by Jon White
February 24, 2022
It was 50 years ago this week that Secretariat had his very first workout as a 2-year-old. But he was so badly outworked in a team drill that it was hard to imagine Meadow Stable’s chestnut Bold Ruler colt would end a 25-year Triple Crown drought and became an equine titan who many consider to be the Horse of the 20th Century.
According to the book “Secretariat” written by Raymond Woolfe Jr., Secretariat arrived at Florida’s Hialeah Park early in 1972 from his birthplace, Meadow Farm in Virginia. Trainer Lucien Laurin assigned his top groom, Eddie Sweat, to Secretariat. Sweat at the time was the groom for 3-year-old Riva Ridge, Meadow Stable’s Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male colt of 1971.
But Sweat was far from thrilled when told he was going to be Secretariat’s groom, according to Woolfe.
Woolfe quoted Sweat as saying: “When I first saw Secretariat, I never thought he’d be no good hoss -- too pretty! Too big an’ fat. That’s why I didn’t want to rub him at first. I thought to myself, I’d rather just stick with Riva Ridge.”
Early in 1972, Laurin was preparing Riva Ridge for his first 1972 start, which would be a 2 1/4-length win in Hialeah’s seven-furlong Hibiscus Stakes. Riva Ridge later won both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
If not for the kind of weather that makes umbrellas important, Riva Ridge might well have been a Triple Crown winner. He disliked competing on a sloppy track in the Preakness, finishing fourth as a 1-5 favorite. Bee Bee Bee splashed his way to a $39.40 upset victory. Riva Ridge ran on three sloppy tracks in 1972 and one more in 1973, never finishing better than fourth.
The first workout of Secretariat’s career took place at Hialeah on Feb. 22, 1972. In the saddle was jockey Ron Turcotte, Riva Ridge’s regular rider. Turcotte also would become Secretariat’s regular rider.
According to William Nack’s outstanding book “Big Red of Meadow Stable,” Laurin on Feb. 22 “boosted Turcotte on Secretariat for a quarter-mile workout, not an easy gallop but a speed drill, in company with Gold Bag, Twice Bold and Young Hitter. It was time to teach them how to run, how to level out and reach for ground, something all horses have to learn.”
The four 2-year-olds were lined up across the track as they approached the quarter pole to begin the workout. By design, nobody had a clear lead.
“Nearing the quarter pole, the four riders chirped and the horses started leveling and reaching out, bodies lower to the ground,” Nack wrote. “Twice Bold, Gold Bag and Young Hitter accelerated rapidly, gathering speed from a gallop to a run as they raced past the quarter pole.
“Turcotte picked up Secretariat’s reins and chirped to him, trying to give the colt a feel for the game, not yelling, but urging quietly. He sensed bewilderment in the colt, so he gathered Secretariat together and gave him time to steady himself and get his legs under him, synchronized and meshing. The three others blew away from him. Far up the racetrack, as Secretariat battled along by himself down the stretch, Turcotte saw the three more precocious horses far down the lane as Secretariat started to find himself and gather momentum.
“They all dusted Secretariat easily that morning, beating him by about 15 lengths and racing the quarter-mile in :23. Secretariat finished in about :26.”
According to Nack, the name of the future two-time Horse of the Year was misspelled as “Secretarial” in his Hialeah workouts. After Secretariat, Riva Ridge and the rest of the Laurin string was shipped to Belmont Park in early April following the end of the Hialeah meet, Secretariat’s name was spelled correctly for his workouts in New York.
Because Secretariat was such a big and awkward colt early in 1972, Laurin trained him differently than the other 2-year-olds in his care, according to Woolfe’s book.
“I don’t believe he would have stayed sound if I’d given him long fast gallops like the other young horses,” Laurin said. “He was just too big and heavy. So clumsy! I had a horse of my own, Gold Bag -- used to outwork him flatfooted. You’d see a lot of dust and then here’d be ol’ Hopalong comin’ along behind.”
Who could have imagined that Secretariat, who found himself about 15 lengths behind three others in his very first workout as a 2-year-old early in 1972, would go on to win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in 1973, a performance that is widely regarded as the greatest in the history of U.S. racing.
PLEASE, NYRA, HONOR SECRETARIAT
As I wrote last summer for Xpressbet.com, I think a New York track should name a race in honor of Secretariat now that evidently there will be no more racing at Arlington Park. Arlington for years had run the Secretariat Stakes.
I would love to see the folks at the New York Racing Association (NYRA) come up with a race named after Secretariat.
“And I am not talking about some minor stakes race,” I wrote last summer. “New York should have an IMPORTANT race named after the 1973 Triple Crown winner.
“It actually makes more sense for New York rather than Arlington to have a Secretariat Stakes anyway. Secretariat made 15 of his 21 career starts at New York tracks. He raced at Arlington Park just once.”
My idea was to rename the Belmont Derby, a Grade I race at 1 1/4 miles on the grass, the Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby. After all, Secretariat was undefeated on the grass. In his only two grass starts, he won the Man o’ War Stakes at Belmont Park and Canadian International at Woodbine.
“Besides,” I wrote, “it makes a lot more sense to have a Secretariat Stakes or Secretariat Derby on the grass than a Man o’ War Stakes on the grass. That’s because Man o’ War never raced on the grass.”
After I wrote about the need for a race to be named after Secretariat last summer for Xpressbet.com, I read that Bill Finley of the Thoroughbred Daily News felt the same way. He wrote that without a Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, “the sport no longer has a major race named in honor of the GOAT. That can’t be.”
Finley’s first idea was to “rename the Belmont Stakes the Secretariat Stakes and to do so for the 2023 running, the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s historic 31-length romp in the Belmont.”
Finley then conceded, “Okay, that’s never going to happen.” But Finley then did offer a suggestion that I do like.
“Limiting the list to races [Secretariat] won in New York, the best candidate is the Grade I Hopeful Stakes,” Finley wrote last summer. “Secretariat won that in 1972, so next year’s running is the 50th anniversary of that win. Naming the race after the greatest horse ever to step foot on a New York track would be a fitting honor.”
While I do not agree with Finley’s assertion that Secretariat is the greatest horse ever to step foot on a New York track (I happen to believe it is Man o’ War), I wholeheartedly agree with Finley’s suggestion to change the Hopeful to the Secretariat.
Please, NYRA, come up with an important race this year named in honor of Secretariat. It’s the right thing to do.
EPICENTER NEW ON MY KENTUCKY DERBY TOP 10
In the wake of Epicenter’s front-running 2 3/4-length victory in Fair Grounds’ Grade II Risen Star Stakes last Saturday over a strong group, he debuts this week on my Kentucky Derby Top 10 at No. 5.
Risen Star runner-up Smile Happy was No. 4 on My Top 10 last week. He’s in the same spot this week.
Dropping off the Top 10 is Slow Down Andy, who lost by 10 lengths when he finished sixth in the Risen Star.
My Kentucky Derby Top 10 for this week is below:
2. Classic Causeway
4. Smile Happy
5. Epicenter (new)
6. Early Voting
7. Rattle N Roll
8. White Abarrio
1/ST BET analyst and handicapper Jeff Siegel’s “main players” this week in his Triple Crown rankings are: 1. Messier, 2. Emmanuel, 3. Smile Happy, 4. White Abarrio, 5. Rattle N Roll, 6. Classic Causeway, 7. Epicenter, 8. Newgrange, 9. Zozos, 10. Chare It, 11: Early Voting, 12. Forbidden Kingdom, 13.Zandon, 14. Mo Donegal, 15. Major General.
As of Feb. 18, the Top 3 by Jeremy Plonk of Countdown to the Crown consists of: 1. Smile Happy, 2. Classic Causeway, 3. Emmanuel.
As of Feb. 22, the Top 3 by Steve Haskin of Secretariat.com consists of: 1. Smile Happy, 2. Zandon, 3. Rattle N Roll.
As of Feb. 22, the Top 3 by Byron King of BloodHorse consists of: 1. Zandon, 2. Smile Happy, 3. Epicenter.
As of Feb. 23, the Top 3 by T.D. Thornton of the Thoroughbred Daily News consists of: 1. Classic Causeway, 2. Smile Happy, 3. Messier.
PACE HELPED THE WINNER
Epicenter set a moderate pace in the Risen Star when leading through fractions of :23.79, :47.97, 1:12.25 and 1:36.58 en route to completing 1 1/16 miles in 1:49.03 at odds of 7-2.
Siegel hit the nail on the head when he wrote that Epicenter “took advantage of his pristine trip as the controlling speed to dominate a good group of 3-year-olds that included at least two legitimate Derby candidates, Smile Happy and Zandon, both of whom were victimized by the race shape.”
After Epicenter ran the first quarter in :23.79, he clicked off three successive :24 and change quarters of :24.18, :24.28 and :24.33. He then merely sauntered home when clocked in :12.45 for the final sixteenth. Epicenter was taken in hand late by jockey Joel Rosario, who looked back several times, giving the impression that the Eclipse Award-winning rider of 2021 had lots of horse beneath him in the last sixteenth.
Smile Happy, the 2-1 favorite, finished second in the field of 10. Zandon, off at 7-2, ended up third. Smile Happy and Zandon each ran well in what was the first 2022 start for both.
In the case of Smile Happy, he was eighth early and had some difficulty in traffic on the far turn, then rallied in the lane. He edged Zandon by a half-length for second.
Zandon trailed early after he broke in the air. It’s to his credit that he finished third despite the bad start and his layoff.
Keep in mind that both Smile Happy and Zandon are still relatively inexperienced. They had each made only two career starts prior to the Risen Star.
Thornton observed that “it took only two jumps after the wire for Smile Happy to gallop out abreast of the geared-down Epicenter.” While Smile Happy does deserve some credit for that, I believe it’s also important to bear in mind that, as Thornton noted, Epicenter was geared down toward the end of the race. That made Epicenter more vulnerable to being caught or overtaken by any of his foes on the gallop-out after the finish.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, North America’s all-time leader in wins, Epicenter now has won three of his last four starts. He won a Fair Grounds maiden race by 3 1/2 lengths, Fair Grounds’ Gun Runner Stakes by 6 1/2 lengths and, as mentioned earlier, the Risen Star by 2 3/4 lengths.
Epicenter’s only loss in his last four starts came when he finished second, a head behind 26-1 longshot Call Me Midnight, in Fair Grounds’ Grade III Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 22.
A Kentucky-bred Not This Time colt, Epicenter was credited by a career-best 98 Beyer Speed Figure for his Risen Star performance.
“Sorry, we’re not about to concede the 2022 Triple Crown to Epicenter just yet,” Siegel wrote. Epicenter’s “assigned speed figure of 98, which was boosted several points due to a subjectively induced split variant by the Beyer boys, may have been a bit higher than it deserved to be. But to his credit, Epicenter won without being asked for his best in the final sixteenth of a mile. So perhaps we’re not giving him his just due.”
The only 3-year-old to have posted a higher Beyer so far this year is Messier, who holds the top spot on my Top 10. Messier received a 103 Beyer when he won Santa Anita’s Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 15 lengths on Feb. 6 for trainer Bob Baffert.
Below are the Beyers for Risen Star winners going back to 1992 (the figures prior to last year are listed in the 2021 American Racing Manual, which is now digital only and available for free on The Jockey Club’s website):
2022 Epicenter (98)
2021 Mandaloun (98)
2020 Mr. Monomoy (92)
2020 Modernist (84)
2019 War of Will (90)
2018 Bravazo (93)
2017 Girvin (93)
2016 Gun Runner (89)
2015 International Star (92)
2014 Intense Holiday (97)
2013 Ive Struck a Nerve (96)
2012 El Padrino (98)
2011 Mucho Macho Man (94)
2010 Discreetly Mine (94)
2009 Friesan Fire (97)
2008 Pyro (90)
2007 Notional (92)
2006 Lawyer Ron (106)
2005 Scipion (89)
2004 Gradepoint (96)
2003 Badge of Silver (108)
2002 Repent (102)
2001 Dollar Bill (102)
2000 Exchange Rate (97)
1999 Ecton Park (95)
1998 Comic Strip (91)
1997 Open Forum (91)
1996 Zarb’s Magic (100)
1995 Knockadoon (90)
1994 Fly Cry (100)
1993 Dry Bean (87)
1992 Line in the Sand (88)
BUBBLING UNDER MY TOP 10 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)
Call Me Midnight
In Due Time
Pioneer of Medina
Slow Down Andy
Tiz the Bomb
We the People
REBEL STAKES SELECTIONS
This Saturday’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park has drawn a field of 10. The 1 1/16-mile contest is headed by three-for-three Newgrange, winner of Santa Anita’s Grade III Sham Stakes and Oaklawn’s Grade III Southwest Stakes. He is No. 10 on my Kentucky Derby Top 10.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez rides Newgrange for fellow Hall of Fame trainer Baffert. The Kentucky-bred Violence colt is the 9-5 morning-line favorite. I am going elsewhere for my top pick.
My selections for the Rebel Stakes are below:
1. Chasing Time (pictured above)
3. Barber Road
4. Ethereal Road
Chasing Time is 8-1 on the morning line. I will be shocked if he is anywhere close to being that big of a price at post time.
Granted, Chasing Time is making his stakes debut. But he sure has been popular with bettors. Chasing Time has been sent away as the favorite in all five of his career starts to date. After being backed down to even money in his first race, Chasing Time has gone off at 6-5, 2-1, even money and 1-2 in his most recent start on Jan. 14 at Oaklawn. He’s won two of those five starts while finishing second on two other occasions.
Chasing Time’s Jan. 14 race was his first beyond seven furlongs. In a sparkling performance, he won an allowance/optional claiming affair by 7 3/4 lengths for Hall of Famer Asmussen. Chasing Time’s Beyer Speed Figure for that effort was not huge, an 81, but he sure was visually impressive to me.
Chasing Time no doubt will need to do much better than an 81 in order to win the Rebel. After all, Newgrange’s Beyers for his stakes victories were an 88 for the Sham and an 89 for the Southwest. But I am looking for Chasing Time to take the needed leap in the Beyer department this Saturday.
I see Barber Road as a candidate to finished 1-2-3 in the Rebel. He was the runner-up in Oaklawn’s Smarty Jones Stakes on a sloppy track and the Southwest on dry land. John Ortiz conditions the Kentucky-bred Race Day colt.
Ethereal Road, trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, generated a Silky Sullivan-ish rally to come from 16 lengths off the pace to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden race in a 19-1 upset at Oaklawn on Jan. 29.
A Kentucky-bred son of Quality Road, Ethereal Road has the look of a 3-year-old headed in the right direction for one of the sport’s most accomplished trainers. That, to me, makes Ethereal Road dangerous in the Rebel.
Speaking of Silky Sullivan, he probably remains the most famous come-from-behind runner in the history of racing. As it states on Silky Sullivan’s Wikipedia page: “His name is now a term used in sports and politics for someone who seems so far behind the competition that they cannot win, yet they do.”
Trained by Reggie Cornell, uncle of future Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally, Silky Sullivan rallied from 26 lengths off the pace to win the 1958 Santa Anita Derby by 3 1/2 lengths.
In his last start prior to the Santa Anita Derby, Silky Sullivan amazingly came from 41 lengths behind to win a 6 1/2-furlong allowance race by a half-length at Santa Anita. Legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker rode Silky Sullivan for the first time that day.
In a 1982 story that I wrote for The Thoroughbred of California magazine, I asked Shoemaker’s agent, Harry Silbert, what he remembered about Silky Sullivan’s victory from 41 lengths off the pace.
“I was sitting with Reggie in his box that day,” Silbert said. “Reggie had told Bill that it was very important not to rush the colt.
“Well, Silky Sullivan dropped so far behind early you couldn’t believe it. I’m telling you, he was a sixteenth of a mile behind the next-to-last horse. I didn’t think he had a prayer, so I put my binoculars down. Reggie looked over at me and said, ‘I told him not to rush the colt, but this is ridiculous!’
“Just then, I picked up my binoculars again, and Silky started his move. And he won! For him to win from that far back was…well…unbelievable.”
I also asked Shoemaker what he remembered about that particular race.
“Going down the backstretch, I didn’t think he had a chance to even finish in the money,” Shoemaker said. “I must’ve been 25 lengths behind the next-to-last horse. I honestly didn’t think he would beat a horse that day, but then, really, it was kind of a mediocre field. Anyway, he won. Even I was surprised.”
50 YEARS SINCE CRAWFORD’S DEATH
The same week that Secretariat had his first workout in 1972 at Hialeah, Tom Crawford, a longtime successful trainer in the Pacific Northwest, died of a heart attack on Feb. 27 at the age of 56.
Crawford bred, co-owned and trained world record-setter Turbulator.
Foaled in 1965, Turbulator did not race as a 2-year-old. He became gravely ill that year and nearly died. He also didn’t race the following year. On Crawford’s ranch in Montana, Turbulator severely damaged a knee at 3 when it struck a sprinkler in a pasture accident.
After Turbulator’s knee injury, former car salesman Crawford reasonably concluded Turbulator might never be able to race. And so Crawford attempted to unload the horse and his damaged knee. Crawford tried to trade Turbulator to a neighboring Montana rancher for -- get this -- two cows.
I had never known who that rancher was until a few years ago when I received an email from Montana resident Sidney Powell. I got to know Powell when she worked in the racing office in the 1970s at Playfair Race Course in Spokane, Wash. I was a Daily Racing Form chart-caller and writer at the time.
“That Crawford ranch in Montana was here at Arlee,” Powell wrote in her email. “It was my first cousin, Bob Schall, that Tom Crawford tried to trade Turbulator to. Bob also had a rodeo string. So who knows? Turbulator might have ended up being a rodeo horse.”
Considering the horse’s bum knee, Schall understandably declined Crawford’s trade offer.
In time, though, the knee did heal. Turbulator at long last made it to the races at the age of 4. And what a racehorse he turned out to be.
Turbulator won a total 21 races. He was acclaimed Washington-bred Horse of the Year in 1970 following a campaign in which he set a world record at 6 1/2 furlongs, broke track records at one mile and 1 1/16 miles.
Thanks to his come-from-way-back style, his rise to stardom from relative obscurity and his unquantifiable charisma, Turbulator became without question the most popular horse to ever race in that part of the country.
In one of Turbulator’s 1970 wins, he carried a staggering 134 pounds and won a one-mile stakes race going away by two lengths after being 20 lengths off the early pace at Playfair.
In a 1972 victory in a stakes race at Longacres near Seatttle, Turbulator unleashed a furious late charge to prevail by a half-length after being 8 1/2 lengths behind at the eighth pole. He won that day despite being farther back with a furlong to go than Silky Sullivan had been in any of his 12 career victories.
Longacres closed for good in 1992. Racing in the Seattle area has been conducted at Emerald Downs since 1996. A large head bust of Turbulator is on display at the Washington Racing Hall of Fame exhibit in the Emerald Downs grandstand.