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Secretariat | Coglianese


At a time when so many people seem to be allowing a duty of vigilance to crumble into morbid defeatism, it seems a little unfair that our sport should be going through such a hard time even as we approach the 50th anniversary of the most luminous tour de force in the story of the modern breed.

Of course, as some powerful evocations of the time have lately reminded us, Secretariat arrived as a sunbeam into a wider world darkened by Vietnam and civic unrest. And nor should we deceive ourselves that even our own, notoriously insular community was back then immune to some of the things that vex us in 2023.

For instance, without reprising what have doubtless become tiresomely familiar objections to tinkering with the Classic schedule, let's not forget that Secretariat faced down a Triple Crown drought stretching to Citation in 1948. Obviously a still longer wait followed Seattle Slew and Affirmed, but we've found two horses equal to the task in the last eight years. Even so, the trainers are somehow trying to bully us into reconciling the paradox that they want more time between the races and therefore (assuming this indeed renders those races more competitive) to extend the intervals between precisely those Triple Crown winners that supposedly represent our best route to wider engagement.

Well, the world moves on. And it's not as though the Thoroughbred has ever permitted hard and fast rules anyway.

On the one hand, it's pretty unarguable that the old school, by exposing their horses more, helped the public to develop a rooting interest. If Flightline (Tapit) was perhaps as talented as we've seen since Secretariat, in making just six starts he barely scratched the surfaced of national attention.
And I do like to think there were other, incidental gains in the aggressive campaigning of horses, whether in terms of educating the animal or showcasing the type of genes that breeders should wish to replicate. But if Mage (Good Magic) is only the latest proof that modern trainers can prepare a raw horse even for a challenge as notoriously exacting as the Kentucky Derby, then let's roll back to that summer of '73.

Okay, so Secretariat himself had made nine juvenile starts from July 4. But if you would presume experience to be an asset at Churchill on the first Saturday in May, then how much more crucial should it be for the template itself, the most venerable race of all: the Derby at Epsom, that crazy rollercoaster with its twisting hill? Yet half a century ago, in a field of 25, the race was won on only his second career start by Morston (GB).

He was bred for Classic stamina, at any rate: by St Leger winner Ragusa (Ire) out of an Oaks runner-up (herself by a St Leger runner-up) who had already produced the 1969 Derby winner Blakeney (GB). Ragusa, incidentally, was out of a mare imported from a very old American family that had earlier produced Hard Tack, the sire of Seabiscuit. The St Leger, remember, is run over 14 furlongs. As the Japanese have reminded us, the lifeblood of the Thoroughbred is not brute speed but class: the ability not just to go fast, but to keep going fast.

That is certainly the hallmark of Galileo (Ire), whose legacy saturates the 244th running of the Derby on Saturday. With 93 juveniles and just a dozen yearlings still to come, he is represented by a single son, Artistic Star (Ire), unbeaten for one of the outstanding trainers in Europe yet available at tempting odds. Of the remaining 13 starters, eight are by sons of Galileo (including two by principal heir Frankel {GB}); two are out of his daughters; and one is out of a mare by another of his sons. That leaves just two runners to have bobbed to the surface of a European bloodstock industry that squanders mares, by the thousand, on stallions that cannot remotely satisfy the definition of class given above.

But, yes, the world moves on. Sometimes it just moves on in the wrong direction. It's a pretty dismal reflection on where our sport stands today that its greatest race has been shoehorned into the middle of lunch to avoid the F.A. Cup Final. Because what American readers may not realize is that this particular soccer match, in its heyday, also once brought England to a standstill—but has in recent years, even as the game has boomed, also lost much of its popular traction. With many managers resting star players for this tournament, you might even say that the F.A. Cup has shared the same decline in popular culture as the Derby (for which Parliament itself used to take the day off).

Fixed television schedules are also a thing of the past, with the young especially expecting to do most of their viewing “on demand.” That puts live events at a premium. In Britain, however, broadcasting rights for the most prestigious sporting events—including both the F.A. Cup Final and the Derby—are ringfenced for free channels. (Which obviously invites the paradox that the most coveted events, with no competition from channels with subscription revenue, are least likely to achieve their true market value.) Unusually, the F.A. Cup Final is broadcast simultaneously by both the BBC and ITV. And since the latter also has the rights to the Derby, racing has been unceremoniously shown its place.

By an unmissable irony, the match that has elbowed the Derby aside is being contested by Manchester City and Manchester United. As such, it is what the soccer world knows as a “derby” match between local rivals. The origin of this usage is tenuous, but some have ascribed it to the Epsom race. Horseracing, after all, long precedes football (in all its variations) in popular culture.
Yet now we find the Jockey Club taking out injunctions in anticipation of animal rights protests, even for a race in such innocuous contrast to, for instance, the Grand National. And that is without the current traumas of Churchill Downs having remotely penetrated wider consciousness on that side of the pond.

But let's resist adding another “basso profundo” to the prevailing chorus of miserabilism. Let's hope for another infectiously exciting chapter in the Epsom epic: maybe a final Derby for Dettori, who has already won two of three British Classics on his farewell tour; or perhaps one more for another old master, Sir Michael Stoute.

His runner hadn't even seen a racetrack before Apr. 20. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mage! Passenger (Ulysses {Ire}) is actually out of a War Front mare. Fifty years on from Morston, then, perhaps Passenger would be an apt reminder that the more the world changes, the more it stays the same.

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