Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (2022)

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (1)

Secretariat crosses the finish line to win the Preakness Stakes, the second leg of the Triple Crown, in 1973.

CNN

Very few horses, past or present, can ever compare to Secretariat.

Not only was the giant chestnut blessed with good looks but he also possessed an astonishing and unrivaled turn of foot.

The celebrated colt – known as “Big Red” – established himself as arguably the greatest American thoroughbred ever to have lived.

He became the first horse for 25 years to win the Triple Crown when he landed the big three of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes in 1973 – the first to do so on television – and set speed records at all three races along the way.

“Riding him was like flying a fighter jet compared to an ordinary airplane,” Secretariat’s jockey Ron Turcotte, now 77, told Aly Vance for CNN’s Winning Post.

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The legendary race horse sealed the Triple Crown with a remarkable 31-length victory at Belmont Park – to some it’s still the greatest achievement in the history of the sport. He simply left his opponents in the dust.

“The records were no surprise. After the Belmont he was due to have a rest until August so I let him run faster,” added Turcotte.

“I never expected him to go so fast. I told the trainer that if he didn’t win the Triple Crown then I would retire. That’s how sure I was that he was going to win.”

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Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (2)

Ron Turcotte poses next to a statue of Secretariat at Belmont Park, USA.

It wasn’t only Turcotte that Secretariat was carrying through his record-breaking career. His stylish performances captured the imagination of an adoring public across the world.

Wherever he raced, his fans would follow.

“The public just couldn’t get enough of him. He brought racing back to where it was in the golden era,” said Turcotte, who now lives in New Brunswick, Canada.

“People just loved him. Even today, 45 years later, I still get mail every week.”

But the pressure of riding such a favorite never got to Turcotte. The Canadian felt at one with his partner and believed he was unbeatable when the preparation had gone well.

“Whenever he was right before a race I knew he would win. I knew I was on the best horse,” he said. “I only felt pressure when I didn’t think he should run.”

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The Kentucky Derby, first run in 1875, is the first leg of the American Triple Crown and a sporting and cultural icon in the US. It is for three-year-old thoroughbreds and is run over a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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More than 150,000 racegoers packed out Churchill Downs in Louisville for last year's Kentucky Derby, one of the best-loved events in the racing calendar.

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (5)

Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The Kentucky Derby is one of the most anticipated annual sporting events in America.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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Justify, trained by five-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert, won last year's rain-soaked event on his way to winning the prestigious Triple Crown, which also includes the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The horse didn't run as a two-year-old, meaning it bucked a 136-year trend with a win in last year's race.

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The event is also dubbed the "Run for the Roses" because of the garland of 554 roses draped over the winner.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The horses are randomly assigned a post position before the race. There are multiple theories to which position is best.

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (10)

Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The event is a chance to dress up, with all manner of hats and elegant dresses on show.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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The men also jump at the chance to put on their glad rags.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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Famous faces regularly flock to Churchill Downs for the Derby. Here, NFL stars Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski soak up the atmosphere in 2015. A horse named after New England Patriot's tight end Gronkowski was due to run in this year's race, but had to pull out with a fever.

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (13)

Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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American actor Jeff Bridges (left) was in attendance in 2017.

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The hats are spectacular and rival the best Royal Ascot has to offer.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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In 2015, jockey Victor Espinoza rode American Pharoah to victory -- his first win on the way to completing the Triple Crown.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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It also meant Espinoza secured back-to-back victories after winning the 140th edition on California Chrome.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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Punters prepare to place their bets at the wagering windows in 2014.

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Photos: The Derby returns to Churchill Downs

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Trainer Bob Baffert saddled Justify to his fifth Kentucky Derby triumph in 2018. One more victory for Baffert would equal the record of Ben A Jones, set between 1938 and 1952.

While many could only dream of riding such a special horse, Turcotte was lucky enough to do so throughout his career.

And despite winning more than 3,000 races i his career, he still remembers what it felt like to hold Secretariat’s reigns.

“I’d never been on a horse that could do what he could do,” said Turcotte. “He had a great turn of foot whenever I asked him.

“From whatever position I was in during a race, I would just put my hand down and he’d lower and gallop and quicken.”

Turcotte knew he had something special on his hands after the very first meeting with his “dream horse” in 1972.

Initially at the yard to ride a stablemate of the wonder horse, trainer Lucien Laurin persuaded Turcotte to saddle up a young and inexperienced colt by the name of Secretariat.

“He was a beautiful horse to be around, like an overgrown kid – very kind, gentle,” said Turcotte. “He’d do anything you asked him to do. He was very, very smart.

“He was mature beyond his years mentally but physically he was a bit awkward when he was young. A bit gangly.”

Laurin and Turcotte worked with the chestnut two-year-old throughout the following winter, seeing enough to convince them both of his potential.

“He was beating the other horses and was very promising,” added the jockey. “I started riding him right from the start which was unusual as usually I would only ride the horses that were racing.”

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Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (19)

Fans look on as owner Penny Chenery gives Triple Crown winner Secretariat a pat.

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (20)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

Supermoon —

Multi award-winning snapper Edward Whitaker earned horse racing's photograph of the year award with this stunning image of a rare blue supermoon in Lambourn, Berkshire in January 2018. "I knew a spot where the angle was just right," he says. Here he talks CNN Sport through seven of his favorite images.

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (21)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

French fancy —

Whitaker's image of French horse Arazi pulling off a stunning last-to-first victory in the 1991 Breeder's Cup at Churchill Downs made his name. "He went through the field like it was 'National Velvet' or some ridiculous film like that. I got this image of jockey Pat Valenzuela screaming his head off against the spires of Churchill Downs. My lot were blown away, it was a big breakthrough."

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (22)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

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Shower time —

Another picture that has defined his career is this shot of the great stallion Danehill being hosed down at Coolmore Stud in Ireland in 2003. "I just love the whole effect, how the water is reacting over the horse. He turns his neck so it was almost like a massage to him, and you can see how much he's enjoying it. I had to shoot it on a slow shutter speed and there's a real sense of movement in the water, and the light is just lovely."

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (23)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

Kaleidoscopic —

This color-filled image of Churchill Downs is another Whitaker favorite. "I knew there was this fire exit up to a door that opened onto the roof so I went up there and caught this great dawn. There was a cold front coming in, so I knew there would be some very dramatic reds and yellows in the sky. And now they light up the iconic spires with purple light, so the colors are unbelievable. It's so American and over the top."

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (24)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

Chantilly face —

Horses break from the stalls in front of the Great Stables at Chantilly, France in 2016. "I love this shot because of the light and the horse rearing at the start. It's just a dramatic picture. That one horse going up gives it great strength."

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (25)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

Lucky horseshoe —

Whitaker's luck was in with this picture from Cheltenham last January when he discovered the flying horseshoe. It was part of his portfolio that won an eighth photographer of the year award. "It was a remote picture from under the fence shooting into a clear blue sky. It was a nice picture anyway but the fact the shoe fell off and pointed upright was just unique. I'd never seen anything like it. That's why photography is so exciting."

Kentucky Derby: Riding legendary Secretariat 'like flying a fighter jet' | CNN (26)

Photos: The Racing Post's Edward Whitaker shares his favorite images

Edward Whitaker/Racing Post

Scared stiff —

Whitaker conquered his fears and rode up in the TV crane to capture this image of the city of Chester and the racecourse. "This is the scariest picture I've ever taken. You go up on this wobbly plank with a safety harness clipped to a metal frame. I was absolutely terrified but the view was amazing, the light was just right and I got this great scene of Chester with the action on the racecourse."

The rest, as they say, is history. The two-time Horse of the Year broke course speed records almost everywhere he raced – his record in the Kentucky Derby (1:59.40) still stands today.

Fittingly, his immortal legacy was cemented in 2010 when Walt Disney produced a film based on his impossible true life.

Following his death in 1989, at the age of 19, the secret behind Secretariat’s success finally became clear. An autopsy revealed his heart was more than two times the size of an average equine heart.

“The fact that he won on turf as well as dirt is another reason why he’s the greatest. He was so versatile,” argued Turcotte, who also rode champion horses such as Damascus and Northern Dancer.

“I might be prejudiced but I don’t believe there’s a horse that has or can do what he did.”

Turcotte is now the only surviving connection to Secretariat but still receives fan mail to this day – demonstrating a power the horse had in reconnecting the public with the racing industry.

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“I would like to say thank you for all the experiences he gave me,” the jockey said. “He was something that I never expected.”

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FAQs

What did Ron Turcotte say about riding Secretariat? ›

Turcotte says Secretariat was sick or unprepared to race the only other times he didn't win. “That horse should have never been beat except for his first race,” he says. “He never failed us. We failed him.”

Has any horse broke Secretariat's record? ›

Second, Secretariat has a dominant time. The closest any horse has come to breaking the record was in 2001, when Monarchos won with a time of 1:59:97. That's more than a half-second slower than Secretariat.

Who was the fastest Triple Crown horse? ›

Legendary Triple Crown winner Secretariat owns the fastest-ever clockings in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, and his Belmont victory ranks as one for the ages.

What made Secretariat so famous? ›

Secretariat Holds the Fastest Time in the Kentucky Derby

Secretariat is most well-known for his incredible performances in the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont. Not only did he win all three of these races to become the Triple Crown champion, but he did it all in record times.

What did Sham's owner say about Secretariat? ›

"Secretariat is a better horse than you'll ever see," he said. "I will go to my grave without seeing that again."

How many times did Secretariat lose? ›

He lost three times that year: in the Wood Memorial, Whitney, and Woodward Stakes, but the brilliance of his nine wins made him an American icon.

Who is the fastest horse in history? ›

This is a Guinness World Record was achieved by a horse called Winning Brew. She was trained by Francis Vitale in the United States. The race was recorded at the Penn National Race Course, Grantville, Pennsylvania, United States. Winning Brew covered the quarter-mile (402 metres) in 20.57 seconds.

Who is the greatest horse of all time? ›

What is this? Many experts agree that Man o' War is the best racehorse in history. The fiery chestnut won 20 of his 21 starts during his career from 1919-1920, a truly impressive feat. Man o' War was born on March 29, 1917, at Nursery Stud, near Lexington, Kentucky.

Was Secretariat buried standing up? ›

Touring Claiborne Farm, The Resting Place Of Secretariat In Paris, Kentucky. … This year, provided the last holdout (as of my visit on May 20, 2019) was born and stood up, Claiborne Farm will have had 151 standing foals.
...
What kind of horse is Secretariat?
Secretariat
DiedOctober 4, 1989 (aged 19) Paris, Kentucky, U.S.
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What horse has never lost a race? ›

Barbaro was the horse that won the 2006 Kentucky Derby by 6.5 lengths, and he had never lost a race. The next week in the Preakness, Barbaro's leg was shattered and despite fighting for eight months to stay alive, the beautiful horse was euthanized in January 2007.

Who was faster Man of War or Secretariat? ›

Some claim that Secretariat was faster, while others say Man o' War would win. They both ran 21 races, of which Man O'War won 20 and was second in one race. On the contrary, Secretariat won 16 races, was second in 3, third in 1, and got off-tracked in one race.

Why was Secretariat's heart so big? ›

Secretariat's hindquarters were the main source of his power, with a sloped croup that extended the length of his femur. When in full stride, his hind legs were able to reach far under himself, increasing his drive. His ample girth, long back and well-made neck all contributed to his heart-lung efficiency.”

How many miles per hour did Secretariat run? ›

Secretariat holds the fastest finishing time at 2:24.00. In 1973, the Triple Crown-winning horse set a world record that still stands for a race on a mile-and-a-half dirt track. The horse reached a top speed of 49 mph.

Why do jockeys ride standing up? ›

Jockeys keep level by standing in the stirrups; this allows their bodies to remain level and helps the horse run faster. Jockeys expend large amounts of effort to reduce the horse's burden while holding their bodies off the saddle.

Why did they euthanize Secretariat? ›

Swerczek emphasized that Secretariat's laminitis was the worst case he had ever seen. There was no chance of a cure or improvement, they had done the right thing for the horse by humanely euthanizing him.

Why did Secretariat lose the Wood Memorial? ›

Angle Light contributed smashing upset in the $114,900 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct yesterday, finishing a head in front of Sham, who had four lengths over the highly regarded Secretariat. “This colt is going into the Kentucky Derby with Secretariat, because they are both trained by Lucien Laurin.

Are Secretariat and Man O'War related? ›

The great Man O' War died in 1947 of an apparent heart attack. Sired by the famous Bold Ruler and out of Somethingroyal , Secretariat was foaled one day after Man O' War's birthday anniversary. His racing career lasted only 16 months but the standard he set during that time has been unequalled since.

Are any of Secretariat's offspring still alive? ›

Two are true living legends themselves – 30-year-old Horse of the Year and sire phenomenon A.P. Indy, and 27-year-old Istabraq, a legend over the hurdles in the UK and his native Ireland.

Has any horse run faster than Secretariat? ›

But what made him so famous? Was Secretariat the fastest horse ever? Secretariat set speed records at multiple distances and on different racing surfaces. But the Guinness World Record recognizes Winning Brew as the fastest horse ever.

Does Secretariat still hold track records? ›

Secretariat set records that are still standing today.

Accelerating with each quarter-mile segment, he crossed the finish line at 1:59 2/5th, a new (and still standing) course record. In the 40 years since, only one other horse, Monarchos, has finished in under 2 minutes.

Did Secretariat get whipped? ›

Turcotte said he briefly used his whip in the Derby only to prompt Secretariat to change leads for the stretch run. “He did, and I just put my whip away and galloped to the wire,” he recalled.

Who rode Secretariat in his last race? ›

Turcotte became internationally famous in 1973 when he rode Secretariat to win the first Triple Crown in 25 years, with records for each race, and the phenomenal finish of Secretariat 31 lengths ahead of the field in the Belmont.

Why is Ron Turcotte in a wheelchair? ›

Turcotte was paralyzed from the waist down in a horse racing accident at Belmont Park, N.Y., in 1978. Because of that paralysis, Turcotte is not feeling any pain from Monday's accident.

How many Triple Crown horses are there? ›

Which horses have won the Triple Crown? The 13 Triple Crown winners are Sir Barton (1919), Gallant Fox (1930), Omaha (1935), War Admiral (1937), Whirlaway (1941), Count Fleet (1943), Assault (1946), Citation (1948), Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Affirmed (1978), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018).

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