It remains one of the most memorable episodes in Canadian sporting history, not just the day Secretariat ran his last race, in the 1973 Canadian International over a mile and five-eighths on the turf at Woodbine, but the days leading up to it - every moment after the great champion flew into Toronto. Here, in a two-part report, Emily Shields looks back at that never-to-be-forgotten week, ahead of the 2017 running of the Pattison Canadian International on Sunday. Part two is tomorrow.
Before streaming track feeds on your phone or computer, and even before the advent of simulcasting, it was difficult to find horse racing on television outside of the Triple Crown. Unless present at the racetrack itself, fans were more likely to read about great horses in the newspaper than see them.
In 1973, households were treated to a Triple Crown for the ages as the mighty Secretariat raced his way to a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes. But, aside from his spring exploits, people had to follow his career chiefly via print media.
That’s why racing fans were astounded to hear that Secretariat, considered by many to be the greatest American racehorse of all time, would conclude his career at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, Canada. Canadians would be given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the magnificent horse run in the flesh. And, although unforgiving weather, a jockey’s untimely infraction, and dubious race tactics made for a dramatic scene, Secretariat raced to his best, turning the 1973 Canadian International Championship Stakes into one of the great moments in Canadian sports history.
While sending a modern American horse to end their campaign in Canada would come as a surprise now, there was some precedent in the past. Man O’ War’s famous 1920 match race against older Triple Crown winner Sir Barton took place in Windsor, Ontario, and the great Exterminator made his 99th career start in Montreal in 1922.
After Secretariat, $9 million-earner Cigar lost the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Woodbine, wrapping up his career with 19 wins in 33 starts.
There were genuinely compelling reasons to race Secretariat north of the border. Both regular rider Ron Turcotte (New Brunswick) and trainer Lucien Laurin (Quebec) hailed from Canada, and one of the country’s premier horsemen, E.P. Taylor, developed a close relationship with owner Penny Tweedy (Chenery) after her father passed. In addition to Tweedy simply confiding in Taylor and receiving advice in return, Taylor became one of the first buyers into Tweedy’s Secretariat syndicate, which solved the financial crisis of her father’s Meadow Stud.
When news came that Secretariat was indeed headed to Toronto, even those who worked at the track were stunned.
“It was an enormous thing,” said Jim Bannon, an award-winning racing analyst and handicapper at Woodbine. “Simulcasting didn’t start until 1981, so you would hear about this horse but you couldn’t just tune in and see him or look him up on YouTube. He brought quite an international buzz.”
Woodbine is on the direct flight path to Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, and Tom Cosgrove, Woodbine’s historian who worked as a groom for Taylor’s Windfields Farm at the time, remembers seeing the horse plane fly overhead. “It was a Saturn cargo plane,” he recalled. “It was a Tuesday, and we saw it fly right over us.”
“Secretariat was a real celebrity from the moment he flew into Pearson,” Bannon said.
Bruce Walker, the former head of media at Woodbine, said, “We couldn’t believe it when Penny Tweedy said they were going to bring the horse up here. And, when he finally arrived, it was like royalty stepping off the airplane.
“The media were assembled all over the Tarmac: film, television, and radio crews, as well as print media and photographers. When he stuck his head out the door and walked down the ramp, all you could hear were the cameras going off.”
“I was among the many press people there,” said Louis Cauz, Woodbine’s former historian and still an active voting member of the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame. “Secretariat was a Hollywood star coming down that ramp, surrounded by photographers and press everywhere he went.”
“He didn’t have a police escort,” Walker added. “He didn’t need one. It is just a short jaunt over to Woodbine, and there wasn’t much traffic.”
Stress for ‘Shorty’
Cosgrove was waiting at Barn 8 when Secretariat’s van arrived. “There was very little coverage of the horse arriving,” he said. “There was no TSN, no ESPN, no specialty channels, nothing like TVG. It is quite interesting to compare what happened then to what happens now.”
The van stopped, and Secretariat’s pony, Billy Silver, was led off first. Cosgrove remembers, “A whole bunch of security guys jumped out of the van then. We all got a kick out of that. Then Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat – but we all called him Shorty – led off the big horse. There were only two horses in that whole barn; the rest had been ‘evacuated’ to other areas of the track.”
Sweat was given a room to stay in at Barn 7A, better known as Taylor’s Windfields barn on the backside. Sweat ended up next door to Cosgrove, who went out of his way to befriend the groom despite caring for one of Secretariat’s rivals in the race, Presidial.
“Our rooms were better appointed than the rooms in other barns, because it was Mr. Taylor’s barn and there was an expectation to keep them nice,” Cosgrove explained. “Everything had to be immaculate. I gave Shorty the keys to my car, a 1966 Chevy Impala, and told him he could go get anything he needed. He said, ‘I can’t drive. Can you?’” Cosgrove laughed at the memory.
“I would take him to the drug store or out to lunch, and the whole time he would be uptight and stressed out that something would happen to the horse. The irony of that is that there were two Pickering security guards at the barn whenever Shorty was away, but he still worried about leaving. There were obviously no cell phones back then.”
Cosgrove’s brush with greatness
Later on in the week, Sweat led Cosgrove near Secretariat’s barn and signaled to the security guards, sending them on their break. “They brought their own water for him, which is standard now but in the 1970s that was quite innovative,” Cosgrove said. “Shorty let me into Secretariat’s stall, told me to stay out of sight, and went to get his feed.”
Standing next to one of the greatest horses in history, Cosgrove felt awed. “I cannot describe to you what I felt,” he said, “but I truly felt something. An aura? A presence? A strength? Something was coming off of that horse, something that I can only describe as strength, but I can’t really describe it at all. I only felt it once more in my career, and that was with A.P. Indy.”
Cosgrove stood by while Sweat pulled Secretariat’s mane, watching the red strands of hair hit the straw in the stall. “I was 25 at the time and thought I knew everything,” Cosgrove lamented. “But now I think, ‘Why didn’t I just pick up some of the hairs, and keep them?’ How stupid of me. That’s my one big regret, but if that’s the worst in my life I guess I’m doing okay.”
An ‘Indian summer’ had given Woodbine unseasonably beautiful temperatures that fall, allowing for perfect views of the mighty horse as he trained and grazed each day. “The media response was incredible,” Walker said. “Secretariat was the feature news item on sports pages every day that he was on the grounds. Everything stopped when Secretariat came out of his stall in the morning. Grooms, hotwalkers and trainers all came over to see the horse. When he walked to the track, everyone followed like a parade. But there was some fear that he wouldn’t run.”
Three days before the race, Secretariat was slated to have a five-furlong workout over Woodbine’s unique turf course. While the course now, built in a 1½-mile arc around the outside of the inner synthetic Thoroughbred and Limestone-based harness racing tracks, is considered special, it was much more difficult to navigate before. The race would start on the Marshall turf course, which was on the outside of the main track, then would cross over the dirt course to the inner turf track, now the harness track. Bannon likened it to the dirt crossing from Santa Anita’s famous hillside turf course, an experience most horses never have in their careers.
“Mrs. Tweedy was concerned about the dirt crossing at the time,” Walker explained. “Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte, kept assuring her that it would be no problem, because he had ridden across it many times. ‘All you have to do is send them right across,’ he would say. ‘You’ll see when I work him.’”
Because of the significance of the workout, Woodbine announced that it would be open to the public. “There was coffee and donuts for the fans,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, because of the weather, there was very heavy fog in the morning. So heavy, that his workout was delayed about three hours. People were very patient, sitting in the stands waiting… and waiting …”
Walker remembers the moment that a murmur slipped through the crowd. “You could see him coming through the mist onto the Marshall turf course. You could spot Ron Turcotte’s blue and white hat, and Secretariat was the only horse on the course.”
Track announcer Daryl Wells boomed, “Ladies and gentlemen, Secretariat has entered the racetrack on the backstretch!”
“The cheer that went up was amazing,” Walker said. “He was still three furlongs away, but the anticipation of his work was really something.”
Bannon said, “It was a pea soup fog, and they waited until there was just a little bit of lift in it. A lot of people talk about seeing the work that day, but not many people actually did since you had to be close up.”
Bannon watched the work from the front side, and remembers it well. “He was such a tremendous athlete that when he went through he cleared the fog right off.”
“They time the horses from the judge’s stand next to the press box,” Walker said, “and it was so foggy that the clockers were urged to move down to the grandstand to see. Secretariat looked like a locomotive on the turf, crossing the dirt in two strides and barreling through the stretch. Mrs. Tweedy and Lucien Laurin were standing on the apron by the benches, and the head clocker radioed down that the official time was 1:03.”
Laurin panicked. “He said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! He’s never worked that slow in his life!’” Walker recalled. “But all the trainers nearby said in chorus that they got him in :57.3 and allayed their fears.”
But the exceptional workout could not stop the next bit of drama from rising: as soon as jockey Turcotte dismounted, he, Laurin, and Tweedy got on a charter plane back to New York. “Ronnie had a hearing with the stewards there,” Walker said, “because he had been disqualified the day before on a green 2-year-old who came out of the gate and bumped another horse. The stewards gave him days [of suspension] for that.”
“At the time there was no appeals process,” Bannon explained. “Nowadays he could have appealed and been able to ride.”
“When he tried to argue that he had to ride Secretariat, the stewards had no sympathy for him whatsoever,” Walker said.
Secretariat had passed his test over Woodbine’s turf course flawlessly, but the weather forecast looked grim, and who would ride the renowned horse in his final race?
Tomorrow: the drama of race day