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updated: 10/26/2010 5:27 PM

How Arlington Park landed Secretariat

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  • More than 41,000 fans were on hand at Arlington Park to great the legendary racehorse Secretariat. The Triple Crown winner raced in the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.

      More than 41,000 fans were on hand at Arlington Park to great the legendary racehorse Secretariat. The Triple Crown winner raced in the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.
    Bob Finch | Daily Herald file photo

  • With jockey Ron Turcotte aboard, super horse Secretariat won easily in his Arlington Invitational race on June 30, 1973. It was Secretariat's first race after winning the Belmont and capturing the Triple Crown.

      With jockey Ron Turcotte aboard, super horse Secretariat won easily in his Arlington Invitational race on June 30, 1973. It was Secretariat's first race after winning the Belmont and capturing the Triple Crown.
    Bob Finch | Daily Herald file photo

  • The grandstand was packed on June 30, 1973, when Secretariat ran away in a four-hour invitational race at Arlington Park. The heavy favorite paid $2.10 on a $2.00 bet.

      The grandstand was packed on June 30, 1973, when Secretariat ran away in a four-hour invitational race at Arlington Park. The heavy favorite paid $2.10 on a $2.00 bet.
    Bob Finch | Daily Herald file photo

  • The legendary racehorse Secretariat visits Arlington Park for the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.

      The legendary racehorse Secretariat visits Arlington Park for the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.
    Bob Finch | Daily Herald file photo

  • The legendary racehorse Secretariat visits Arlington Park for the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.

      The legendary racehorse Secretariat visits Arlington Park for the Arlington Invitational on June 30, 1973.

 
 

Bill Thayer hasn't been to a movie in years, but there's a film coming out Friday that may get him back to the big screen.

Thayer, Arlington Park's senior vice president of racing, should have a keen interest in "Secretariat," a Disney production of the legendary thoroughbred's story with owner Helen "Penny" Chenery.

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After all, it was Thayer who brought Secretariat to Arlington Park just one month after the dynamic chestnut became the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years.

While Thayer has recruited some of the game's top horses to Arlington over the years, luring Secretariat to the Northwest suburbs was probably his greatest coup, and it led to one of the biggest days ever at the Arlington Heights track.

In 1973, Thayer, an Illinois thoroughbred racing legend and longtime resident of Rolling Meadows, was serving as the track's general manager under the staff of Arlington Park President Jack Loome.

Shortly after Secretariat's nation-grabbing Triple Crown success, Thayer ventured to Belmont Park, where trainer Lucien Lauren had the 3-year-old superstar stabled. When he got to the backstretch, Thayer spotted the French Canadian trainer talking to a few people.

"I hid behind a tree because I saw him talking to representatives from Monmouth and Hollywood Park," said Thayer, who grew up in Nebraska's Boys Town. "Monmouth was there to offer $200,000 and Hollywood $250,000."

"Compared to them, I was there with a ham sandwich $100,000."

After the two competitors left, Lauren walked over to Thayer.

"Lucien told me, 'I know why you are here'," Thayer said.

Thayer explained to him that he stood behind the tree because he was embarrassed.

"I have only $100,000 to offer, and I know darn well they had more money than me," he told Lauren.

Lauren and Thayer then went to talk and grab a cup of coffee in the track kitchen.

"I said, 'Lucien, all I have to offer is $100,000 and I don't have the authority to increase that'," Thayer said.

"He then said, 'Well, you are a good friend and Penny always asks about you. Let's give her a call'."

Lauren called Chenery and told her that a very dear friend of hers wanted to talk with her.

He then handed Thayer the phone.

"Penny, I need your help real bad," Thayer said. "We've just been through the Otto Kerner trial and our business has hit rock bottom."

(Kerner, a federal judge and former Illinois governor, was convicted of 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and other charges in connection with Arlington Park and Washington Park manager Marge Everett offering stock in exchange for key racing dates and two expressway exits for Arlington Park.)

After Thayer told Chenery he had only $100,000 for Secretariat to make the trip, Chenery said they would come for $125,000.

Thayer, admitting he probably would get chewed out by Jack Loome, agreed.

So excited that Chenery agreed to send Secretariat to Arlington Park, Thayer dropped the phone.

On his plane trip back to Arlington Heights, Thayer kept wondering how he would tell Loome the deal was settled for $25,000 more.

"I said to myself, well, all he could do was fire me," Thayer said.

It turned out Thayer had nothing to worry about.

A few days later at the Evans House Restaurant in Arlington Heights, Thayer met Loome and told him he had made a deal with Secretariat's owner that the horse would come and race for a purse of $125,000.

Loome said to Thayer, "Great going, old buddy,"

But Thayer's work was far from complete.

Now he had to find some talent to run against a horse that had dominated all his rivals in the Triple Crown.

"That was the biggest challenge," Thayer said.

He was able to find three takers My Gallant, Our Native and Blue Chip Dan and the race was on for June 30, 1973, just three weeks after the first superhorse of the television generation won the Triple Crown with a victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 9.

The rest is history.

With so much money bet on Secretariat, the race wound up with a minus pool ($17,000) for the track. Every $2 bet on Secretariat returned a tidy $2.10 that day. It didn't matter, though, because Secretariat would race only six times after winning the Triple Crown, and Arlington Park had him for the very first stop in his North American farewell tour before being sold to syndication and retiring to stud.

"The event still raised our attendance and handle 13 percent for the rest of the meet," Thayer said.

Thayer called it one of the greatest days in Arlington Park history and it went off without a hitch before a huge crowd.

"They announced 41,000 (actually 41,233) but they did not include all the people in the infield, so it was probably closer to 43,000," Thayer said. "We had plenty of security, both at the barn and at the track as Secretariat made his way to the race."

Secretariat wowed the crowd with an easy 9-length victory in the 1-mile race, registering his fastest time to date at that distance. The time of 1:47 flat was one-fifth of a second off the track record, even with jockey Ron Turcotte holding back the big red horse at the start and not releasing him until the final eighth of a mile, according to Daily Racing Form accounts.

Thayer still remembers the ovation Secretariat received just like it was yesterday. The boisterous crowd thanked Chenery for bringing her prized thoroughbred to Arlington Park for them to witness.

"They were chanting 'Penny! Penny! Penny!'" he said. "That's all you could hear."

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