A Trio of Triple Crown Turning Points for Legendary Secretariat

The story of legendary racehorse Secretariat is well known in many regards, but Jennifer Kelly takes a closer look at three key moments in the career of the 1973 Triple Crown winner that shaped his career and the lives of those connected to him. (Keeneland Library/Featherston Collection)

His career has been documented and discussed so voluminously that it rivals that of the other “Big Red,” Man o’ War. To tell the story of the immortal Secretariat is a challenge as his life on the track and off was punctuated by a plethora of fortuitous circumstances that gave us this tremendous machine. To select one turning point, to pinpoint a single decision or coincidence that changed the fate of this Triple Crown winner is to omit the extraordinary series of happenstances that, had they gone any other way, would have meant he might not have become the Secretariat that captured our imaginations.

For this month’s Triple Crown Turning Point, the life and career of Secretariat had not one, but three major moments that made all the difference five decades ago.

All in the Family

Christopher Chenery had a deep familial connection to The Meadow when he purchased the farm in 1936. Located on the North Anna River near Doswell, Va., The Meadow featured lowlands with plenty of streams and rivers feeding the land and its inhabitants. Chenery invested time and money into his passion for horses, turning his ancestral land into a stud that nurtured immortals. When Chenery fell ill in the late 1960s, his three children had to decide what to do with the farm and its horses: keep The Meadow in the family or sell it off?

Penny Chenery in 1998.
Penny Chenery in 1998. (Anne Eberhardt/BloodHorse)

Daughter Penny assumed the task of running the family’s breeding and racing operations. Advised by Claiborne Farm’s Bull Hancock and trainer Roger Laurin, she streamlined The Meadow’s bloodstock and horses in training, retaining several her father’s broodmares, including Somethingroyal and Hasty Matelda. Chenery wanted to breed those mares to leading sire Bold Ruler, owned by the Phipps family. The Phipps opted to forgo a stud fee in favor of a foal-sharing agreement where a coin flip would determine which party would select a foal from the mares bred to their stallion.

In 1969, Somethingroyal, who had already produced multiple stakes winners, was in foal to Bold Ruler with a weanling filly by the sire already on the ground. Additionally, Hasty Matelda had a weanling colt by Bold Ruler, meaning that the coin toss that year would determine the fate of three horses, not two. Ogden Phipps called tails and won the toss, opting to take Somethingroyal’s weanling filly, later named The Bride, while Penny was left with the weanling colt and Somethingroyal’s 1970 foal.

That weanling colt, later named Rising River, proved to be unsound, while The Bride later became a far better broodmare than a racehorse for the Phipps. Somethingroyal’s 1970 foal, though, proved to be something special.

That coin flip was the first turning point in the story of Secretariat. Had Penny won, would she have made the same choice? Had the Phipps opted for that foal, would Secretariat have become the icon we know and love?

A Sure Bet?

Somethingroyal’s foal by Bold Ruler arrived on March 30, 1970, and stood out from the moment he slipped onto the hay in the wee hours. A flashy reddish chestnut, he was splashed liberally with white, including three socks and a splotch with a line on his forehead. Stamped with the name Secretariat, his looks were eye-catching, but could he run? As Riva Ridge logged a championship season at age 2, a yearling Secretariat was showing promise in his preparations for the racetrack, but no one could have anticipated what he would become the following year.

While Riva Ridge attempted a Triple Crown of his own in 1972  — he won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and finished fourth in the Preakness — Secretariat was putting on a show in the year’s juvenile stakes, winning the Sanford and the Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga and the Futurity Stakes at Belmont among his seven wins that season. His record was enough to earn him Eclipse Awards for champion 2-year-old male and Horse of the Year. With that smashing season behind him and the valuable 3-year-old stakes ahead in 1973, Secretariat was a valuable horse, which left Penny with a dilemma.

Christopher Chenery’s death in January 1973 left the family with a substantial estate tax bill and to pay it would require tough decisions. Penny wanted to keep the farm and its racing and breeding operations, including Secretariat and Riva Ridge. To do this, she partnered with Claiborne Farm to offer Secretariat for syndication before he had even raced at 3, asking $190,000 for each share. If her efforts were successful, she would raise enough money to keep both Secretariat and Riva Ridge, among other assets.

After many phone calls and negotiations, Secretariat’s syndication was complete. Another turning point had come and gone and the talented colt could now start his 3-year-old season, having remained on the sidelines while Chenery awaited the outcome of hers and Claiborne’s dealmaking. He easily won the Bay Shore and the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, but turned in a clunker in the Wood Memorial, most likely due to a mouth abscess which caused him discomfort.

Naysayers, though, brought up the Bold Ruler factor: to this point, Secretariat’s sire had not produced a classic winner. The Wood Memorial was 1⅛ miles and the Meadow Stable star had finished third. The Kentucky Derby was another eighth of a mile longer.

Would the son of Bold Ruler out of Somethingroyal capitalize on all that promise, the talent demonstrated over one championship season, and show everyone another level? It was time to find out.

Potential Realized

The coin flip could have changed his trajectory before he was even on the ground, but Penny’s luck had kept Secretariat in the Meadow Stable blue and white. The syndication could have been unsuccessful and the best horse that Chenerys ever bred could have slipped away from them. Twice now, turning points had passed and Secretariat had stayed on the path to immortality. At Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, all that was left was the running.

Penny Chenery with Secretariat (Paul Schafer/BloodHorse photo)

Secretariat had to show them all that the faith that Penny Chenery, the members of the lucrative syndicate, and the thousands of racing fans watching under the Twin Spires and at home had in the big red colt was warranted.

And show them, he did.

He broke well, allowing speed horses to jet to the front while jockey Ron Turcotte and the big red colt lingered toward the back of the pack going into the first turn. Rather than make a flashy move late in the 1 ¼ miles, Turcotte let Secretariat pick horses off one by one, winding his way through the field until they turned into the stretch. His sights set on a front-running Sham, the big red colt briefly ran in tandem with that talented peer, but the momentum of his stride, the powerful performance had been building with steady speed propelled him to the lead.

At the finish line, it was Secretariat by 2½ lengths in record time of 1:59 2/5, almost 50 years later still the fastest Kentucky Derby ever. In the first race of his Triple Crown, the performance was one last major turning point in his immortal career, when he blew past the competition and never looked back.

The rest, as they say, is history. Triple Crown history.

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