Secretariat at 50: How the Big Red Five have kept the story alive
They are the keepers of the legend, the tellers of the tale. Four men, one woman. One living, four gone. It has been 50 years since Secretariat won the Triple Crown (the first in 25 years at the time; prelude to a longer drought that would commence just five years later) and passed into a singular racing afterlife with his ethereal Belmont. The story stood tall in its own moment, deservedly and meaningfully; but it has since undergone that rarest of sports metastases: A moment already seen, forever becoming must-see. Big Red, long interred in rich Kentucky earth after a career less than 16 months in length, has grown bigger.
Because a woman stood strong.
Because a jockey sat just as strong.
Because a race caller went for broke.
Because a writer wrote.
Because a photographer shot.
Five of them, all born in the years from 1922 to 1941, two in the Midwest, two in New York, one in Canada. Together they have ferried the story across time. In the words that became a book, that became a documentary, that became a movie. In a photograph that silently transports its viewer. In a rhythmic voice that reached to describe perfection and nearly matched it. In a life that inspired women (and girls) generations younger and showed them a future that had been mostly just a concept. In the hands, the heart, the soul of a small man who sat hunched in irons with something otherworldly pumping blood beneath him.
On May 5 of 1973, Secretariat won the 99th Kentucky Derby, a 3-2 favorite despite having lost his final prep race, the Wood Memorial (almost certainly due to a mouth abscess discovered after the race). He rolled into the lead four wide on the far turn and pounded away to a 2 ½-length victory, his face covered – yet oddly accentuated -- by a blue-and-white checkerboard blinker hood that would become his Kareem’s goggles -- so ever-present that it reveals, not conceals. Two weeks later in the Preakness, he lagged from the gate at Pimlico and then circled the field in the first turn, an arrogant move – there is no other word – that presaged a dismissive victory, again by 2 ½ lengths, but more easily. He set stakes records in both the Derby and Preakness, and both stand today. Preposterous.
The Belmont. If you are reading this, you know about the Belmont. He went six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 and 1:59 for 10 (faster than his winning Derby time) and kept going, widening, sailing as if on holy rails. He won by 31 lengths in a time of 2:24, the best performance in history (although some will argue, just because, and you know, knock yourself out). Secretariat’s performance was transformative, even in a vacuum, more important still in a nation consumed by the Watergate scandal and the unhealed wounds of Vietnam, that saw in this remarkable horse a purity that offered, if not an antidote to nationwide angst and division – which would be a stretch -- at the very least a powerful distraction.
(*Attendance at Belmont Park that day was a relatively modest 69,138, not among the Top 10 Belmonts; news reports in 1973 estimated the TV audience at just over 20 million viewers. For perspective, the Super Bowl in January of 1973 drew 53.2 million viewers; the ’73 World Series an average of 34 million viewers over seven games. Times change: The NFL and the Super Bowl have since exploded; baseball has contracted; The 2022 World Series averaged 11.8 million viewers. A more direct comparison: American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-winning Belmont on NBC in 2015 averaged 18.7 million viewers with a peak of 22 million… in a nation of 324 million vs. 207 million in 1973.)
As an event, it grew into an I remember where I was moment, unlike almost any in sports, writ large, beyond the Miracle on Ice, which came seven years later. Whether people actually remember is irrelevant; the race was resonant enough that they claim to remember. I’ll get this out of the way: I was at our family’s little cabin on a lake in Vermont, helping my father “open up” for the coming summer, the centerpiece of which was somebody (that would be me) shimmying through a muddy crawl space to twist open the house’s water valve, which was devilishly placed because Dad’s builder cut some corners. When the work was done, we watched the race on a small black-and-white TV (the broadcast was in color, our TV was not), and then we went home. I thought it was cool, but as for so many, its power has grown for me over time.
With eternal assistance from the Big Red Five:
Helen Bates Chenery was born into privilege in 1922, and because her mother was also Helen, she was nicknamed Penny, after the fairy tale Henny Penny (or more commonly, Chicken Little of Sky-Is-Falling renown). She at first despised – then later embraced -- the nickname that would become so attached to her persona, and, let’s be honest, rolls off the tongue more lyrically than Helen. Her father, Christopher, had risen from common beginnings to hard-earned wealth and in 1936 started a horse farm in Virginia and called it Meadow Stable. Penny’s entry into eternal partnership with Big Red was birthed in 1968, two years before the horse, when she took over control of the farm known as The Meadow, which was struggling financially. Her mother had died the previous year and her father was in failing health; Penny’s two siblings wanted to unload the place, she chose to save it.
It’s an unlikely, yet accurate, piece of Secretariat mythology that Meadow won him in 1969 by losing the annual coin toss with fellow millionaire owner Ogden Phipps to divvy up the unborn foals produced through matings between Phipps’ stallion, Bold Ruler, and two Meadow mares. Once running, Secretariat left little to chance, and Penny – by then Penny Tweedy, by marriage – was the most prominent human face of the horse, ever more so as he kept winning. The coverage was of its time, drifting into sexist stereotypes even when it tried to credit Penny’s courage and business acumen. A piece in The New York Times just before the Belmont called her “Mrs. John B. Tweedy” on first reference and on second, “… slim, blond…” Later: A suggestion that racing was attempting to leverage “the attractive qualities of Mrs. Tweedy and her magnificent horse.”
Penny, by then twice-divorced, died at age 95 in 2017. Her daughter Kate Chenery Tweedy, was, and remains most involved in the Secretariat universe, and said her mother chafed against norms. Penny graduated from Smith, got an MBA at Columbia, and served in the Red Cross in World War II, all before her first marriage and having children. “She was very much her father’s daughter,” says Kate. “She loved horses, she loved business. But she came back from the war into this decade of conformity and was told to forget all that and just be content picking up dry cleaning. She was really angry, and the stable gave her wings.”
Yet in 1973 she was a role model without demanding to be portrayed as one. It was a time of change, of what was then called “Women’s Liberation,” and of Title IX’s beginnings. Penny’s audience heard. “So many women come up to me, women who were young girls in 1973, and say, ‘Your mother inspired me.’”
Penny was portrayed by Diane Lane in the 2010 movie, Secretariat. (To be fair, that portrayal straddled the line between lucky housewife and female powerhouse, seeking viewers that would embrace either angle. Hollywood.) “I made suggestions,” says Kate. “They ignored all of them.” To better understand Penny’s place in racing, co-producer Mark Ciardi went with Penny and Lane to a Belmont and with Penny to two Derbies. “It was nuts, like being with a queen,” says Ciardi, “You could just feel the respect and affection.” The movie, he says, did just fine at the box office. More pointedly, viewers watch it again and again, uncommonly so.
(Disclaimer: I had a small role in the movie and one spoken line, which I flubbed. I still receive quarterly checks that rise into the low single digits).
On an April afternoon, Ron Turcotte’s 81-year-old face snaps into focus on a Zoom screen. He is sitting at a desk in his native New Brunswick, Canada, where it’s still closer to winter than spring, wearing a neat dress shirt and sweater, with the same wavy hairline from photos half a century ago, just grayer and closer to the top of his scalp. There is memorabilia of some sort in the background. Turcotte looks younger than his birth certificate insists; he’s also sitting in a wheelchair that you can’t see, but you know is there, and that tells a more poignant story, even if it’s not the one he’s most often asked to repeat.
Turcotte – “Ronnie” back then, and still – was an established rider when he first took a leg up on Secretariat in the summer of 1972, among the best in the cutthroat New York jocks’ room. He had left school after the seventh grade and climbed up through the backstretch hierarchy – cleaning stalls, walking hots, exercising horses – before putting on silks. He rode the great Northern Dancer at age 22, won the Preakness and Kentucky Oaks at 23. He did not ride Secretariat for his first two of his 21 races, or the last (he was under suspension), at Woodbine in his native Canada. He rode the other 18. Five years and a month after Secretariat’s Belmont, Turcotte suffered a spinal cord injury in a spill – such an innocuous word – at the very same Belmont Park. He has been a paraplegic since.
Turcotte speaks the customary lines with ease, practiced over time -- Billy Joel doing Piano Man. We talk and I am no better than the rest. I want to hear the hits, and so Ronnie plays them for me, sprinkling a pause here, a deep breath there, the hint of a tear. “He was a beautiful ride,” he says. “Whether it was morning or afternoon, galloping or breezing or racing, every ride was, like I say, beautiful. They won’t ever make another one like him.”
Then this: I ask Ronnie how often he thinks about Secretariat. “He pops up in my head sometimes,” he says. “But I don’t stop myself to think because then I really want to be going back to riding and there’s just something that’s impossible.” The words come from nowhere, a left turn from reverie into reality; they land like hammer on nail.
Ronnie nods and he’s quiet for seconds that pass like hours. “So…. “ Another deafening pause. “I don’t want to think about that too much.”
He should have been Mike Eruzione, famous once and then famous forever. Instead a horse put him in a wheelchair, a horse just like Secretariat only slower. The horse was Flag of Leyte Gulf, a workaday 4-year-old claimer; 10 jumps into the race on July 13, 1978 at Belmont, another horse drifted into the Flag, who clipped heels with a horse in front and pitched forward, throwing Turcotte over his head. Ronnie landed on his neck. That was that. He had been blessed and now he was cursed, at just 37 years old. Turcotte filed a lawsuit against multiple parties that was dismissed. “Inherent risk” was the bloodless judgment. Then Ronnie moved on.
Most of the gang are gone: Penny. Trainer Lucien Laurin, who put Ronnie on Big Red. Groom Eddie Sweat. Ronnie is left to tell the stories, and so he meets you halfway, giving you what you ask. This has been a busy spring, what with 50 and all. His publicist, Leonard Lusky (who also worked with Penny and both created and manages the website Secretariat.com), says Ronnie sometimes gets emotional, sometimes not. I last saw Ronnie in person at the 2014 Belmont, where racing waited to see if California Chrome could win the Triple Crown (he could not). Ronnie was sitting in his wheelchair near the finish line, talking for what seemed like hours. Life makes jockeys look up at the world, and here it had made Ronnie look up even further.
Last winter Ronnie sold Secretariat’s saddle -- which he had kept all these years -- in a private deal brokered by Lusky with Indianapolis Colts’ owner Jim Irsay, an avid collector (although the saddle is Irsay’s first horse racing-related item). The saddle’s selling price was $2 million, which will provide a nice nest egg for Turcotte’s four daughters; Ronnie has always said he would do that, “when the time is right.” Last fall Lusky told him, “It’s time.” Ronnie will gradually sell most of his stuff, and it is remarkable that he waited so long.
Now on the Zoom screen Turcotte is young again. The losses hurt him: In the Wood with that abscess. In the Whitney at Saratoga, when he had a virus and lost to Onion. “I begged Lucien not to run him,” says Ronnie. “That’s the only time I ever cried when a horse lost.” He’s been asked so many times what the Belmont felt like, to describe the indescribable. “ I felt right at home,” he says. “Just, you know, right at home.” Ronnie nods once, twice, three times.
To every moment in sports, and life, there is a soundtrack. To birth, a baby’s wail. To first love, a song. To the Miracle On Ice: U-S-A! U-S-A! To Secretariat’s seminal Belmont, there was the voice of race announcer Charles (Chic) Anderson, who witnessed a sublime performance – one that he could not have anticipated – and met it with a performance of his own. Turcotte was riding Big Red, but Anderson, perched, above the track, calling the race for CBS (Dave Johnson called the race on track), was tethered to both of them in spirit, his voice rising and falling, chasing history, unaware that his words would outlive him by decades.
…Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine …
Five years ago, with Justify on the cusp of racing’s second Triple Crown in four years, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about Anderson’s remarkable race call. You can read that story here. It’s a waste of keystrokes to plagiarize myself here at length, but there is value in giving Anderson his due in the context of this story. His contribution to elevating the Secretariat story is unique: A voice in real time, preserved, and in a culture that often revisits history only to highlight its flaws, it withstands scrutiny. While others reacted, and beautifully, and over time, Anderson’s job was different. Like Ronnie and Red, he had one chance and no net.
Anderson was a Hoosier (born in Evansville, with a degree from Indiana University), a racetracker, and a raconteur. A big man with big appetites, who took care of others better than he took care of himself and died of a heart attack in 1979 at age 47, just six years after calling Secretariat’s Belmont.
He moved from track to track, from tiny Ellis Park in southern Indiana to a seat at CBS, where he not only called the biggest races, but did pre- and post-race interviews. Former NBC announcer Tom Hammond was among Anderson’s closest friends. “He was a pretty nomadic guy,” said Hammond in 2018. “Always away. I met his wife, but Chic had five children, and to be honest, I never met any of them.” Nevertheless, after my story was published, two of his daughters reached out to thank me, and to say how much they loved their father. Life is complicated.
On the ninth day of June in ’73, he scored history, and we listen still, enthralled.
On wonderfully serendipitous occasions, a brilliant writer and a transcendent story intersect in time and there is literary wonder made for the rest of us. In the last week of June in 1972, Bill Nack, a 31-year-old reporter who had just been moved to the sports department and the horse racing beat (yes, there was such a thing) at Long Island-based Newsday, was introduced at Meadow Stable’s Aqueduct barn to a beefy two-year-old chestnut, a son of Bold Ruler named Secretariat. A week later Nack watched him lose his first race bravely after a terrible trip, and 10 days later, read about him breaking his maiden by six lengths, “handily,” according to the chart of the race. The next winter, Big Red was moved to New York for his Derby prep and Nack climbed aboard the train. Hell, he was the conductor.
Over the ensuing four decades, Nack would embark on a transcendent career in sports journalism, first at Newsday and then at Sports Illustrated. When he died of cancer in 2018, too many obituaries called him a “turf writer,” which he was, but so much more. Pull up his stories on Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and Rick Pitino, just to name four among many. You’ll see. Nobody better. But it was in those first six months of 1973, that Nack fell in love with a horse (not for the first time) and began building a body of work that would define him… and his subject. “He was so close to Secretariat that their hearts beat together,” says Carolyne Starek, Nack’s widow (they were married in 2004, the second for both, and together until Bill’s death, and to be honest, together still).
*Another disclaimer: Bill Nack was a friend and colleague of mine. I was first near him in 1985, watching him write a Travers gamer and then recite the last page of The Great Gatsby on a moonlit deck in Saratoga Springs; and last near him at a thoroughbred racing symposium in Tucson in December of 2016. We ate dinner one night in Tucson with friends like former jockeys Richard Migliore and Art Sherman, who later trained Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. Art once rode the great Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby; Bill grew up in the Chicago suburbs and we all sat transfixed as Bill told Art about going one morning to Arlington Park, and coaxing Swaps to the rail, where he licked the back of Bill’s right hand. To read Nack was a joy, to know him was a gift.
He wrote a book called Big Red of Meadow Stable, published in 1975 and re-released in 2002 as Secretariat: The Making Of A Champion. It formed the basis of the movie version, from a script adapted by Mike Rich. (Bill just beamed on the night of the premiere in Hollywood; I was there, too, and rarely saw a man so proud). The book is square one for any Big Red researcher. But Nack’s magnum opus on Secretariat was his June, 1990 story in SI titled Pure Heart. (The title was conceived by longtime SI editor Peter Carry, and it is perfect). Nack commenced the piece after Secretariat’s death in the previous October. When I first read Pure Heart, I consumed it as the tale of a great horse and his Boswell; three decades later, I understand that it is more correctly the story of a man growing older (Bill was 49 when Secretariat was euthanized with laminitis) and recalling the most thrilling time in his life, a time long lost, and now only remembered. Nack understood that all sports memories land like this, as time passes through the fingers, as nostalgia.
Early in the piece, he writes: “Horses have a way of getting inside you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and truly a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.”
And at the end, recalling the day he learned of Secretariat’s death: “The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine’s Day 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died. At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Now here I was in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.” (The part about being alone in a hotel room when important events transpire, helpless and guilty, my god, that part is so close to the bone that it hurts).
In his writing, Nack helped Secretariat get inside all of us. Carolyne told me that their home remains joyfully decorated with Secretariat memorabilia, including a photograph of Big Red above the fireplace. She understands that sharing a life with Bill meant sharing a piece with Secretariat, lovingly. “Secretariat opened a door for Bill,” she says. “And from there, it was a lifelong romance. He loved those creatures so much, but especially [Secretariat]. He was such a part of Bill’s emotional being. The two of them, they made each other’s lives fuller, and stronger, and longer.”
Another Tim story. Please bear with me. My first exposure to horse racing as a journalistic pursuit was as a fresh-out-of-college reporter at the Schenectady Gazette in upstate New York in the late 1970s. Mostly I covered high schools and local colleges, unglamorous work (but nonetheless vitally important for a local newspaper, and essential training for a young writer). The exception was the summer thoroughbred race meeting at Saratoga, which was straight-up major league. So I lapped up as much as I could, not knowing, as they say, a thoroughbred’s head from his ass, but willing to learn.
Part of the job at my shop involved stopping every late afternoon after the last race at the New York Racing Association’s little photo office to pick up a finish picture of the day’s feature race. NYRA’s track photographer was Bob Coglianese and he would step into the doorway of his office, underneath majestic elms next to the paddock, and hand me the picture, sometimes still damp from the developing soup, decades before digital. Coglianese was a barrel-chested man with a thick head of black hair and a no-nonsense New York accent that he would occasionally leaven with a smile. He also had a facial tic, which, being a clueless kid, I assumed was just something that happened to old people. (Bob Coglianese was 22 years older than me, in his mid-40s at the time).
I did not know his story. I did not know anything about him. Did not know that in the late afternoon of June 9, 1973, he raised his camera to his eye from a stand next to the finish line at Belmont Park, clicked the shutter on a pre-focused point, and captured one of the most recognizable sports pictures of the 20th century, an image that preserves the reality – and the surreality – of the moment: Secretariat nearing the wire, Turcotte glancing left at the timer, the rest of the field just tiny spots in the distance like a child’s toy horses, the vast expanse of the Belmont grandstand in the background, out of focus as if in a dream. It is not 1,000 words, it is as many words as the mind can imagine. Bob Coglianese took that photo.
What I know about Coglianese I learned from his son and only child, Adam, who turned 50 last December on the day before his father died in Florida at age 88, and who now operates Coglianese photography and, like his father, is NYRA’s official track photographer. The elder Coglianese was raised in Brooklyn and pronounces the family name “Colli-KNEES,” which splits the difference between the true Italian version of “Coal-yuh-NAYZ” and various American versions that usually involve a painfully hard G. It was a compromise to get along in the melting pot.
Bob went to work taking pictures at the racetrack in 1952, at the age of 18, as assistant to his uncle, Michael Sirico, and took over Sirico’s job in 1962. One day in the late 1960s, he saw a girl named Rosalind Berman sitting on a bench at Saratoga; Rosalind lived in the Albany area and was no racing fan but had come to the track on a business outing. Bob asked her out; they got married. Jewish girl, Catholic boy. Bob converted to Judaism. “We went to temple at all the High Holy Days,” says Adam.
Bob’s job at the New York tracks – Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga -- came with a mandate. “Back then, everything was driven by the marketing department,” says Adam. “They wanted my father to shoot the winners’ circle. They wanted him to shoot the finish. And they always wanted him to get the crowd into the finish photo, to emphasize how many people were coming to the racetrack.
“My father shot every race the same way.”
So it was on that second Saturday in June of 1973 that Bob left the family home in Searingtown, 10 miles east of Belmont Park in Long Island’s Nassau County, and drove to work. He likely shot not only the Belmont Stakes that day, but all seven of the races that preceded it, and even the one that followed. Ten or 15 minutes before the 5:38 post time, he likely walked across the Belmont loam, climbed the four or five steps to the top of the green, wood platform and pre-focused his lens on a point near the finish line. He then waited until Secretariat entered his frame and punched his shutter. The horse, the other horses… lord knows, the crowd. All right there.
More practically: Bob Coglianese took one of the greatest and most meaningful sports pictures in history by going to work and doing his job.
Something else: Bob worked in a pressurized atmosphere. One race after another, day upon day. Grinding. He developed that tic. “I don’t want to say my father had anxiety,” says Adam, choosing his words carefully, protecting a man he loved. “He worked hard.” Pause. “But you know, funny thing, later in his life, that tic went away.”
Twenty-two years ago, author Laura Hillenbrand brought a famous and effecting horse to life with her book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. That book, too, became a movie and Seabiscuit has lived another life. I wrote to Hillenbrand (we know each other in a distant way; there are not that many turf writers trodding this earth) about Secretariat’s keepers and she wrote back, in part: “Secretariat was blessed with the storytellers his greatness deserved. In their words and images, they have bequeathed the memory of him to us with reverence and texture and immediacy. Through them, we don’t just know of him, we experience him -- in the shiver of goosebumps, the tearful exultation, the grateful wonder of beholding so impossible a creature… Through them, he never fades and he never dies.”
It is a late April afternoon, in the year 2023. Bob Coglianese’s picture is on my computer screen, big as can be. I stare, it stares back. Fifty years gone, Big Red in the ground, Ronnie in a wheelchair. I’m quite certain I was crawling around in cold, New England slop that day, yet, in this moment, looking at this image, I’m sure I was there at Belmont Park. I’m sure we all were.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.