Secretariat Speaks: “A Century of Derbies”

You've seen the new Disney movie, "Secretariat." Now, get the inside story straight from the horse's mouth, in his 1974 Post interview.

Me today. Retired (if you can call it that) at age three.
Photo by Tony Leonard.

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Being the true thoughts and reflections of Secretariat himself, as ably noted and transcribed by our best horse intereviewer, Starkey Flythe, Esquire.

Originally published in 1974.

The first week in May. The jockey’s silks are as bright as a bridegroom’s cravat. We are rubbed to the patina of antique Georgian furniture. Thirteen of us. There is the soft smell of leather and light tweed, earth that a hundred years of horses have kicked up and a hundred years of juleps in silver stirrup cups have wet down. And rising, ever so faintly, above the crowd, over the salt tears that edge out of eyes when “My Old Kentucky Home” blares, a whiff of roses. (I just gave you that hit of purple prose to dissociate myself from those other talking equi and muli, Mr. Ed and Francis.)

Anybody can run in it. At least if they’re registered by the Jockey Club. And there’s a story about a horse from out West who was asked not to, but whose owner insisted, until the nag was entered only to refuse to go into the starting gate, but once in with the help of all the King’s men, refused to go out, and finally out with the same aid, ran backwards. But “anybody” rarely wins it. Of the ninety-nine starts, forty-three post-time favorites have won.

IT is the ninth race in a day of ten. Post time is 5:30. And for the moment, Churchill Downs is the center of the universe. For racing? No, not just for racing. For radiance. The horse that wins will wear, not just as long as his head is above the turf — but forever—a crown of glory. A brass name plate on his turn-out bridle. A plaque on his stall door. He will become a living moment in the big and noble hearts of Thoroughbreds. He will never be referred to again as a stakes horse, normally a compliment opposed to being called a “plater”— one who competes for trophies. He—or in one case, she—will always be a Derby winner.

The money is $125,000 to which are added nomination fees, entry fees ($2,500) and starting fees ($1,500). The mutuel pool my year was $3,284,962. The total bet, over $6 million (a record). The value to the winner, $155,050. Which isn’t bad for 1:59.4. Which was a record for the track. Which, noted the Daily Racing Form, was fast. But nothing compared to me. I ran faster the last quarter than the first. Went by the stands last first. And first last. Which is when it counts.

Elation. True elation. It is a rare experience. Mares have said when they’ve dropped a foal and seen it, wet from birth, struggling to its feet awkward as a chapped-lip whistle—and seen that its points were those of a champion—straight and flawless legs, trim and tight knees and ankles, and that the colt would race and someday people would know his name—then they have experienced elation.

Elation came to me-more I think at the Derby than at any other race. I didn’t mean to be a ham, though Mrs. Tweedy says I am—”He pricks up his ears and gazes off nobly into the distance when he hears cameras clicking”—what do they expect of you when they take a million pictures of you?— one photographer even has a recording of mares in heat he plays to get our attention—but the grandstands seemed the place to lead. Ron Turcotte was no more than a fly or a gnat on my back when he struck me with his whip leaving the far turn. Then he switched it to his left hand. Flashed it. It seemed my lungs swelled, like water wings, lifting me into the ether—I never touched the ground again —the rest of the world seemed to have wound down to a snail race. I could hear the rows of men, see their arms high, know that it was me they were calling—almost to come back—but I had gone beyond them and could never go back. My heart was a boiler of blood. It seemed to me it might explode, but I could not stop. Then something outside of me took over and I was not merely me anymore. I was Pegasus, flat and lean, hurled against the sky. There was no resistance. The elements lay docile at my feet. Until I had passed; then they shoved me. A pair of wings crossed the finish line. I was already in the winner’s circle and Mrs. Tweedy was leading me out to the roses.

I could remember Sham, the horse I competed with who beat me in the Wood Memorial, and who came in second at the Derby, his mouth the color of roses too. Only it was blood. When we were being loaded into the starting gate. Twice a Prince—he ran next to last—perhaps he knew he was going to—refused to enter his stall. He reared up and threw his jockey. Shoes clanged against the metal of the stall divider. Sham’s head hit the gate, drawing blood, nearly knocking out his front teeth. Ron, smart as the horsefly he is, hadn’t loaded me in yet and turned me away from the clatter. Somebody got Twice a Prince out of the gate and soothed him. They got his jockey back up and all of us were in our stalls and off.

My hood is checkered—the colors of home—The Meadow-blue, white—it is like the flags at a Grand Prix-and on the backstretch I could see the blood flying from Sham’s mouth and right up to the wire I knew he was there, running fine, fast, rising over the pain and fear he felt. It would have been his race—any year but this one. Two who in any company would shine were this year against each other. Still, I could never have known myself against any but the best. Sham is the best. Races are never between the quick and the dead. They are between the quick and the quick.

There’s another horse I have to name, too. My stable mate, Riva Ridge. Riva is a dark bay—almost mahogany with sable legs and mane, a shortness of grace and going; he now stands at stud across the lane, a paddock away from me, at Claiborne Farm. I see him, silhouetted, motion even standing still, and there has been, at times, envy between us. When he won the Derby—the ninety-eighth running—he was the center of attraction. When I came along, there was trouble. People used to come see me in my stall, passing Riva Ridge. And he knew it and would turn his backside right up to the stall door, letting them have a taste of their own fickleness.

Riva was the horse that first brought glory to The Meadow and made us all celebrities. And when Christopher Chenery, who founded The Meadow and gave us all our chance and had always wanted to have a Derby winner, was so ill and down in bed, Riva won and we don’t know, but we think Mr. Chenery understood, sick as he was, that he had a winner, and he went out happy.

The famous spires, built in 1875. A hundred-thousand people—almost the amount of the purse—jam Churchill Downs for America&rquot;s horse racing classic.
Photo by Tony Leonard.

Sometimes I think about the hardships of racing. About the cold morning workouts. About the other horses, the sting of the earth as it flies up and hits your belly, the closeness of the other horses, their fear and your fear, the tricks unscrupulous jockeys sometimes play on you, the animosity among trainers in the barns and stables at racetracks, the way we know we are going to be run (instead of the usual four quarts of oats for lunch, there’s half a quart, and the hay outside the stall is taken away),  the way they—grooms, trainers, hands—try to make you relax, and how it never quite works. When they are nervous, you are nervous. “Horses ain’t like humans,” my friend and groom of last year, Eddie Sweat, said. (And we can thank the great Four- Legged One above for that.) Eddie says, “They have a mind of their own and you never can tell what they’re going to do. You think you have them settled down, but something happens, and it might bother them.”

Well, we’re hyperopic (farsighted). And we can’t see things close up unless our noses are practically touching them. Nor can we see directly in front of us, but to either side, behind, and to some extent above and below.

Stick your finger out in front of you. Now blink your left eye. Then your right. Fast. The finger seems to jump. Your eyes are an inch apart. Ours are six. Think how inanimate objects spring out at us. Then think that our ancestors knew running away was their only defense. Far-sightedness shows us the enemy at a distance. Farsightedness creates time for head starts.

So against this heritage—not to mention the Arabians bred with English mares 200 years ago— the registered Thoroughbreds in America are descended from three sires: the Byerly Turk, the Godolphin Barb and the Darley Arabian—we are expected to perform in a world where people are our only friends, where stall walls are too high to enable us to get aquanted with any horses. Throughbred is a distinct breed of horse, just like Morgan, Hambletonian, Percheron or Hackney. We have a dished or straight profile, a long, slender neck, sloping shoulders, fairly short back. The width of brisket—the space between our forelegs—is large, making room for the great heart of a Thoroughbred and the powerful lungs. Our muscles are flat and stringy, mane and tail thin and fine, veins violin strings, skin so thin we suffer terribly from flies and hot weather. We are high-spirited, but rarely mean or stubborn; ruined by rough treatment and easily gentled as a foal by kindness. Courage and quickness, spirit and delicacy mark us—no horse in the world can stay with us on the track; none can outjump us in the field. And we all have the same birthday, January first. At a year we are considered to be seven. At three, we are one and twenty and our lives—in some stallions’ cases—are paved with woo.

People say Ron Turcotte and I have our own style, that we break from the gate and then drop back; that’s a nice thought. The competition isn’t a bunch of drays, though, or the race an amateur version of The Iceman Cometh. They’re the fastest horses in the world and they’ve been trained all their lives for this day.

We have our own starting gate at The Meadow—and at Belmont, where I trained. So we’ll know how to break. So we won’t be afraid. Mrs. Tweedy thought of that and discussed it with Lucien Laurin, my trainer. (I love it when people discuss around us, their voices are quiet and soft—they don’t want to upset us—vexation never won a race.) Lucien said he thought it was a good idea.

I like Penny Tweedy. She said the first time she saw me, “Wow!” And it stuck. “The Wow Colt.” “The Wow Horse.” She’s sort of like me. Well bred (old Southern family-The Meadow belonged to her father’s people before the War between the States), well educated (Smith, Columbia University-business administration), she knows what she’s doing, and she does what she knows, and pretty (people cheer when they see her—and pretty is as pretty does so she got a public relations firm to handle the dishing out of me as a public figure), and, heaven forgive me, well fed.

Most stallions do fairly well on twelve quarts of oats a day. I like sixteen. And I nibble hay while the sun shines, and after it goes down, I have a special supper. A sort of mash of oats fortified with vitamins and minerals plus carrots and “sweet feed”—molasses-coated grain. Some horses won’t eat after a big race. But it just works up my appetite. I hate to use the word tub, but bucket doesn’t really size it up. One of my grooms describes me as a “neat eater.” “He has a sip of water every now and then between his mash. Then he picks up any stray buds on the floor and varies everything with a few wisps of hay. But, lordy, the amount.”

Well, consider my size. Twelve hundred pounds. Supported on legs less than yours. Like a bumblebee or a C-47 (from an engineer’s point of view), I shouldn’t be able to fly. And I’m still growing. My girth is seventy-five and three-fourths inches—about an inch more than Man 0’ War (who was also called Big Red) and I have to have a custom-made girth to hold my saddle. I can cover twenty-five feet in a single stride. You can see how that would eat up the Derby track, one and a quarter miles.

Ron always says, “I like to let him find his feet. Then he gives me his speed when I chirp to him.” Sometimes, the “chirping” gets lost in the noise of the race and he calls out with the crop. I don’t like it. I never have. I remember when he first used the whip. 1972. It scared the fodder out of me. I ducked into another horse and our number was taken down for a foul. I had begun my career in racing at Aqueduct—Fourth of July—appropriate date for the “horse of the century”-when another horse bumped into me at the gate and knocked me out of my direction. “If he hadn’t been such a strong horse, he’d have gone down,” the jockey said. Still, I got myself together and finished fourth. Since that day I’ve never been out of the money. Unbeaten—a good word in most sports—never really applies in racing. Man 0’ War and Citation were beaten. I’ve been beaten. But finished first in eleven out of fourteen races. How can we, after all—mute according to our masters—say we feel bad and want to stay in the barn, that we are under the weather or the weather is under us. At the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in April, a few days before the Derby, I came in behind Angle Light and Sham. For the drama of the Derby, I suppose, I couldn’t have done better had I tried. Many sportswriters and racing experts said I’d blown it. Of course the odds are the real sportswriters. And they remained $1.50 to $1.00. Sham’s were $2.50 to $1.00 and Angle Light’s were the same as mine. Angle Light finished tenth and Sham, of course, second. So from the gate we are fighting. Even when

we drop back. Strategic withdrawal you could call it. But the more you spot the competition, the farther you’ve got to go to catch up. Then you have to pass. And keep up. They said at the Derby when we swung around the outside, passing horses until only Sham was in front, we could never keep up such a rally to the finish. Just before the midstretch, I caught him—perhaps it was the sting of the whip I feel I’d have got him anyway—and beat him by two and one-half lengths for the fastest Derby ever.

I often think green and while are the colors of the South. They know how to hang deep green blinds on spanking white walls, or how to plant a magnolia against a snowy column. That’s the look I get saddling up in the paddock. Thousands of tulips blooming just for us. The whole Derby is like a flying flag. Patriotic, colorful, wild in the bluegrass breeze.

The moment the jockeys touch our backs—one of my friends said they look like squabs turned up in a Christmas pie with their little rumps—we start for the track where the outrider in a red jacket, usually on an Appaloosa, meets us and leads us out for the post parade and the warm-up. Like athletes—why say “like” athletes, we are athletes—we have to warm up our muscles.

I love the far side of the track—it seems almost a far country. Even on Derby day when the inside of the track is filled with bodies—mostly young people with their shirts off for the warm May sun so that the track seems to be some giant public pool—quite a different sight from the boxes on the other side which cost $1,600 for the day—the noises hang in the air, a distant fantasy, a conglomeration of the great ocean liner Churchill Downs seems to be, its restaurants, its bars, its vast halls and betting windows, its milling throngs, closed circuit television, its wild people who never go outside to watch the races but sit, eternally  glued to their racing forms—it would seem they would bet on themselves before they trusted in us to bring in their fortunes—all that seems a million miles away. On this side is still the barn. (Churchill Downs has 1,200 stalls, 50 barns.) And the warmth of the fresh hay, the cool spring water they give us, mingle with the memory of the nice snooze I had before I came here. (Ninety minutes I lay down for. Most horses are so nervous they paw through the floor.)

The outriders are urging their horses on, eyes—theirs, not ours; ours are fixed on the distance of around and back again—study jocks and mounts, looking, hoping for weaknesses, faults to be taken advantage of. The condition of the track, “That loam you have at Churchill Downs sticks to your face like cement when it flies up,” says one trainer: The brass of the post horn—a recording even on Derby day—becomes, with the shouts and urgings a welter in our ears; the gate breaks and the last of life for which the first was made begins. Three camera towers grab us from three different angles, freezing us in our rage for honor. Motion picture film flies over the wire to a hot developing room; is sent back to the stewards for viewing any infractions: horses bumping, crossing over, impeding the progress of another horse. None. A clean race.

There’s a party in the Director’s Room after the race. Champagne and very select company. Seventy-five invited guests. I heard Bob Gorham, one of the officers of the track, bemoaning having to turn down some senator. I’ve heard them talk about that room, prints of Epsom, our Derby, now a print of me with Ron and Lucien, the six tufted black-leather chairs, scrolled, Victorian, deep, downy. The quiet butlers who fill your drinks before they’re empty. Of course, we have our own party. But we still had the Preakness and the Belmont to go.

Now above the roses, I wear the Triple Crown, the first winner of it in twenty-five years. Perhaps the Belmont and the Preakness were more spectacular runs for me—thirty-one lengths beats the dead heat syndrome—but nothing ever seemed to capture the stopped-heart thrill of racing like the Derby. And even more than my being the Triple Crown winner, people—especially those who come to see me in Kentucky where the land rolls gently, almost sensually—those people always say, “Turkey dinner, Derby winner.” And thank heaven I’m protected. Fans would grab for souvenirs like I was a rock star. And, after all, I only have one suit.

Sometimes, I think of racing days as I watch the mares and colts frolicking across the meadows at Claiborne, the beautiful Hancock farm near Lexington, Kentucky, and the swans stretch their lovely necks on the meandering stream across the road from the white-columned house where the Hancocks have lived for so many years, and I wonder about the value placed on my blazed head. Six million dollars. Plus the money earned racing. Could anyone be worth that? And calling me ‘horse of the century.’

If another horse wins the Triple Crown next year, will he be the horse of the century? That horse won’t have the three white socks and blaze, won’t be a public relations item, won’t be the subject of postcards and tee shirts, the recipient of millions of letters, and the donor— yes—of charity on a colossal scale—no, I don’t just mean the taxes my owners have paid on my earnings. I mean the windfall to the state charities which benefit from betting. People were so thrilled, especially the two-dollar bettors, at having bet on me and at my winning, that hundreds of thousands of ticket holders did not cash in their tickets, preferring to hold them as souvenirs. “And that other horse won’t be playful as a puppy,” says a stableman at Claiborne.

“You just don’t think of a horse that strong,” says Mrs. Tweedy, “being that kind.” “Secretariat’d never be mean,” says Lawrence Robinson, my best friend at Claiborne, and the man in charge of the breeding barn.

There are other friends here too. “Snow,” a man whose face always seems to get into every picture with me. Pick up any magazine, and there’s Secretariat. And Snow. Then there’s “Buster Brown,” or some people call him “Charlie Brown,” a half cairn terrier, half mongrel, and four other halves. He slips into my paddock under the gate—”He wouldn’t dare go into any of the other stallions’ paddocks,” says Lawrence, and I have to chase the little mutt out. Then there’re the Hancock racing colors—bright orange and black—and they’re friends too. I know somehow the days of glory aren’t really over, that a new crop of colts will be bounding across the meadow next year and that they will bear my blood and the blood of my sire, the great Bold Ruler whose stall is home for me now, and all the way back to the immortal Eclipse, the immortal English sire of the eighteenth century. And I remember five hundred of the darkest, reddest roses; small, tight buds, thorns stripped, draped over my withers. And I know of the pride of the woman who makes the rose wreaths and has since the 1930’s. “Never,” she says, “has a single rose fallen off before being put on the horse.” And I think that maybe one day, one of my sons will stand there and receive that same glory. And to tell the truth, I’m a little jealous.

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  1. I just saw the movie. It was special to me because I was at the 1973 Derby on the infield on the fence in the middle of the backstretch, age 19. Bet on Big Red to win, place or show…2$. Paid 11 cents. Had to cash in my ticket for gas money home.
    5 years later, I went to Claiborne with two babies and a husband. They let us walk back at 6 am on a chilly Fall day with a groom named Snow. Secretariat on the right, snuck up on us, a game Snow said he liked to play on folks, pointing out Riva Ridge on the left while Secretariat snuck up on the right. There’s Big Red now, he said, as Secretariat tossed his big head at us, seeming to laugh at their funny ploy.
    He brought us a stick. He played with us and showed off. The friendliest horse you can imagine. I kept the stick. After pictures and home movies and lots of petting, we walked away. I’ve got the pictures in my photo album.
    Sham was a favorite of mine, an amazing story in itself.
    I named the baby I took there, Lucian.
    A long time ago, I was sure lucky to be at that Derby and then at Claiborne. wow.

  2. Just saw the movie and went looking for the scrap book I had as a kid and found this article in amongst all the other horse pictures.. It was sweet to remember watching the triple crown as a horse crazy third grader.


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