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 Editorials

Thoughts from our editor, Joe Clancy. For archived editorials click here.

Fifty years ago, before the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, Secretariat wasn’t changing lives. He was another Kentucky Derby winner, giving the Preakness a go. He could have lost the race, like so many before him and after. Instead, he won with a first-turn move people still have difficulty explaining and added the ultimate exclamation point three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes (I actually say “by 31 lengths” to describe a lopsided victory by a horse, person or team). 

Secretariat’s impact remains, all these years later.

In Virginia, his legacy supports a Thoroughbred industry. He’s not the only reason, but imagine making the case that the state’s racing/breeding/training infrastructure needs support by showcasing the memory of Secretariat to legislators, sponsors and donors. This single horse will forever be a yardstick – arguably THE yardstick – for Thoroughbred greatness. And he was born in Virginia. Sure, Maryland can point to Cigar and other links to history. Smarty Jones still pulls Pennsylvania along. New York has Funny Cide. But there was only one Secretariat, and everyone has heard of him. He matters in all eras, boardrooms, promotions and presentations. Colonial Downs named its turf course for Secretariat. His birthplace, the Chenery family’s Meadow in Doswell, is now the Meadow Event Park – home to the state fair and other events. The small barn where he was born is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register. In April, Ashland, Va., hosted the temporary placement of a larger-than-life Secretariat statue – a duplicate of one already gracing a traffic circle in Kentucky. A fundraising campaign is narrowing the gap to make the statue a permanent fixture in the Virginia town. 

In 1973, Secretariat took the rare leap beyond racing – at a time when that might not have seemed possible – when he ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought. Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time magazines put the horse on their covers in the same week. Try that today. By 2023 standards, compare it to getting a million retweets on Twitter, 75 million likes on Instagram and 100 million followers on TikTok – and being the subject of the Google Doodle – at the same time. Something like that anyway. He wound up on postage stamps (33 cents). There were books, a record album, a bronze in the paddock at Belmont Park. Disney made a movie. And on and on. 

In interviews for the Secretariat’s Preakness feature, people went out of their way to credit the horse’s impact on their careers in racing. All-time greats in sports always spur debate, and who’s to say who was better. But greats are always known, always spoken about.

“How do you know?” asked Coley Blind about Secretariat’s place in history among the greats who came before him. “You compare them with what you have. Is Babe Ruth better than Aaron Judge? Who knows? Everything is different.” 

Blind saw Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Alydar, American Pharoah, Justify. He heard about Seabiscuit, War Admiral, Citation and all the rest from his father Eddie. Nobody topped Secretariat.

Blind continued the thought: “Compare horses here now to him. He was different-sized, different everything. He was just massive. It wasn’t like he was bulky. He was just an absolute athlete. He never looked like he had to fight to do anything.”

Photographer Cappy Jackson talked about Secretariat’s brain as much as his brawn. Sheer talent took him so far. The rest came from somewhere else. She could feel it.

“The horse was awe-inspiring,” she said, putting it simply.

Maryland racing seems to be rapidly approaching another crossroads with the creation of a new state authority to navigate the future through a reimagined model. A horse, even a horse like Secretariat, would seem to have little chance of helping that effort find direction. But, man, it sure wouldn’t hurt.

Triple Crown winners Seattle Slew and Affirmed followed Secretariat in the 1970s, then racing weathered another drought – this one 37 years until American Pharoah swept all three races in 2015. The result was historic, a relief after the almosts of California Chrome, Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Real Quiet, Silver Charm, Sunday Silence, Spectacular Bid and so many others. The impact was immediate, and far reaching, but let’s just say Secretariat won that argument – and the one with 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify – by 31 lengths. 

Could a horse do what Secretariat did? Win all three? Sure. Make the same impact? I doubt it.

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