Secretariat, the Preakness, and a 39-Year Controversy

Secretariat and Ron Turcotte after winning the 1973 Preakness stakes.
Secretariat and Ron Turcotte after winning the 1973 Preakness stakes. (Courtesy Leonard)

Maximum Security’s disqualification in the 2019 Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve inspired much controversy, and the debate at times felt like the 1950 Kurosawa film “Rashomon,” where multiple witnesses to an event retell it in vastly different ways. All of us saw the same race, yet so many people have different interpretations of what they saw. Whose interpretation should get to determine history?

This was not the first time the Triple Crown has had to suffer through a prolonged “Rashomon”-like debate over multiple interpretations of a race. When Secretariat won the 1973 Preakness on his way to conquering the Triple Crown, a similar controversy began brewing seconds after he crossed the finish line, one that would last for nearly four decades.

Immediately after Secretariat’s brilliant last-to-first finish, the Pimlico timer reported that the final time for the 1 3/16-mile race was 1:55, a good time, but a second slower than Canonero II’s Preakness record set in 1971. Many had predicted Secretariat would beat that record, just as he had done at Churchill Downs when he became the first horse in history to finish the Kentucky Derby in under two minutes. Still, nobody had any reason to doubt the track’s time of the race, which was measured by an “electric eye” called the Visumatic, which cast a beam of light across the racetrack and was only triggered when a horse broke the beam. Visumatic was considered more accurate than stopwatch-wielding clockers capable of human error, who sometimes can be off by a fifth of a second or more.

But when the official time for the race was revealed, a buzz spread across the press box high above the racetrack. Frank Robinson, the clocker for the Daily Racing Form, had recorded a different time. And Robinson’s time wasn’t off from the track time by a fifth of a second, but a full one and three-fifths seconds. Robinson clocked Secretariat at 1:53 2/5. Could he have been that off? He was a veteran clocker, and he knew the difference between clicking the stopwatch a hair too early or late and making an error of over a full second. He checked with other turf writers who were clocking the race from other vantage points to see what they came up with. To his surprise, he wasn’t the only one who had a time that differed from the track. The Daily Racing Form’s chief clocker, Frenchy Schwartz, also had it at 1:53 2/5. They couldn’t have both independently made the same error. It had to have been the machine that was wrong! What’s more, 1:53 2/5 was more than enough to beat Canonero’s record.

Word eventually reached Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, that there was a discrepancy in the finishing time. The Daily Racing Form was so sure of their clockers, they chose to run their own time in their chart of the race rather than the official time, and noted in their publication that they believed Secretariat held the new record. The day after the race Laurin announced that he would request a review of the time before he shipped out for New York to prepare for the Belmont Stakes.

It turned out that Pimlico didn’t rely solely on the Visumatic machine. They also had their track clocker, E.T. McLean Jr., as a backup in case the machine failed. By Monday, Pimlico announced that McLean did, in fact, clock Secretariat faster than the Visumatic, at 1:54 2/5, but he failed to report that time to the stewards on race day. The stewards voted that Monday to change the official time to reflect McLean’s time. It still wasn’t enough to take the record from Canonero, however, so perhaps this was all much ado over nothing. Laurin said that the ruling “leaves me cold,” and that “it matters a great deal.” But he left the matter alone as they prepared Secretariat for the Belmont, and the chance to win the first Triple Crown in 25 years.

CBS, however, wasn’t content to let it alone. The network aired a 30-minute broadcast about the controversy, showing Secretariat and Canonero’s races side by side and comparing them frame by frame. The network seemed sure that Secretariat had broken the record, and by devoting a half hour of airtime to the question, turned it into a national controversy.

Secretariat went on to win the Belmont in spectacular fashion, breaking that record as well. With two official race records out of three under their belts, Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, decided to formally request a review of the Preakness time by the Maryland Racing Commission on June 18. She claimed watching the CBS broadcast convinced her that Secretariat was dealt a serious injustice, since by the looks of the videotape he finished his race a full three lengths faster than Canonero. This wasn’t a question of inches. The evidence seemed irrefutable. But it didn’t seem that way to everyone.

Writing in the Baltimore Sun, Racing Editor William Boniface called the evidence “flimsy” and “circumstantial.” He thought Chenery’s request for a hearing was out of character for her, and was selfish and unfair. “She’s asking the commissioners to consider taking the Preakness record away from another horse, which earned it, and giving it to her colt,” he wrote in his column.

The Maryland Racing Commission held a hearing in July where they heard testimony from a long list of expert witnesses, including a producer from CBS, and they watched multiple recordings of the race and the race from 1971. In the end the Commission voted unanimously to deny the request, saying that it was “bound by its rules and regulations which provide that the official time of any race is that which is clocked by the official timer.” Incredibly, they added that to change the time now, even given the evidence that the time was incorrect, would be “destructive of the integrity of all sporting events.”

The track record stood with Canonero, then was broken in 1985, then tied in 1996 and 2007, none of which was faster than Secretariat’s unofficial Daily Racing Form time. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Maryland Racing Commission finally agreed to revisit the question and voted 7-0 to change the official time of Secretariat’s finish to 1:53 flat, a new time that was made using digital technology that didn’t exist during the 1973 hearing. Chenery was elated to see her horse finally get his due, and she commented that perhaps the time just wasn’t right in 1973, perhaps sports wasn’t prepared to accept a review of an event after the fact.  “But we see it all the time in sports now,” she said in 2012. “It’s accepted, with replays. It’s completely consistent with the way sports are conducted now, that we use all the analytical tools possible.”

She’s probably right. Back in 1973, in his Baltimore Sun column, William Boniface said “If sports reach the point where nothing is official until the tapes are reviewed, it’ll be a sad state of affairs.” What would he think — Boniface died in 2005 — of the state of sports today,  of the 2019 Kentucky Derby drama, and the video reviews in sports that seem to never end.

But while reasonable people can disagree over whether the review of video evidence is taking away from the drama and excitement of sports, one thing is incontrovertible: There can only be one truth, and there’s nothing selfish or unfair about seeking it out. You may not think a player’s knee was on the ground or foot was on the line, and maybe the video doesn’t show a good angle. Whatever you may think, only one thing actually happened. And it’s good for the competitors, the connections, for all of sports, for us to do everything we can to discern that truth as closely as we can.

The “official” sign can light up on the tote board, but it doesn’t change how many seconds it actually took Big Red to get around that track. That number is true once and forever, whether you choose to believe it or not.

Note: This story was originally published in May 2019 and has been updated. 

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