretariat was very sick. A month ago, the 19-year-old stallion was diagnosed as having laminitis, a circulatory hoof ailment that is frequently fatal.

Laurin, who is still training horses in his late 70s, later got a second call, telling him that Secretariat was given a lethal injection because he was in so much pain.

"This is a very sad day," Laurin said. "Believe you me, this is a very sad day."

Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat, saw him at Claiborne in the spring and was shocked at how heavy he seemed. Laurin, however, thought that the horse looked fine.

He was the first--and only--horse to be voted horse of the year as a 2-year-old, and his Triple Crown conquest the next year was beyond convincing, it was devastating. He broke the time records for both the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, and he probably also ran the fastest Preakness in history, but Pimlico's timer malfunctioned that day.

His Belmont time of 2 minutes 24 seconds for 1 1/2 miles was a world record and obliterated the stakes record of 2:26 3/5 that Gallant Man had set in 1957.

Secretariat won the Belmont by 31 lengths, jockey Ronnie Turcotte looking over at the tote board as they flashed through the stretch, because he couldn't wait to see how fast they were traveling.

Several years ago, at a dinner in San Francisco, Turcotte sat in a wheelchair, victim of a spill at the same Belmont Park in 1978 that left him a paraplegic. Turcotte was asked how good Sham was, Sham being the horse who finished second to Secretariat in both the Derby and the Preakness, before breaking down trying to catch the chestnut comet in the Belmont.

"We'll never know, eh?" Turcotte said. "We'll never know, because Secretariat was so great. He won the Belmont without me urging him until we were 70 yards from home. The only reason I urged him was because there was a patrol judge on a platform in the infield wearing red pants, and I didn't want my horse to get spooked."

On Wednesday, Laurin was asked to analyze Secretariat's talent.

"He had no faults," Laurin said. "He could run on dirt, run on mud, run on grass. He was a perfect gate horse. The good Lord just sent such a fantastic horse our way," he said. "And for racing he came along at the right time, because racing was going down the road at that time. This horse helped a lot of tracks get people interested in racing again."

There hadn't been a Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948. Laurin remembered Secretariat's final workout, a few days before his last race, the Canadian International Championship on grass at Woodbine. It turned out to be his 16th win in 21 starts.

"I was nervous, because we had to get that work in, and it was important," Laurin said. "It was so foggy that you couldn't see 10 feet in front of your face. But there was about 10,000 people out there that morning, just to see him work."

Turcotte always pointed to Secretariat's incredible strength.

"He really had a mild temperament, and that was a good thing," Turcotte said. "Because if he hadn't been that way, he was so strong that there wouldn't have been a jock alive that could have held him."

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