Secretari

April 30, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

Howard M. Gentry was midwife at the birth of a legend, hunkering down in Barn 17-A at the Meadow Farm, a 6,000-acre gem of greenery tucked into the Virginia countryside 22 miles north of Richmond.

As he had hundreds of times before, the old man took the measure of the broodmare, then gently reached for this miracle of life, pulling and prodding, but mostly watching until the chestnut foal with the three white feet emerged 10 minutes past midnight, March 30, 1970.

Even then, Gentry saw something special in the foal.

"Within 45 minutes, he was up kicking me and looking for his first meal," he said. "He was a very well-made foal. He was as perfect a foal that I ever delivered."

The foal would grow, of course, weighing more than 1,100 pounds in his prime. He would race, too, punching holes into the wind and fulfilling all the promise of the bloodlines passed down from the broodmare Some- thingroyal and one of the greatest modern American sires of them all, Bold Ruler.

And he would be given a name that, at first glance, wasn't regal, but which, in time, would stand for all the romance and greatness horse racing could create.

Secretariat.

Twenty years after winning racing's Triple Crown and 3 1/2 years after his death, Secretariat remains the most famous thoroughbred of a generation.

As another batch of 3-year-olds prepares for the opening of the Triple Crown season in tomorrow's Kentucky Derby, the sport looks back longingly to another era and another animal.

Secretariat was the sport's first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century, following the path of Citation. Yet even that accomplishment never could explain Secretariat's popularity, then or now. Quite simply, this was the story of a horse as television star, of an athlete as people's champion.

"There has to be something colorful or attractive about the horse itself to capture attention," said Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery. "A, its performance. B, something about the horse lets you dream. Racing is about dreams, and you have to an appropriate hero. Secretariat was that kind of hero."

And he fit his time.

The year was 1973. American soldiers were in Vietnam, and the (( Watergate scandal was enveloping the Nixon White House.

But then along came a horse who took a sport and a country for a ride. They called him Big Red, another Man o' War for another generation.

"Secretariat was not only an athletic phenomenon, he was a sociological one," said William Nack, a Sports Illustrated senior writer who was Secretariat's biographer. "He was a big, good-looking guy. He captured a lot of people's attention. He became the thing in New York."

Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in a record time of 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds.

He won the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico by bolting around the field in the tightest of turns in front of the grandstand, a move so electrifying, it didn't even matter that he was robbed of another record because of a timing malfunction.

And, then, he made the hardest of horsemen weep, winning the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in 2:24, a record that still stands, a performance of such profound beauty, grace and perfection that it is generally considered the greatest in racing history.

"My God," said Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's trainer. "That's the kind of horse you wait your lifetime for."

And, to think, it all took place in five weeks, on a journey that followed the warmth of the spring north from Louisville, Ky., to Baltimore to New York.

The Triple Crown seemed bigger then, a movable feast for the rich, the famous and the $2 player. Horse racing was a whole lot healthier back in the 1970s, too, with the old money, old families and old breeding farms still dominant. And New York was the center of the racing universe. But, in the 1990s, the Derby is dwarfed by the Super Bowl, racing's nouveau riche come and go and New York's tracks are into another decade of recession.

Yet just the mention of Secretariat makes you feel young again.

Unrelenting pressure

Laurin, the taciturn, diminutive trainer from Canada, still grows nervous every time he watches a videotape of Secretariat's Triple Crown races.

"I just want him to get to the wire," he said.

There was unrelenting pressure on all in the Secretariat entourage. Enormous expectations were built, as Secretariat won seven of nine races as a 2-year-old, was named the 1972 Horse of the Year and was syndicated for the then-record $6.08 million. An ounce of horseflesh was worth more than an ounce of gold.

Secretariat won the Bay Shore and Gotham stakes races in the spring of 1973 as the Triple Crown bandwagon began rolling. But, then, Secretariat finished four lengths behind Sham in the Wood Memorial.

Actually, the only problem Secretariat had was an abscess in his mouth. Then came the 99th Kentucky Derby, before 134,476 fans, and Secretariat, racing from the 10th post position, overwhelmed the field, blowing by Sham in an instant.

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