by Bob Ehalt
He won the Belmont Stakes by a preposterous 31 lengths and established a new world record time in the process.
In the inaugural Marlboro Cup, he dispatched a field of the world’s best dirt stars, again setting a world record.
Assemble the greatest horses to ever grace the historic main track at Belmont Park and Secretariat would surely get one of the initial invites. Perhaps, in the hearts and minds of those from a certain generation, the famed Big Red of Meadow Stable would be at the top of that list.
Yet for all of the brilliance Secretariat brought to those races, and others such as the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the mind-boggling part about the beloved 1973 Triple Crown champion is that he was better on turf than he was on dirt.
“People won’t believe me, but Secretariat was 10-to-15 lengths better on turf than dirt,” Ron Turcotte said. “I couldn’t believe it myself, but he was just outstanding on turf.”
If anyone is qualified to make such a statement it’s surely Turcotte, the colt’s regular rider and passenger to Triple Crown glory in all three legs of the famed series.
“The way Secretariat moved on turf, he was a completely different horse. Once he stepped on it, it was like he all of a sudden matured,” the 75-year-old Turcotte said from his home in New Brunswick, Canada. “He was so light on his feet, he just skipped over a turf course.”
Belmont Park’s Man o’ War Stakes, to be contested for the 59th time on Saturday, was Secretariat’s penultimate start and first on turf, and it was his electrifying five-length triumph in the then-mile and a half grass stakes that led to him becoming the only horse in the Eclipse Awards era to win a Triple Crown race and be named a champion turfer.
To better understand the tremendous challenge Secretariat faced on Oct. 8, 1973 in the $113,600 Man o’ War, it should be noted the race featured the rarest of matchups. It brought together two horses who were world record holders at the same distance. In one corner was Secretariat, the world record holder for that time of 1:45 2/5 a month earlier on Belmont’s main track in the Marlboro Cup. Opposing him was Tentam, a talented and versatile colt trained by Mack Miller who set a world record of 1:45 2/5 for a mile and an eighth on turf when he rocketed to victory in the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga.
If trainer Lucien Laurin was looking for a soft spot for Secretariat’s turf debut, the Man o’ War was anything but.
“He faced such a tough field,” Turcotte said. “They were good older horses and Tentam probably would have been the turf champion, if not for Secretariat.”
The decision to race the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years in the Man o’ War was made in the days after his smashing Sept. 15 victory in the Marlboro Cup, when he dispatched the nation’s best older dirt horses. Owner Penny Chenery (then Tweedy) and Laurin believed it was time for a new challenge worthy of a colt syndicated for a record $6.08 million before the start of his 3-year-old campaign.
“We had a short time to train him for the Marlboro Cup after the sickness he had at Saratoga before the Whitney. He had a fever for a week before the Whitney and we shouldn’t have run him. If he was healthy, he never would have lost that race,” Turcotte said, referring to Secretariat’s shocking loss to the Allen Jerkens-trained Onion in the Whitney. “When he got over it, we really trained him hard for the Marlboro Cup, more than a normal horse would take. After the race, when he set a world record, we thought we’d take it easy on him. The idea was to train him on the turf and get him ready for the Man o’ War, which was a month away.”
Yet before Secretariat began training for the Man o’ War, an audible was called and the charismatic Meadow Stable superstar ran in the Woodward on Sept. 30 at Belmont. Ill-prepared for a mile and a half test on a sloppy track, Secretariat finished second to Prove Out, who was also trained by Jerkens, suffering the fifth and final loss in an unforgettable 21-race career.
“They just up and decided to run him in the Woodward, but he wasn’t ready to go a mile and a half since he was coming off a mile and an eighth race and we really hadn’t done much with him since then. I guess the Woodward served as a good workout, but if he had been ready he never would have gotten beat,” Turcotte said.
Once Secretariat began to train on Belmont’s turf course, Turcotte could not believe how effortlessly the strapping colt glided over grass.
“The way he got around on turf was unbelievable. He was a completely different horse,” Turcotte said. “It was like he all of a sudden matured. He was so light on his feet, he just skipped over that course. A few days before the Man o’ War, I told Lucien, ‘You’re going to see something special on Saturday.’”
Secretariat was bet down to an odds-on 1-2 favorite over six rivals in the Man o’ War. Yet the respect for Tentam showed in the 4-year-old’s 7-2 odds, a result of his impressive turf wins in the Baruch and United Nations as well as a victory earlier in the year in the prestigious Metropolitan Handicap on Belmont’s main track when he beat a star-studded field that included Riva Ridge, Key To The Mint, King’s Bishop, No Le Hace and West Coast Scout.
Yet if there were any questions about Secretariat’s ability to handle turf, they were answered rather quickly. Secretariat rushed out to the lead and owned a three-length lead after the opening half-mile, playing a game of cat-and-mouse with his rivals for much of the trip.
“The whole race I was playing with Tentam. I’d let him come up to me and then I’d let Secretariat run a little bit and try to discourage him,” Turcotte said.
On the final turn, jockey Jorge Velasquez and Tentam launched a determined bid for the lead and drew alongside Secretariat’s flank approaching the quarter pole. Turcotte responded by letting out another notch of speed and in a few strides the race was a rout.
Secretariat powered to a three-length lead at the eighth pole and crossed the wire five lengths ahead in the course record time of 2:24 4/5. A game Tentam settled for second, 7 ½ lengths ahead of Big Spruce, who would win the 1974 Marlboro Cup.
Three weeks later, Secretariat concluded his career by traveling north to Canada and posting a 6 ½-length victory on turf in Woodbine’s Canadian International.
Two turf races, two reasons why the greatness of Secretariat extended far beyond his spectacular performances on the main track.
“Curlin tried the turf in the (2008) Man o’ War and such a big deal was made about him trying to conquer the grass as a great dirt champion, but he couldn’t do it. He finished second,” said Leonard Lusky, President of Secretariat.com. “But Secretariat won so easily on turf and it was a major feat. With all the syndication money in play, a lot of courage went into doing it and he came through so impressively. It wasn’t just who he beat, but look at the time. Secretariat took on the best and he beat them.”
Both on dirt and, as he did on that October 1973 afternoon in the Man o’ War, on turf as well.