BALTIMORE (AP) — Calling Secretariat a Triple Crown winner actually might understate his dominance. The colt not only won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes in 1973 — he finished each in record time.
It just took 39 years for that part of his incredible sweep to become official.
When Secretariat won the Preakness a half-century ago, he was a star but not yet a legend. His 31-length romp in the Belmont was still to come, and although his back-to-front surge on the first turn at Pimlico was spectacular, the colt’s final time of 1 minute, 55 seconds wasn’t all that noteworthy. It was a second slower than the Preakness mark set two years earlier by Canonero II.
But the dispute over that time was only beginning, and it wasn’t until 2012 when Penny Chenery — Secretariat’s owner — finally succeeded in securing her horse’s Preakness record. She died in 2017 at age 95.
“It was something that Mrs. Chenery really wanted to do in her lifetime,” said Amy Zimmerman, a senior vice president at Santa Anita Park who also works with NBC on its Preakness coverage. “She wanted to set the record straight. She’s the one that really pushed for it to be done.”
After Secretariat’s Preakness, it was clear something was amiss. Although the electronic timing device said 1:55, two Daily Racing Form clockers independently recorded the race at 1:53 2/5. Pimlico’s official hand clocker had it at 1:54 2/5.
Stewards determined there were “extenuating circumstances” with the electronic device, but it was the Pimlico clocker whose figure carried the day. The official time was changed to 1:54 2/5 — not quite good enough to beat Canonero II’s 1:54. In July 1973, the Maryland Racing Commission acknowledged the possibility that Secretariat had set a record, but it wasn’t officially recognized.
“It would appear that Secretariat might have run the 1973 Preakness somewhat faster than Canonero II ran the same race in 1971,” the commission said, according to minutes dated July 10, 1973. “The commission, however, is bound by its rules and regulations which provide that the official time of any race is that which is clocked by the official timer.”
So the 1:54 2/5 time would stand. The commission’s order also included a bit of a declaration: “To change records established by the official timer because of later electronic analyses of such events would be destructive of the integrity of all sporting events.”
That statement may have reflected a world that was still uneasy about allowing technology too much latitude to fix errors on the field of play. The debate persists today, even as instant replay becomes increasingly normalized. It’s one thing to use technology to correct mistakes while competition is ongoing, but doing it well after the fact is a bit different.
In 2010, Armando Galarraga of the Detroit Tigers lost a perfect game because of a missed call by an umpire. Nowadays, instant replay could fix that — but it would be reviewed immediately. Not days or years after the fact.
In 1998, with Secretariat’s Preakness time still a bone of contention, Bruce Spizler — Maryland’s assistant attorney general — sent the commission a letter. He concluded that the commission’s regulation still mandated that 1:54 2/5 should remain the official time.
That regulation, however, was eventually repealed and replaced. The new one said that in the event of a problem with the electronic timing device, the official time of the race could be determined by the official timer — or by another method deemed accurate and reliable by the commission.
At the request of Chenery, as well as Pimlico president Tom Chuckas, the commission held a hearing on the matter in 2012. Zimmerman, then an executive producer at Horse Racing Television, was one of a half-dozen witnesses.
By then, Canonero II’s 1:54 was no longer the time to beat. Tank’s Prospect in 1985 and Louis Quatorze in 1996 had won the Preakness in 1:53 2/5, and Curlin in 2007 had finished slightly slower, in 1:53.46. Tapes of the 1973, 1985 and 1996 races were digitized, with a stopwatch and digital frame counter superimposed.
That process revealed Secretariat had finished in 1:53, according to the commission’s order. His first quarter-mile was faster than the electric timer recorded but his other fractional times were the same, lending credence to the idea that the electronic timer was inadvertently started early.
When the recordings were run simultaneously, they showed Secretariat crossing the finish line “approximately one to one and a half lengths before Tank’s Prospect and Louis Quatorze,” according to the commission.
The witnesses agreed that Secretariat ran the race in 1:53, and the commission ordered the official time changed.
Secretariat still holds all three Triple Crown time records.
“It’s quite amazing,” Zimmerman said. “If you calculated all the number of horses that have run in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont combined in 50 years, and not one of them has run faster in any of those races.”