There has been all this talk about the I price of gold—$64, $73, zooming up to $86 an ounce—but the most precious commodity in the news right now is a racehorse named Secretariat. Four weeks ago he was syndicated for something like $345 an ounce. And last Saturday at Aqueduct he made his first start for the international consortium (Americans, Canadians, Trish, French and Japanese) that now owns him. He won the race handily, earning just .0027 of his $6,080,000 purchase price. At least it was a start and, figures aside, it was an impressive one.
For Secretariat, the Bay Shore Stakes was to be a nice little romp across seven furlongs of slop and then back to the barn for a meal and a massage. From somewhere they found five colts willing to run for second money, and they laid 126 pounds on the giant coppery dude to keep it decent, but as John Campo, the trainer of one starter in the race, said, "The only chance we got is if he falls down." Still Secretariat could race five Sherman tanks and he would make it exciting. He is a majestic brute with great rippling muscles and a showman's flair for romping from far back to win.
"It is not so much that he enjoys coming from behind as that he is trying to stay out of trouble in the early going," says Lucien Laurin, the French Canadian who trains the colt for Mrs. Penny Tweedy and for the 28 other members of the syndicate. (Mrs. Tweedy is the major stockholder in Secretariat with four shares, worth $190,000 apiece.) Laurin traces Secretariat's reluctance to run with the pack to his first start, when he was bounced around coming out of the gate and finished fourth. Nothing has beaten him in nine tries since, except the stewards, who disqualified him from first place after he shoved a massive shoulder into Stop The Music in last season's Champagne Stakes. "He never forgot that initial race," Laurin says. "Ever since he holds back. He's a smart horse. A handsome one, too."
And how do you tell a handsome horse from an ugly one?
Laurin frowns. "The same way you tell a handsome man from an ugly one," he snaps, handsomely ending that discussion. But there has been much talk on America's racetracks about how wonderfully formed this animal is. "It was as if God decided to make a perfect racehorse," said Pimlico's Chick Lang not long ago.
To many, the syndication of Secretariat so early in his racing career came as a surprise. He has an excellent chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948, a sweep that surely would have driven his value up. He is the shortest-price (8-to-5) winter-book Kentucky Derby favorite in decades. But the sale became necessary with the death of the colt's owner, Christopher T. Chenery, in January. The taxes on his estate were staggering. Mrs. Tweedy, who is Chenery's daughter, decided to part with most of the family's prize 3-year-old.
"We didn't have any trouble putting a syndicate together," says Seth Hancock, the owner of Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. where Secretariat will go to stud at the end of this season. The previous record price for a horse was $5,440,000 paid for the English Triple Crown winner, Nijinsky. Hancock's father, the late A.B. (Bull) Hancock, handled that deal.
"Secretariat has the credentials to be a remarkable stallion," young Hancock says. "First you look at performance and obviously his has been outstanding. Only two losses, and one of those to the stewards. The second category to consider is his pedigree. He is by Bold Ruler, the greatest sire we ever had. He led the list seven straight years. Sons of Bold Ruler have made fine stallions."
Secretariat's mother, a daughter of Princequillo, is Somethingroyal, a bay who was an also-ran in her only start. But what matters is she produced a colt named Sir Gaylord, the favorite for the 1962 Kentucky Derby until he was injured just hours before the race. And he is a top sire. Another son, First Family, won the Gulfstream Park Handicap, and a daughter, Syrian Sea, won the Selima Stakes.
Hancock moved on to the third and last category—appearance. "He is a beautiful animal to look at, a great big, strong horse who is unflawed. A real good eye, all legs under him, a good hind leg, a sharp-looker. He's, well, he's a hell of a horse."
It has been suggested that the sudden need for syndication moved Laurin to delay Secretariat's 3-year-old schedule, that a loss down in Florida where the horse trained this winter would have hurt the price. "Not true," Hancock says. "Sure, a loss wouldn't have done any good. But what Secretariat has accomplished already makes him worth the $6 million. What he does in the future is just gravy. Laurin had expected to race the colt at Hialeah, but when he saw the horse coming around slower than he expected, he just charted a new course."
If all goes well, the new schedule calls for Secretariat to step up from the seven furlongs of the Bay Shore to a mile in the Gotham at Aqueduct on April 7, and then to 1‚⅛ miles in the Wood Memorial on April 21. As with his 1972 Kentucky Derby winner, Riva Ridge, Laurin plans to give Secretariat only three races before starting him in the classic on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Secretariat would be Laurin's fourth Derby horse. His first, Amberoid, ran out of the money. His second, Dike, finished third, losing by just over half a length. Both of these went to the Derby by way of New York tracks, as Secretariat will. Riva Ridge took the Southern route, with races in Florida and in Lexington. "I don't think it makes any difference," Laurin says. "At least I hope it doesn't. You make moves and hope they are the right ones."
For the briefest moment several weeks ago, just as Secretariat was ending his $8,000 jet trip from Florida to Barn 5 at Belmont Park, there was a good chance that all of Laurin's plans would wind up in a plaster cast. Or worse. As groom Eddie Sweat was leading the colt from a van to his stall, the leather shank broke. "My God," thought Sweat, sweating, "he's loose." Secretariat tossed his head, snorted, took three tiny steps and then stood quietly while the groom regained control. "Aw, the big dude wasn't going anywhere," Sweat says now. "He was just foolin' around."
Jimmy Gaffney, Secretariat's exercise boy, laughed about the incident late last week. "Sometimes he plays rough. But he don't mean anything by it. He's real nice to gallop. He's sharp going into this race. I predict a track record. He's bigger and better than ever."
Last September, Laurin had a veterinarian measure his colt. Horses' statistics are more difficult to fathom than the metric system but in laymen's terms, Secretariat stood 5'4½" at the top of his shoulder, and his girth (around the tummy) was 74". As a 3-year-old, Riva Ridge had a girth of just 73". The extra inch, of course, is muscle, not fat, and Secretariat is still growing.
"He's bigger and faster," said Gaffney. "On Wednesday morning he worked out as fast as a horse can go. I thought they were going to have to call out the fire department to cool down the track." That workout—three-eighths of a mile in 32[3/5]—both pleased and distressed Laurin. He was delighted to know the colt had that much zip but obviously was concerned that the hard work might have tired him. "He's getting edgy, ready to do something," said Laurin. "He knows he's back in business. I can hardly wait for Saturday to see what happens."
Race day broke wet and windy under a blanket of dull gray, and by noon the track was an oval of beige muck. The wind was fierce enough to whip up white-caps on the infield lakes. A flock of gulls circled forlornly through the gloom of a thickening fog. "I'd rather have had a fast track," Laurin said, "but the colt ran well in the mud last year." He didn't say it, but Laurin must have been thinking that this was a risky way for a $6 million property to earn back $16,650. But like a lot of Aqueduct fans, the sun arrived for the fourth race and the day appeared more pleasant than it was.
As usual, Secretariat broke late and then settled into fifth position. As they sloshed around the turn into the stretch, everyone waited for the big colt to make his usual move on the outside. Only nothing happened. "When I decided to take him out," Jockey Ron Turcotte said later, "Champagne Charlie was there. I had to stay put."
Where he was, was in trouble. Ahead was a tight wall of horses—Actuality on the rail, Impecunious in the middle and Champagne Charlie on the outside. For any other horse it would have been a disaster. For Secretariat it was no serious problem. In the stretch the big colt stuck his handsome head between Actuality and Impecunious, hit the afterburner and barreled through. He surged away to win by 4½ lengths, finishing in the moderate time of 1:23[1/5]. They should have named him Bronko Nagurski. "Foul," cried James Moseley, the rider on Impecunious, who finished third. "He bumped me." The stewards studied the films and said no way. Sorry.
"Wow!" said Ron Turcotte. "I never knew six million bucks could be so heavy." Or so handsome.
After taking his own sweet time coming out of the gate, Secretariat lengthens his stride as he rolls up the backstretch into contention.