Saturday 5 May 2012

The Run for the Roses

The Kentucky Derby winner in 1973 courtesy

On May 5, 1973, guests arrived in droves at Churchill Downs in Louisville for the 99th running of the Kentucky Derby.  Under the twin-spired grandstand, men dressed in suits and ties and women in lavish gowns and fancy hats settled into their seats.  As they waited in the hot sun for the race to commence, they sipped on mint juleps served in souvenir glasses and ate burgoo, a thick stew filled with beef, pork, chicken and vegetables, and Derby pie, filled with walnuts and chocolate.  Guests in Millionaire's Row had the best view of the track, paying handsomely for their front row box seats, but fans who could not afford stand seats sat in the infield.  They listened to the University of Louisville Marching Band perform the traditional derby song "My Old Kentucky Home".  Bettors made their last minute bets on horses like Our Native, Navajo, Royal and Regal, My Gallant and Secretariat.

Back at the stables, grooms, trainers, vets, blacksmiths, jockeys and owners all prepped their 3-year-old colts for the "Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports".  The colts munched on oats and molasses as their grooms brushed their coats and their owners paced nervously back and forth.  The smell of hay permeated the air.  The whinnying of the tall, lean horses echoed through the stalls.

One stall in particular was occupied by a chestnut-coloured stallion named Secretariat, standing 16.2 hands tall and weighing 1,175 pounds.  His owner, Penny Chenery, was a housewife who had no horse-racing experience, but had taken charge of his care after her elderly father fell ill.  His trainer was Lucien Laurin and his jockey was Canadian Ron Turcotte.  Secretariat had won races in the past, but had lost his most recent race.  He was definitely not a sure bet.

Photo of Kentucky Derby 1973 Lineup courtesy

As the thirteen competitors stormed out of the gate and pounded down the track, kicking up dirt, the horses known for speed took the lead in the one-and-a-quarter mile race, but Secretariat was content to sit back and set his own pace.  When the colts passed the 50,000 fans in the stands, Secretariat ranked only eleventh.  However, bit by bit he inched his way forward.  Rounding the far turn, he still only sat in fifth place.  Even so, with each length, he gained speed and ground.  The announcer tossed names around:  it was anybody's race.  As the colts ran the final stretch, Secretariat made her move, passing the last of his competition and clinching the victory in a record time of 1:59: 40.  As a spectator later described Secretariat's race, he "built power like a locomotive and finished like a jet".   The chestnut-coloured colt was decorated with a blanket of 554 red roses and his owner was awarded a prize of almost 1 1/2 million dollars. 

As security guards slowly emptied the stands at Churchill Downs, some spectators reluctantly emptied their pockets, having bet on a losing horse.  Others filled their pockets, having bet on the winning horse.  The fans then returned to their Cadillacs and pick-up trucks to make the drive home; the horses returned to their stalls, glistening with sweat; the jockeys stretched their tired legs and hit the showers.  But for one horse the story continued:  Secretariat would go on to win the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, all in the same year, to claim the prize of the Triple Crown.  The stallion graced the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated.

Note:  Many thanks to my sister, Lisa Allison, a horsewoman, for giving me information for this post.

Secretariat draped with red-roses blanket, accompanied by his owner, Penny Chenery, trainer Lucien Laurin, groom Eddie Sweat and jockey Ron Turcotte at Kentucky Derby 1973.

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