This Week In History: Secretariat’s Final Curtain Call - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

This Week In History: Secretariat’s Final Curtain Call

This Tony Leonard image shows Secretariat arriving at Claiborne Farm following his retirement from racing.

This is the beginning of a new horse racing history series we are piloting this winter. Like similar series from publications gone by, This Week In History will look at a big event or interesting story from a random year in horse racing's history.  

The Paulick Report thanks the Keeneland Library staff for their assistance in the research process for this and many of our other features.

A lot of the news in horse racing in November is populated by retirement announcements. In November 1973, the month's first edition of The Blood-Horse was no different. Writer Ed Bowen had the task of composing the final chapter of both Secretariat and Riva Ridge's careers, as they both ran their final races, to very different endings.

Secretariat won the Grade 2 Canadian International Championship at Woodbine, his 16th lifetime victory in 21 starts over two seasons, and (at the time) the finish to the richest season of any American racehorse, with earnings of $860,404. (This is the equivalent of $5.7 million today – impressive but certainly no longer the record.)

He took a stalking trip behind early leader Kennedy Road and struck on the far turn, pulling away by six and a half at the wire.

Riva Ridge's swan song did not go as well. He struggled home last behind Prove Out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which was then two miles. Prove Out was trained by Allen Jerkens, who had also conditioned Secretariat upsetter Onion.

Asked to compare the two horses, Turcotte said he'd never doubted Riva Ridge's appetite for distance but had initially doubted Secretariat's because “of the colt's feeling of tremendous power but not necessarily effortless motion.” Of course, those doubts faded as he mounted his dominant Triple Crown campaign.

Eddie Maple had the call on both horses instead of Ron Turcotte, who was sitting out on what had to be the world's worst-timed suspension. Turcotte had been on a filly at Aqueduct who interfered with another and was disqualified. At a hearing two days later, stewards suspended him five days for his ride in the race. Turcotte declined to appeal even though he believed the horse had just lugged out, but was bitterly disappointed that the timing of the suspension kept him off Secretariat in his final race. Instead, he sat on Big Red for a workout with some 3,000 fans in attendance at Woodbine.

Conditioner Lucien Laurin told Bowen he was somewhat less disappointed that Secretariat was leaving the track for good. He'd made no secret that having the sport's biggest superstar in the barn was stressful, and a loss in the Whitney had only compounded the anxiety for him.

“I'll be glad when Secretariat is retired,” he said. “I swear to God, I'll be glad.”

Secretariat's dominance on the turf over 1 5/8 miles was the perfect cap to a career for the ages.

“Puffs of vapor poured from the horse's nostrils in rhythm with every stride and evaporated into the cold as Secretariat finished the last mile,” Bowen wrote. “As he came near the furlong pole, the magnet of greatness was overpowering to a group of youngsters lining the rail, and they vaulted the fence and darted across the dirt track to be nearer him, reaching the outside rail of the turf course as he flashed past.

“Secretariat emerged from the thickening darkness for an instant, flicking his ears in curiosity as he raced to the narrow flood of light of the photo finish camera. It was an idle gesture, interfering with none of the perfection in his stride. He flashed by it and through it, and the life of Secretariat as a racehorse had run its course.

“He belonged then to legend.”

Secretariat then retired to Claiborne Farm outside Paris, Ky., accompanied one last time by his constant companion in Eddie Sweat, with photographer Tony Leonard ready to catch his first steps off the van and into his new life. He was syndicated for $6 million and sired 663 foals and 341 winners, with 57 stakes winners from 16 crops. Contrary to all hopes at the time, Secretariat did not prove a wild success as a sire but would go on to become a top broodmare sire of noted stallions Storm Cat, A.P. Indy, Gone West, Dehere, and Chief's Crown before his death from laminitis in 1989.

Riva Ridge also retired to Claiborne and was syndicated for $5.12 million. He sired 359 foals from 12 crops, but had 29 stakes winners in that group. His daughters produced more than 50 stakes winners and four champions.

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