October 1973: When Grass Was Greener for ‘Big Red’

Owner Penny Chenery, right, leads Secretariat to the winner’s circle after his dominant win in the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes Oct. 8, 1973, which was his first race on turf. (NYRA photo)

By the time October rolled around in 1973 for Triple Crown winner Secretariat, the Bold Ruler colt had little left to prove on the main track.

Sure, he had been upset twice in summer-fall by older horses from the barn of H. Allen Jerkens, who won that year’s Eclipse Award as outstanding trainer and two years later would be inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame. But Secretariat had already won four stakes at distances of seven furlongs or less in his career, he’d won a pair of one-mile dirt races in dominant fashion, and, of course, Secretariat swept the 1973 Triple Crown, culminating with a record-setting 31-length win in the Belmont Stakes.

Secretariat set a track record in winning the Kentucky Derby and a world-record for 1 ½ miles in 2:24 in the Belmont Stakes, and 39 years of controversy later the Meadow Stable homebred star was rightfully credited with a track record for his Preakness Stakes win.

Secretariat also defeated older horses on Sept. 15 in the Marlboro Cup Invitational and set another world record by completing 1 1/8 miles in 1:45 2/5 in a race televised nationally on CBS.

In the Marlboro Cup, Secretariat defeated stablemate Riva Ridge, the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner; Santa Anita Handicap winner Cougar II; Onion, the Jerkens-trained 4-year-old who had upset Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes in August; and champion Key to the Mint, among a field of seven.

With 14 wins, three seconds, and one third in 19 races on dirt, Secretariat embarked upon a new challenge: turf racing. His first turf test came in the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes Oct. 8 at Belmont Park, and wouldn’t you know, “Big Red” was more than up to the challenge.

Secretariat opened a clear lead under regular rider Ron Turcotte in the Man o’ War, shook off bids from a pair of rivals, and powered to a five-length romp in a course-record time on 2:24 4/5.

“Some people may not believe me,” Turcotte told Daily Racing Form after the race, “but I always thought he was an even better horse on grass than dirt.”

Tentam, a three-time Grade 1 winner coming off a victory in the United Nations Handicap, had moved up to challenge Secretariat in the Man o’ War and drew within a half-length at the top of the stretch. He was no match for Secretariat, who uncoiled an explosive finishing burst to leave Tentam in his wake with another 7 ½ lengths back to Grade 1 winner Big Spruce in third. Secretariat delivered a tour de force on turf.

Twenty days later, Secretariat won the final start of his career on the grass in Canada, birthplace of both Turcotte and trainer Lucien Laurin.

Turcotte was forced to sit out the race while serving a five-day suspension, so Laurin called upon Eddie Maple to ride Secretariat. He overhauled familiar rival Kennedy Road, who set the pace in the 1 5/8-mile race, and pulled away to win the Grade 2 Canadian International Stakes by 6 ½ lengths over 11 overmatched opponents.

In an unforgettable atmosphere with snow on the ground and plumes of air bursting out of his nostrils as he devoured ground in the Woodbine stretch, Secretariat powered to victory as fans charged onto the main track to cheer horse racing’s hero home in his final race.

As the first Triple Crown winner since Citation in 1948 and with multiple track and world records to his credit, Secretariat was an easy choice for Eclipse Awards as 1973 Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male. A dominant two-race stretch on the grass in October added to his haul as Secretariat also was named champion turf horse.

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