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Secretariat's Preakness Run Is Time-Tested Controversy

May 15, 2003|Bob Mieszerski | Times Staff Writer

Thirty years after what is widely considered the greatest of the Triple Crown sweeps, Secretariat still holds the record for the fastest times in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

In the eyes of many, he also shares the Preakness record with Louis Quatorze, who won the second leg of the Triple Crown in 1996, and Tank's Prospect, the 1985 winner.

Pimlico, the site of the Preakness, and the Maryland Racing Commission say not so. The track's media guide continues to list Secretariat's Preakness time at 1:54 2/5. This is a full second slower than the time recorded by two Daily Racing Form clockers (Frenchy Schwartz and Gene Robinson) and other reputable observers.

In the career past performance lines of Secretariat in the book "Champions," the 1:54 2/5 time is listed, but, underneath, the 1:53 2/5 clocking is also mentioned next to the notation "Daily Racing Form time."

The discrepancy was once wider. When Secretariat crossed the wire 2 1/2 lengths in front of Sham, the same margin that had separated the two in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier, the final time on the board on May 19, 1973, was 1:55.

Saying its official timer had malfunctioned, Pimlico later amended the clocking to 1:54 2/5, which was two-fifths of a second off the track record at the time. In winning the 1971 Preakness, Canonero II ran the 1 3/16 miles in 1:54.

This was not enough to satisfy those who felt Secretariat had been wronged. CBS played videotapes of his Preakness win and that of Canonero II's on a split screen. According to William Nack, Secretariat's biographer, Secretariat won by three lengths, pulling away in the final eighth of a mile. Given that a length equals a fifth of a second, that would mean he ran 1 3/16 miles in 1:53 2/5.

"I watched the race from the jockey's porch at Pimlico and there was a guy next to me named Ted McClean [Jr.]," Nack said. "I asked him what he did and he said he was a clocker, but that day he was in charge of crowd control.

"I remember being disappointed when the race was over when I saw the 1:55 final time because it seemed awfully slow. I went back to the press box and [handicapper-author] Andy Beyer, who had written before the Preakness that Secretariat would win in 1:53 2/5, said the time was wrong. Schwartz and Robinson both had him in 1:53 2/5.

"Secretariat had won the race by the same margin as the Derby and it was the same margin [eight lengths] back to [third-place finisher] Our Native in both races, so [1:55] means they all would have had the same amount of regression."

McClean, who was Pimlico's official clocker, obviously disagreed and it was his clocking the track used. "I didn't see a stopwatch in his hand," Nack said. "Standing up where we were, you couldn't reasonably clock horses coming at you. I don't believe him or he was mistaken.

"Besides Schwartz and Robinson having him in 1:53 2/5, [longtime handicapper and former boxer] Clem Florio clocked him off the television about three dozen times and he got 1:53 2/5."

Years later, the one-second difference still bothered Lucien Lauren, Secretariat's trainer.

"He set a track record in the Preakness," he said in a 1981 interview. "I don't care what anyone says. The two clockers from Daily Racing Form got him in 1:53 2/5, but the timer was busy doing something else and caught him in [1:54 2/5]. That may be the official time of the race, but Frenchy Schwartz got him in record time and Schwartz is the best clocker that ever lived."

Whatever the final time, the Preakness was another of many fabulous performances by Secretariat. Last of six going into the first turn, the handsome chestnut son of Bold Ruler made what the Form chart caller termed "a spectacular run" while wide on the first turn. By the time the field entered the backstretch, Secretariat was in front and easily remained clear of Sham the rest of the way.

"There was more pressure in the Preakness than there was in the Derby," owner Penny Chenery said in a recent interview, "because he went into the Derby having lost the Wood Memorial."

Secretariat finished third in that race, beaten by four lengths by entrymate Angle Light and runner-up Sham. It was later revealed that he had been bothered by an abscess in his upper lip, and that probably contributed to what was one of five defeats in his 21-race career.

"After he won the Derby, the pressure was building going into the Preakness. It was the race we were most worried about because we had expected Riva Ridge to win the year before and he got beat [finishing fourth over a sloppy track at 3-10].

"But Secretariat put our fears to rest. He made such an explosive move around the first turn. That move and the margin of victory in the Belmont Stakes were the high points of the Triple Crown."

Staff Writer Bill Christine contributed to this report.

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