Fifty Years Ago, the Secretariat Saga Began With a Loss

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SecretariatBob Coglianese

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As the 42,329 fans that attended the races at Aqueduct on July 4, 1972 made their way to the exits and to the parking lot and the A train after the day's last race, it's doubtful that anyone among them realized they had just witnessed the debut of one of the greatest horses who ever raced. For Secretariat, it began 50 years ago from today with a bad trip and a fourth-place finish in a maiden special weight race with an $8,000 purse. It would turn out to be the worst performance of his career.

Secretariat wasn't bet that heavily that day. He was made the 3-1 favorite, the longest price of his career. But that trainer Lucien Laurin, who won the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont S. with Riva Ridge, had a 2-year-old who could run wasn't exactly a secret.

“I had seen Secretariat just a week before [his debut],” Secretariat biographer Bill Nack wrote. “I had been at the Meadow Stable barn one morning, checking on Riva Ridge, when exercise rider Jimmy Gaffney took me aside and said, 'You wanna see the best-lookin' 2-year-old you've ever seen?'

“We padded up the shed to the colt's stall. Gaffney stepped inside. 'What do you think?” he asked. The horse looked magnificent, to be sure, a bright red chestnut with three white feet and a tapered white marking down his face. 'He's gettin' ready,' Gaffney said. 'Don't forget the name: Secretariat. He can run.' And then, conspiratorially, Gaffney whispered, 'Don't quote me, but this horse will make them all forget Riva Ridge.'”

“There was a buzz about the horse before he ever raced,” said Dave Johnson, who called the race for NYRA. “The backstretch is like an echo chamber when someone has a good horse. They all talked about this big red horse that Lucien had.”

The reason why Secretariat wasn't more heavily favored is no doubt due to Laurin's choice of jockeys. He gave the mount to apprentice Paul Feliciano. Ron Turcotte, who would become Secretariat's regular rider, was not available that day because he was at Monmouth to ride the outstanding filly Summer Guest to victory in the Monmouth Oaks. But why a raw, 18-year-old bug?

“Lucien wanted to get a better price on the horse and that's why he put Paul Feliciano on,” Johnson said.

The move backfired. Going up against Hall of Fame jockeys like Angel Cordero Jr., who rode the winner, Herbull, Eddie Belmonte, Braulio Baeza, John Rotz and Jacinto Vasquez, Feliciano was in over his head.

As this grainy replay shows, Secretariat, breaking from the two hole in the 5 1/2-furlong race, was slammed at the start when a horse named Quebec came over into his path. After the incident, Secretariat wound up eleventh in the 12-horse field and seemed to be spinning his wheels. Still about 10 lengths back, he finally got rolling near the top of the stretch and made an eye-catching move to finish fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths. The footnotes to the Daily Racing Form chart reads that Secretariat was “impeded after the start, lacked room between horses racing into the turn, ducked to the inside after getting through into the stretch and finished full of run along the rail.”

“After Secretariat ran, I came back to unsaddle and Laurin was down there by the winner's circle and I knew something was up because he was smoking a cigarette–and he doesn't smoke unless he's a nervous wreck–and pacing up and down the racetrack,” Feliciano told me in 1991. “I thought to myself, Oh, boy. I'm in trouble.' He was mad.

“I got off the horse and he picked me up by my arm and was shaking me all the way back to the jocks room, giving me hell. He was saying, 'Boy, what kind of ride you call that?' He hurt my feelings so bad. I was about in tears.”

Though he was beaten, Secretariat's performance did not go unnoticed. Secretariat returned 11 days later (yes, horses used to do that back then) in another maiden race at Aqueduct. Surprisingly, Laurin left Feliciano on and the apprentice guided his mount to an easy six-length win as the 13-10 favorite.

Once again, Turcotte did not ride that day at Aqueduct. He suffered a chest injury in a spill on July 6 and missed three weeks.

Turcotte took over for Secretariat's next start, an allowance win at Saratoga. Wins in the Sanford, Hopeful and Futurity would follow before Secretariat lost the Champagne via disqualification during a campaign that led to the Horse of the Year title. It was clear that this was a very special horse.

“It's a tough thing for me to say this–and I could be wrong–but I think he's a superior colt to Riva Ridge,” Laurin said of Secretariat in 1972.
Laurin would die in 2000. Turcotte, 80, lives in Drummond, New Brunswick, Canada.

As for Feliciano, his career sputtered after he lost his bug. He wound up riding at low-level tracks like Fairmount Park and the Woodlands. In 1990, he went 1-for-73. Tragically, he died in a car crash on May 14, 1994 in Leslie, Missouri at the age of 42.

“It would have made a big difference to my career if I could have stayed on him, wouldn't it?” Feliciano said of his brief association with Secretariat.

As for those who bet on Secretariat that day, the unthinkable happened. They got 3-1 odds on maybe the greatest horse who ever lived but somehow came away empty handed. But they witnessed racing history, whether they knew it at the time or not.

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