Apr 23, 2009

My, how things have changed when it comes to Kentucky Derby preparation! Recently I recovered photos shot in the two week run-up to the 1973 Derby.  They depict Secretariat getting ready with his first work since his shocking defeat at the hands of stablemate Angle Light in the Wood Memorial six days prior.

“Big Red” blazed his way through six furlongs of slop in 1:12 2/5 before an audience of practically nobody eight days before the most important race of his career. The photos show Secretariat coming to the five furlong pole under jockey Ron Turcotte to work past the wire to the seven furlong marker in all his lonesome glory. The camp included Turcotte, groom Eddie Sweat and Charlie Davis on the pony. 

Trainer Lucien Laurin sent him back five days later to blow out five furlongs in :58 3/5, also in sloppy conditions.

It’s been years since a Derby winner  has squeezed two pieces of manly  work in a short timespan without medication. The absence of onlookers illustrates the tremendous changes in how the Derby coverage in the news media has proliferated..

Daily Racing Form ace Joe Hirsch suggested I come by the Laurin barn at first light every morning, serving as his go-fer in exchange for daily access to perhaps the greatest American horse ever.  I got a pretty good deal, I’d say. 

Drama was in abundance at the Laurin barn.  Secretariat’s owner Penny Tweedy (nee Chenery) was under the gun regarding the record $6 million syndication. She also made it clear that losing the Wood to Canadian owner Edwin Whittaker was not part of the plans for Secretariat.  She and Claiborne’s youthful Seth Hancock might be boiled in oil if Secretariat flopped in the Derby.

For his part, Laurin paced the barn night and day, chain smoking non-filtered Camels. When race day finally arrived Laurin drove over to the grandstand and someone asked him if it was true that Secretariat had injured his knee and was out of the Derby.

Laurin looked like he might faint. “I just left the barn five minutes ago and he was perfect,” he stammered. When he called the barn he was assured that everything was a go for Secretariat. He fired up another Camel and awaited Secretariat’s rendezvous with history.

Trainers do not so much enjoy the Derby as they try to survive it.