Monday Milestone: The Big Red Horse

Filed in Other by on May 5, 2013

This Week in History
, May 6
Secretariat becomes the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes.

“It’s SECRETARIAT! And he’s got his Kentucky Derby”
– Radio announcer Cawood Ledford calls Secretariat home in the Kentucky Derby

It had never been done before.

In almost a hundred years of the Kentucky Derby, the “most exciting two minutes in sport”, no horse had ever broken the two minute barrier.

Not that they hadn’t come close. In the previous eleven years, three had come within a second of it. Yet none of these were anything like Secretariat.

The Delorean parks outside the track at Churchill Downs this week, in 1973, just as America was about to witness one of the greatest three-year-old thoroughbreds in history.

The race had been highly anticipated. The Kentucky Derby always is. The Run for the Roses has long been an institution in Louisville, ever since Col Merriwether Lewis Clark Jr instigated the tradition in the late nineteenth century. But that particular May afternoon, there was more interest than usual. Secretariat, the Big Red Horse, was running.

Experts estimate a crowd of over 135,000 packed the famed twin-spired grandstand and surrounds at Churchill Downs that year. Frilly hats were worn, burgoo was eaten, and mint juleps were sipped, as tradition dictates.

Bookmakers had wound Secretariat into favouritism at $1.50. Sham, second in the line of betting was paying $2.50. Bets were placed. Punters scrambled to watch. The atmosphere was electric as Ron Turcotte climbed aboard, and the gates opened.

Could he go the distance?

A mile and a quarter was considered by critics to be beyond Secretariat, as he dropped to his favoured position at the back of the field heading past the stands for the first time on the dirt track. He worked into it. Across the back straight, Turcotte let the Big Red Horse choose his own pace, and he moved through the field.

As they reached the far turn, this seemed to be Sham’s race. He was flying. The race felt pretty much over. It was thought that no horse could catch the pace that Sham was setting.

Secretariat, it was clear, was not just any horse.

Turcotte went for the whip, and the Big Red Horse leapt forward. Each quarter mile was faster than the one before, as they raced the clock and each other beneath the grandstand.

Unbelievably Secretariat drew alongside Sham in the straight. He’d built up like a locomotive and now was finishing like a jet. He was going to do it. The then-record crowd roared. He was the one they had come to see.

As he flashed home to win from Sham by a remarkable two and a half lengths, a nation cheered. Experts estimate that he was incredibly still accelerating as he passed the post.

But if winning the Kentucky Derby had placed Secretariat in American racing folklore, the time the clock displayed assured his immortality. 1:59⅖. For the first time in 99 editions of the Kentucky Derby, a horse had registered less than two minutes.

The history books reveal the Big Red Horse went on that spring to win the Triple Crown, but nobody at Churchill Downs that day would ever forget that ride.

Secretariat, in incredible fashion had won the Kentucky Derby in less than two minutes.

A record, that still stands today.

Milestone Five: Fastest Kentucky Derby Winners

5. Decidely 1962 – Passed the post in 2:00.40, breaking a 21 year old Kentucky Derby record, which gave punters hope that one day the mark would be broken.

4. Spend a Buck 1985 – Won in wire-to-wire fashion winning by 5¼ lengths to win the Kentucky Derby in 2:00.20.

3. Northern Dancer 1964 – Stopped the clock in exactly 2:00.00, begging the question that had more specific timing mechanisms been around in that era, whether he would have broken the mark.

2. Monarchos 2001 – The only other horse outside of Secretariat to break two minutes for the Kentucky Derby with a winning time of 1:59.97

1. Secretariat 1973 – Still holds the Churchill Downs Kentucky Derby race record, with a stunning run stopping the clock at 1:59.40.

With thanks to Matthew Stockman/Getty Images North America for the picture


Comments (4)

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  1. SemiiPro says:

    I hope you’ll be writing about Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes win on its anniversary.

    • Doug Roweth says:

      You'll have to keep reading and find out – won't you?

      The Milestone will trawl through the archives to see what it can unearth….

  2. Anonymous says:

    I know the list is "Fastest Winners" but Sham, when second to Secretariat, also broke 2:00. So Monarchos isn't the only other horse to do it.

    He did it after hitting his head in the barriers and knocking out a couple of teeth, too. He also ran home the last 400m in under 24s, which only a couple of others have done in the Derby.

    How unlucky was HE? Hay List times ten?

    • Doug Roweth says:

      Sham was a tremendous horse, make no mistake.

      But the list is deliberately titled that – mostly because nobody is sure just how quick Sham ran it. Either 1:59.8 or 2:00.0 it is thought. They didn't take non-winning times.

      If only timing went to the 100th of a second back in 1973 we'd know for sure.

      As for being unlucky? Well, experts think that in any other year, Sham probably would have won the Triple Crown. Just a three year old in the wrong year.