After a Change of Plans, Secretariat Delivers in 3-Year-Old Debut

After losing the first race of his career July 4, 1972, Meadow Stable’s Secretariat finished first in his eight remaining tests as a 2-year-old, although he was disqualified and placed second in the Champagne Stakes for allegedly causing interference. Five of his victories came in stakes and he was brilliant enough to become the first 2-year-old since Colin 65 years earlier to win Horse of the Year honors outright.

The scary thing for his competition was, as he approached his 3-year-old season Secretariat was getting better.

“He was a very impressive 2-year-old, and he was maturing,” noted Ron Turcotte, who would ride the son of Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal, by Princequillo, in all his starts except his first two and his final career start in October 1973, when Turcotte was serving a suspension.

“Secretariat was progressing as we went along. As soon as I got a hold of him when he turned 3, I realized how much he’d matured. He was a stronger horse, quicker to get under way and find his feet under him. I could let him run faster right from the start.”

Plenty was going on away from the racetrack that would affect the beginning of Secretariat’s 1973 campaign. The founder of Meadow Stable, longtime horseman Christopher Chenery, died Jan. 3 after a long illness. He had already been hospital-bound when his Riva Ridge won the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.

The day-to-day operation of the stable had fallen to Chenery’s daughter, Helen “Penny” Tweedy, a Colorado-based mother of three, after her two siblings voiced their preference to get out of the horse world immediately. Tweedy, while a newbie to the Thoroughbred industry, was an accomplished rider and no greenhorn at business, having been one of the first female graduates of Columbia University Business School. 

Tweedy directed Seth Hancock, who had just taken over Claiborne Farm after the passing of his father, Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr., to syndicate Secretariat in the winter between the colt’s 2- and 3-year-old seasons. Hancock, who had his work cut out for him considering the record share price of $190,000, sold the 28 shares he had to offer, bringing in some $6 million, the highest such syndication in history.

Secretariat, wintering in Florida away from all the activity that swirled around him up North, was nevertheless involved in his own drama. While stabled at Hialeah Park, he developed a minor splint in a foreleg that needed to be pinfired. He soon returned to training for a campaign that originally was built around three Grade 1 stakes — the Flamingo Stakes, the Florida Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes — and then on to the Kentucky Derby. It was a plan mapped out by Tweedy, Meadow Stable’s secretary Elizabeth Ham, and trainer Lucien Lauren the previous fall in New York. 

“We laid out a 3-year-old campaign assuming everything went well,” said Penny Chenery in 2013. “Lucien would tell me the choices, and I learned to trust him and gave him the freedom to make plans. We had a strategy in place by the autumn, but nothing is as straightforward as you expect it to be.”

Laurin had received a share in the Secretariat syndication, and he was in no hurry to run Secretariat and risk devaluing his stake until the syndication was officially done. So even though Secretariat recovered quickly and was geared up to run, Laurin decided to toss away the Southern strategy, ease up on Secretariat’s training, and push back his 3-year-old debut until mid-March in New York. By late February, Secretariat was getting geared up again for a run.

“Before we got him to New York, we were going pretty good with him,” said Turcotte. “Then, once we got to New York we got more serious and started preparing him for the [March 17] Bay Shore [Stakes].”

Chenery, meanwhile, had moved to New York after her husband, Jack Tweedy, took a job there, which proved convenient, as she wanted to be at every one of Secretariat’s races. She had been in touch with Laurin about once a week getting updates from Florida. As good as Secretariat had been at 2, there are always worries about a horse progressing and coming back the same, or better.

“Sure, there were doubts,” Chenery said, “because he was big and precocious and you heard all about the Bold Rulers not being able to run that far. He was a flashy 2-year-old, but can he carry it through to 3? My philosophy was to just wait and see. If he can do it, let him show me. 

“Plus, we had won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont the year before with Riva Ridge, so the two years in a row added to my doubts. We got lucky once, now really, can we expect it again?” 

Once she laid eyes on her charge in New York, however, Chenery liked her chances.

“He was big, gleaming, and gorgeous before the first race that year,” she remembered. “He had a lot of self-confidence and was enjoying himself. He was pretty much my life at that point.”

Three days before the Bay Shore, Secretariat worked three furlongs in :32 3/5. For a mere mortal, a move that fast would mean the horse left his race at the workout. Turcotte, however, knew this was no regular horse.

“There were no concerns,” he stated. “He was ready to run. He was a big eater and a good doer. We went that way with him as a 2-year-old, and we didn’t change the pattern. I let him go through the stretch and that’s how he worked.”

Mother Nature threw a curveball at Secretariat’s comeback when heavy rains soaked the New York area the day before the Bay Shore. Although a sloppy track was another factor to deal with, Secretariat’s connections remained calm, knowing Big Red had won the Laurel Futurity by eight lengths in the slop the previous October.

Five foes lined up to face Secretariat in the seven-furlong Bay Shore at Aqueduct on a nasty, gray afternoon, and all but one outran him early up the backstretch, a style Turcotte had repeatedly employed. 

“I always wanted him to get his feet under him,” Turcotte said. “I never wanted to rush him; just give him time and then pick the spot I wanted, depending on the pace. He was very cooperative and manageable. He was still maturing at that point, and I didn’t see any sense changing the style right away. Lucien and I would talk it over and at some point we wanted to do something different with him because when I worked him, I could do anything with him.”

Secretariat raced fifth early in the Bay Shore, six lengths off the lead. When Turcotte began moving along the rail, he was still behind horses and had Champagne Charlie pinning him down from the outside. For a while around the turn, there was no place to go.

“I stayed on the inside because the horse in front of me [Impecunious], I knew he always tried to get out,” said Turcotte. “I waited until I thought I might have to go around, and just then I saw that horse get out so I sat down and went up inside him; the hole opened, and we went right through.”

Some written accounts of the Bay Shore described a tight hole that was closing, and Secretariat getting bumped as he bulled his way through. Turcotte maintained it was nothing that dramatic. 

“Going through there wasn’t that big a deal,” he said. “When he got in gear, I knew they were spreading apart and we were rolling and we got through without brushing anyone. There was no bouncing around. I had been taking him outside in a few races because I didn’t want him getting stopped once he was rolling. This time, I took a chance and it worked out. He just went right through and galloped.”

It was close enough, though, that a claim of foul was made against Secretariat by jockey Jimmy Moseley on Impecunious. If anything, though, Secretariat was bumped by the horse inside him, Actuality, and the claim was disallowed. 

Secretariat won the Bay Shore by 4 1/2 lengths in 1:23 1/5 over Champagne Charlie with Impecunious finishing third on the sloppy track. Up in the boxes Chenery breathed a sigh of relief.

“When he split horses, that certainly gave us hope and confidence,” she said. “I remember so clearly the look on the horse’s face: ‘I could go around, but I’ll just go through.’ He did it with such confidence that I thought we were set up for a big, strong spring. I didn’t say so because I didn’t want to look like a chump if it didn’t happen.”

Secretariat pulled up fine after the race, leaving smiles all around for his relieved team, which was now certain he had made the transition from 2 to 3 with his talent and power intact.

Secretariat would return in three weeks for the Grade 2 Gotham Stakes.