Virginia's own Secretariat made horse racing history 50 years ago: 'Being in that crowd was very moving'

Posted at 4:49 PM, Jun 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-09 22:28:33-04

ASHLAND, Va. — Is Secretariat the greatest athlete Virginia has ever produced? One sure way to start an argument in a sports bar is to proclaim one athlete is better than any other.

When it comes to the greatest athlete Virginia has ever produced, you would likely get dozens of answers.

Allen Iverson? Michael Vick? Sam Snead? Lawrence Taylor?

But many people might tell you the greatest the Commonwealth has ever produced isn’t even human.

Fifty years ago this week, Secretariat completed horse racing’s Triple Crown with a historic win in the Belmont Stakes, in a still record time of 2:24, and by a distance of nearly a quarter mile.

No athlete has ever had such a performance or such dominance.

“He had the brains, he had the drive,” Kate Tweedy, the daughter of Penny Chenery who owned Secretariat, said. “He had the muscle power, he had the stamina. That’s what any great athlete needs.”

Tweedy was just 20 years old in 1973 when Big Red, as he was known, took not just horse racing but the sports world by force.

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His time of 1:59.4 in the Kentucky Derby is still the record.

His win in the Preakness put him on the brink of achieving something that hadn’t been seen in a generation, garnering the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated and bringing everyone along for the ride.

“The [Kentucky] Derby was always the goal,” Tweedy said. “The Triple Crown was never on our horizon. The enormity of it was front and center for me.”

Kate Tweedy
Kate Tweedy's mother Penny Chenery owned Secretariat

“Mom was being interviewed everywhere. She couldn’t leave the house without having her hair done.”

Chenery also had serious financial concerns with Secretariat. The horse had already been syndicated to pay off the family’s estate taxes.

“If he didn’t win, she was under huge pressure,” Tweedy said.

Secretariat ran against only four other horses in the Belmont, including Sham who had finished second in both the Derby and Preakness.

Secretariat broke from the inside slot and quickly bolted to the lead, something unusual for him, and something unsettling for the family.

“He went to the lead right away which made us nervous because it’s such a long race,” Tweedy said. “People doubted he could go that far.”

They shouldn’t have worried.

Secretariat and Sham were neck and neck down the backstretch before Big Red opened his lead, and never stopped pulling away.

In a video of the race, which by her own estimate Tweedy has watched about 1,000 times, CBS announcer Chic Anderson’s legendary call still brings emotion no matter how many times it’s seen.

“Secretariat is widening now!! He is moving like a tremendous machine!!”

“He didn’t look that tired,” Tweedy said. “He left competition so far behind it wasn’t about beating the other horses. It was about showing the world his power, his ability, and his joy in running.”

Secretariat eventually won by 31 lengths, breaking the margin-of-victory record set by Count Fleet in 1943.

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Jockey Ron Turcotte was immortalized by photographer Bob Coglianese committing a cardinal sin among jockeys as he turned his head to look at the clock as he crossed the finish line, but also to take a peek at where the rest of the field might have been.

“Here he [Turcotte] is at the front. He hasn’t heard anything” Tweedy said. “He doesn’t know what happened. He’s thinking, ‘Where are they?’”

The Belmont win completed perhaps the three greatest examples of racing ever seen before or since. Context is better understood days, months, or even years removed from any event. Those in attendance that day were keenly aware of the history they had witnessed.

“People were crying” Tweedy remembered. “We couldn’t take it in, it was so astonishing. Being in that crowd was very moving. People kept saying the same thing over and over. ‘Did you see that? Can you believe it?'"

“I think that’s one of the reasons we are still so moved by that race. We were seeing perfection, and you never see perfection.”

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