Editor's note: Terry Hill, who brought unique life experience, talent and style to his spot on The Saratoga Special editorial team last summer, was among the crowd at Woodbine for two-time Horse of the Year Secretariat's final start in the Canadian International Stakes 46 years ago today, Oct. 28, 1973. Hill, 75, wrote the following piece last spring when we asked for a sample of his work. Enjoy.
I watched the 1973 racing year from what the writer Robertson Davies called “America’s attic” – Canada. I had moved to Toronto from Detroit the year before and was working at what I was pretty sure was the best job in the world – as a copywriter in a Canadian advertising agency.
A big part of why I loved it so much was that one of my accounts was the Ontario Jockey Club. So I got to hang around Woodbine a lot and write their ads. Every morning I’d come into my office and the Daily Racing Form would be waiting on my desk. For the next hour I’d read the Form and call it work.
My direct Jockey Club client was the track’s public relations director, Bruce Walker, a man who appreciated having an avid racing fan as his copywriter. And a man I liked. (This is not always the case with clients, but it’s definitely better when it is.)
In early October I got a call at work from Bruce.
“We’ve got to put together an ad for the Canadian International,” he said.
This was not good news I thought. I’d already prepared three ads for him to choose from. Obviously he’d decided he didn’t like them.
“OK,” I said, “but can I ask what’s wrong with the ads you have?”
Bruce delivered the next line deadpan.
“They don’t mention Secretariat.”
“Secretariat’s coming?! For the International?”
• • •
At the distance of 40-plus years it’s difficult to realize what a phenomenon Secretariat was in 1973.
The year before he had won not only champion 2-year-old honors, he had also been named Horse of the Year. Only once since that year has a 2-year-old won Horse of the Year. So that was impressive enough, but in his 3-year-old year Secretariat absolutely demolished all the previous standards for Thoroughbred greatness.
He won the Triple Crown, something that hadn’t been done since Citation in 1948. And it wasn’t just that he won those races, it was the way he’d won them. In the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont he set stakes-record times. (In 2012, his Preakness time, which had been questioned after the race because of problems with the track timer, was reevaluated using the official race video and was then adjusted to make it also the stakes record.)
Because of his chestnut color, his size and what he’d done, he was being compared to Man o’ War and had been christened, like his 50-years-before predecessor, “Big Red.” And before his 3-year-old year was half finished some were already calling him the greatest horse of all time.
But it wasn’t just the racing world that was watching him with their mouths hanging open. Secretariat, through his performance and his personality (he was a bit of a showoff and a jokester apparently and his other nickname was “Sexy”) had totally captured the national stage. He was on the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated. (Not even John Kennedy had managed that. Of course, JFK’s Belmont time hadn’t been nearly as impressive as Secretariat’s so that probably hurt his Sports Illustrated chances.)
Everywhere he went, people wanted to see him. His appearance at the Kentucky Derby had drawn a record 134,000 drunks to Churchill Downs.
The singer-songwriter John Stewart, who had formerly been with the Kingston Trio, wrote a song for Secretariat called “Let the Big Horse Run,” begging the horse’s owner Penny Tweedy (who later went back to her family name Chenery) to let him run west of the Mississippi so the people out there could watch him.
“Please Mrs. Tweedy,
I saw him on the TV
Send him out to run
In the California sun.”
The Beatles once famously boasted that they were more popular than Jesus. In 1973, Secretariat was more popular than The Beatles. Jesus had to settle for show money.
And we all knew it had to end with the year. Chenery’s father had died in January and, facing enormous estate taxes, Secretariat had been syndicated for stud for a (of course) record $6-million. Included in the syndication agreement was the stipulation that he had to retire by December 1 of 1973. Secretariat would not race at 4.
• • •
The announcement that he would run his last race in Canada was big news in the racing world, but it was huge in Canada. His coming to Toronto for the International was maybe the most important thing to ever happen to Canadian racing. It put Woodbine and the country on the racing map. It was largely a thank you gift from Chenery.
She had done it partly to acknowledge the Canadian roots of Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin (Quebec) and his jockey Ron Turcotte (New Brunswick). Perhaps even more it was a thank you to E.P. Taylor, who had almost single-handedly built Canadian racing and brought it into the 20th century from what used to be called the “leaky-barn circuit.” Taylor was also a friend and an informal advisor to Chenery.
This story is a remembrance and arguably not important except as a bit of my own personal nostalgia. But I suggest that I was just lucky enough to be on hand for an important chapter of racing history. As evidence, I offer the fact that all five of the major players I’ve just mentioned – Secretariat, Laurin, Turcotte, Taylor and Chenery – have plaques in the National Museum of Racing's Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs.
But beyond the sentimental reasons for making the International his last race, there were also very real historical ones. Chenery was clearly already thinking of Secretariat’s legacy. Traditionally to be considered a great racehorse there are things you prove beyond your 3-year-old year. Secretariat would not have that opportunity; so he had to do them all at 3.
Great horses race at handicap weights – and win. Great horses run against older horses – and win. And it’s a definite plus if you’ve proven you can run on grass – and win.
Secretariat had accomplished all of that in the four months since winning the Triple Crown, but this was one last chance to do it all again. The International was 1 5/8 miles (the longest race of his career), on the turf and open to older horses. I’m sure it was not lost on Chenery that Man o’ War’s last race was also run in Canada, a match race against the first Triple Crown winner Sir Barton.
The second “Big Red” arrived in Toronto by plane where he was met by more press than usually greeted the Prime Minister. Secretariat gave no interviews, preferring to do his talking on the track where a couple of days later, three days before the race, with Ron Turcotte riding, he turned in a 5-furlong workout in :57 3/5. Apparently his first plane trip hadn’t bothered him.
A footnote to that workout was that it was the last time Turcotte ever rode Secretariat. He’d been his jockey on each of his stakes wins, but he would not ride in the International. Just hours after the workout, Turcotte was informed that he had been suspended five days for careless riding. Laurin turned to another Meadow Stable regular, Eddie Maple, to be the jockey for the race. To this day, Turcotte says has to correct people who come up to him and say they watched him ride Secretariat in his final race at Woodbine.
• • •
The weather was awful October 28, 1973, the day of the International. It was gloomy-gray cloudy, windy and cold enough that sometimes the rain that blew against my face was snow. Canadians like to stay home by the fire on days like this, but 35,000 fans came to Woodbine to see history.
The International was the eighth race on the card and by the time the horses left the paddock and entered the track, the late hour and the cloud cover meant it was growing dark. A huge roar went up from the crowd when Secretariat stepped on the track. Surprisingly 11 horses had entered the race; I suppose they also wanted to be a part of history. There were some very good horses among them, too.
One of the chief challengers was the three-time Canadian champion Kennedy Road. He had raced in Canada at 2, 3 and 4, but at 5 his owners sent him out to California where he had proven himself against the best in the West. His trainer said there was no secret to his strategy in the International.
“Our horse is going to burst out of the gate with his eyes bulging out of his head like the Wild Man of Borneo and he’s going to be gone,” Clarke Whitaker said.
This was essentially the same strategy Sham used against Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. We’d all seen that race, now regarded as perhaps the greatest racing performance of all time. As Secretariat began running away from Sham on the way to his eventual 31-length victory, the announcer Chic Anderson memorably said, “Secretariat is widening now! He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” (I used those two exclamation marks because they’re in Anderson’s call.)
A Canadian racing reporter friend had seen that race from the Belmont Park press box. When Secretariat had crossed the finish line he turned to the press corps and saw all these hardened, cigar-chomping New York reporters with tears running down their cheeks.
The person who studied Anderson’s Belmont call more than anyone at Woodbine was our track announcer Daryl Wells. He was determined to put his own verbal stamp on a Secretariat race.
When the race started, Wells was professional as ever, evenly calling Kennedy Road’s early run for the lead and holding a 2 1/2-length margin over Secretariat for the first mile and an eighth while the other horses entertained themselves a good 9 to 10 lengths behind the front two.
Wells’ call was necessary because the starting gate for the Marshall Turf course was probably a half-mile from the grandstand and it was dark and raining.
Wells seemed lulled by the orderly nature of the first 10 furlongs of the race and was getting ready to call a stretch run instead of a coronation. But then Secretariat simply ran away from Kennedy Road. Wells seemed caught off guard and suddenly blurted:
“And there he goes! There he goes!” There were 11 others in the race, but no one needed a name attached to “he.” Everyone on the continent knew.
I was standing near the finish line but had a clear view down the track as he rounded the final turn all alone and started charging down the stretch for the last time. I clearly remember the steam blasting from his nostrils in the cold air as he headed for home.
In the end, the margin was 6 1/2 lengths with Big Spruce second and Kennedy Road, like Sham before him, falling way back. I moved forward to get close to the winner’s circle as Secretariat galloped back. I watched as they snapped the official photos and brushed the water from my cheeks.
As I said, it was raining that day.