Secretariat still breed apart Horse: Twenty-five years after he put a country on his back for an unforgettable Triple Crown ride, Secretariat remains in winner's circle.

May 09, 1998|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

Because of a computer error, fractions were dropped from an article on the 25th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown in Saturday's editions. The colt won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness by 2 1/2 lengths, and he won the Belmont in world-record time for 1 1/2 miles.

The Sun regrets the errors.

It has been 25 years since Secretariat took America on a white-knuckled joy ride, but his fans refuse to let go of the reins.

Fresh flowers adorn the grave of the Triple Crown winner, nine years after his death. Cards arrive on his birthday. Souvenirs from Secretariat's races sell quickly at sports memorabilia shows. And everyone wants to reminisce with Penny Chenery, the woman who raised the colt who stole the heart of a nation addled by Watergate.


"My role now is to listen to people say how much they loved him, and where they were when he won the Belmont Stakes [by 31 lengths]," Chenery said. "I just stand there and smile. They need a place to put this love."

Secretariat stirs feelings even among Generation Xers too young to have seen him race. "I get poems from people who couldn't have known him, but who fell in love with a legend," Chenery said.

People like Joseph Zowd, 24, of Laurel, whose bedroom is an equine shrine to the chestnut colt: Secretariat photos, statues and racing programs from the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 1973. Last month, Zowd paid $250 for a faded $2 mutual ticket bet on Big Red at the Preakness. Clearly, he is one with his idol, right down to the Secretariat tattoo on his right shoulder.

"I love that horse so much," Zowd said.

At Claiborne Farm (Ky.), where Secretariat stood at stud, people still come to pay homage. They lay bouquets beside his simple gray headstone: roses in April, black-eyed Susans in May, carnations in June. Crowds at the farm have dwindled since Secretariat's death in 1989. During his retirement, 8,500 people a year came to see the horse who smashed two Triple Crown track records and was probably gypped of the third, in the Preakness.

His visitors included a queen (Elizabeth II) and The Duke (John Wayne). Everyone knew who was king.

"Oh Lord, he was the horse," said John Sosby, Claiborne's assistant farm manager. "Secretariat wasn't the most expensive, the top winner or the best sire here. He was the most famous.

"Others achieved more, but he is etched in our minds -- and the legend lives on."

Twice Horse of the Year, Secretariat won 16 of 21 races, set four track records and earned $1,316,808. Though he raced for only two years, he ranks among the greatest ever, alongside Citation and Man o' War.

He was the Babe Ruth of racing, a barrel-chested, spindle-legged galoot with an effeminate name and a home run gait, a lovable ham who ate like a horse and mugged for the press. And while The Babe enjoyed a good stogie, Secretariat surely would have smoked a Cigar or two in his day, admirers say.

Ask those who rode against him.

"Greatest horse I ever saw," said Laffit Pincay Jr., still racing at age 51.

"I watched his tail a lot of times," said Angel Cordero Jr., a member of the National Jockeys Hall of Fame. "I feel honored to have been whipped by Secretariat. It's like getting your butt beat by Muhammad Ali."

Twenty-five years later, Braulio Baeza can still hear the hooves crashing past as Big Red churned by him in the Belmont.

And then the horse just vanished. Baeza's mount ran second that day, losing by the length of a football field.

"By the time my horse got to where Secretariat had been, the dust had already settled," said Baeza, another Hall of Famer. "Beat him? Only with a jet."

'Clark Gable of horses'

The Belmont gave Secretariat the Triple Crown, the first sweep of racing's trinity since Citation in 1948. The public adored him. The colt was red; his silks, white and blue. Disillusioned by politics and the Vietnam War, and hungry for heroes, America embraced the horse as if he were human. Sonny and Cher wooed him for their TV variety show. A Las Vegas hotel offered Secretariat $15,000 to trot on stage. Sport magazine named him its Man of the Year.

"He was a beautiful-looking horse, anatomically perfect, the Jim Palmer of horses," said William Nack, Secretariat's biographer. "He had charisma, star power and, had he been able to talk, he probably would have been endorsing McDonald's."

The colt "could have made it in the movies," said Chick Lang, then general manager at Pimlico Race Course. "Heading to the track, with a horde of photographers chasing him, he'd stop, turn and almost inhale, like Charles Atlas.

"To hell with Trigger -- Secretariat was a matinee idol."

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