Jim O'Donnell: A moment for forever — 50 years since Secretariat raced at Arlington Park

IMAGINE TAYLOR SWIFT, DRAKE AND BEYONCE suddenly combining summer tours for a one-off at a Chicago-area sports venue in two weeks.

That pop cultural energy might equal what went on the day Secretariat came to Arlington Park.

The date was Saturday, June 30, 1973 — 50 years ago Friday.

In an America increasingly wary as the Watergate scandal gathered heat, the 3-year-old chestnut blazed across the collective sports consciousness as a hero who couldn't squawk, squeal or be subpoenaed.

Only three weeks before, the immaculately conceived colt raced into the ages with his mythic 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes.

The win made Secretariat the first thoroughbred to win a Triple Crown since Citation in 1948.

He was also suddenly “box office” — bigger than Paul Newman or Helen Reddy or “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.”

After transcendent runs through the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat also seemed due for a rest.

Instead, forces of fate, money and equine providence converged.

And the most charismatic thoroughbred champ of the TV age came to Arlington Park.


RON TURCOTTE — THE JOCKEY WHO guided Secretariat to all of his great triumphs — had a surprise waiting when his “turboprop jet” landed in Chicago on the morning of The Arlington Invitational.

“Among the people meeting me was (an Illinois) state trooper,” Turcotte — now 81 — told The Daily Herald from his New Brunswick, Canada farm on Thursday.

“He told me he'd be driving me to the track and staying by my side all day. I asked why. He said someone had called and said they were going to shoot Secretariat that afternoon. I shrugged. Times weren't as nutty back then.”

Maybe times weren't. But the fact that the grand “Big Red” was racing at AP was improbable enough.


THERE ARE MULTIPLE TELLINGS of how the marquee race came together.

The most enduring came from the late Bill Thayer — long an Arlington executive. He insisted that track president Jack Loome and AP owner Madison Square Garden Corp. sent him to Belmont to convince owner Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin to come to Chicago for a $100,000 match race.

The foe was to be Linda's Chief. The fast, bicoastal colt won big races but had been held out of the 1973 Triple Crown sequence.

One week after Secretariat's huge Belmont score, Linda's Chief rolled to a rain-soaked win in the Pontiac Grand Prix — then still a dirt route and more traditionally known as the Arlington Classic.

A 60-1 shot named Blue Chip Dan finished second.

Neil Hellman, the owner of Linda's Chief, quickly began chirping about wanting a match race with the vaunted Secretariat. That set the gray hairs on Laurin's weathered mane sparking.

He told a young Neil Milbert of the Chicago Tribune: “(Secretariat) wants a race. He's raising hell in his gallops and he almost threw Turcotte the other morning (while working five furlongs in :58 4/5ths). I'd planned on giving him a rest after the Belmont but he won't have it.”

Laurin continued: “I don't care who we run against in Chicago. What's wrong with a race against the clock? Hellman has a lot of money. Let him bet me horse against horse. I'm going to be at Arlington Park if I have to gallop Secretariat around the racetrack alone.”

MSG Corp. sweetened the pot to $125,000. Roone Arledge reportedly threw another $35,000 toward Tweedy and Co. as an “appearance fee” for the right to carry the race on ABC's “Wide World of Sports.”

The match was on.

As quickly as it was, Hellman backed out.

Loome and Arlington racing secretary Jack Meyers were left scrambling.

But not for long.


NO ONE AROUND CHICAGO TODAY had a better backstage view of all that was evolving than Mickey Goldfine.

He still trains on the Chicago-Kentucky circuit. But back then, he was making his bones in the stable of Lou Goldfine, his father and a prominent Arlington-based conditioner.

“Actually, that summer, for a number of reasons, we were stabled in New Jersey,” said Goldfine, now 70 and a resident of Palatine. “We had an excellent 3-year-old named My Gallant, who ran ninth in the Derby behind Secretariat and third in the Belmont.

“When the call went out for quality horses to run in the special race at Arlington, we were in. I arrived a few days before with three horses including My Gallant. We were the only other horse in the Invitational assigned to the same stable on the Arlington backstretch as Secretariat.

“He arrived Thursday afternoon. I had been given a sleeping room in the middle of the barn, maybe 70 feet from Secretariat. What immediately impressed me was his incredible appearance and his huge neck. The muscles in his neck made his head look like that of a midget.

“Eddie Sweat, his groom, and I quickly became friends. We were surrounded by Pinkerton guards 24 hours a day. But I got to pet Secretariat when I'd walk past. He just seemed very confident and loved to play.”

(Sweat later told Chris Schenkel and ABC: “He love to eat, play and run. He good to me. Mostly, he love to run.”)


MY GALLANT WAS SOON JOINED in the Arlington Invitational field by Our Native, third behind Secretariat and Sham in both the Derby and the Preakness.

Our Native was a very good 3-year-old in a very bad spring to be a 3-year-old chasing Secretariat. He was trained by the memorable Louisiana rogue Bill Resseguet.

Finally the field filled out at four when Chicago real estate wizard Phil Teinowitz successfully lobbied for he and trainer George “Juddy” Getz to get Blue Chip Dan in.

That sophomore was named for Danny Teinowitz, today a successful attorney and brother of energizing pedigree ace Billy Teinowitz and Chicago sports talk funnyman-turned-playwright Harry Teinowitz.

Said Danny, then age 9: “My dad wanted in, in the worst way. This was going to be a national spectacle.”

Added brother Billy, all of age 7 that magical summer: “And what got us in was that second-place finish at 60-1 in the Pontiac Grand Prix. That day was wet at Arlington. Everyone said we had no shot in the Invitational. If it had rained that day, I think we had a shot.”


INSTEAD, THE HISTORIC SATURDAY was gorgeous. Electricity filled the Arlington air as 41,223 elbowed in.

The infield was open to spectators, an extreme rarity at AP. There would be win betting only on the $125,000 Arlington Invitational.

The eyes of the North American sports world were focused on Euclid and Wilke.

Turcotte had no doubt about a victory. The idea of breaking the track record for 1 mile and an 1/8th — the 1:46 4/5ths of the great Damascus under Bill Shoemaker in the 1967 American Derby — seemed to be the prime horseshoe of contention.

“Secretariat was just going too good,” Turcotte said. “He could have beaten any horse on the planet that May and June. We were certainly aware of expectations about the track record.”

Legendary race caller Phil Georgeff was much more direct: “The race was designed to showcase Secretariat. Any of the other three jocks who had done anything to infringe upon that showcase would have been taken out by the railroad tracks and never heard from again. That was going to be the historic day Secretariat came, saw and conquered at Arlington Park.”

And it was.


DESPITE WEARING THE NO. 1 SADDLE CLOTH, “Big Red” started from the outside Post 4. That became a fortuitous move by AP management when there was some jostling inside at the break. Secretariat lunged to his right. But Turcotte quickly straightened him and made the lead in the first turn.

He and super horse never relinquished it.

My Gallant, under Craig Perret, gave chase throughout and finished second, holding off Our Native. Blue Chip Dan finished fourth. Tweedy and connections walked away with top money of $75,000.

The final time was 1:47 — 1/5th of a second off of the mark of Damascus.

Laurin said the troubled break cost Secretariat the track record. To this day, Turcotte disagrees: “We had to straighten early but then we galloped,” he said. “I kept him 20 feet or so off a deep rail throughout. I never looked at the infield timer, like I did in the stretch of the Belmont. If I had asked, he would have broke that record. Nobody told him he was running for that track record.”

Sitting in a reserved grandstand seat above the finish line, Rick Robertshaw of Hawthorn Woods thought he saw a new AP mark.

“I swear they posted 1:46 flat, which would have been a North American record, and then it blinked to 1:47,” the future middle-school math teacher and high school basketball coach said. “But it didn't matter. We all showed up to watch him win and he did, in one of the greatest days in the history of Arlington.”

“Paper Lion” George Plimpton, covering the race for Sports Illustrated, later told America: “He's tall, chestnut and handsome and sleeps in the nude.”


SECRETARIAT PAID $2.10, creating a minus pool. There was no inter-track or off-track betting in that era. Fifty years later, it's not hard to find uncashed mutuel tickets online.

Said Goldfine: “We knew we had been beaten again by an all-time great.”

After a month break, Secretariat lost two of his next three races.

Both came to New York-based runners trained by the brilliant Allen Jerkens. Those upsetters included: Onion in the Whitney at Saratoga and Prove Out in the Woodward at Belmont.

Secretariat's final two races served as the valedictories of an unforgettable champion. The last came in the Canadian International at Woodbine four months after his run in the sun at Arlington.

He had been syndicated for a record $6.08 million before his 3-year-old campaign. That jackpot came with the understanding he would be turned over to Claiborne Farm in Kentucky on November 10, 1973.

Secretariat began trial stud duties shortly after that date. He died of laminitis — a painful hoof malady — at age 19 on October 4, 1989.

The innocence of his championship spirit buoyed a nation.


WITH THE EXCEPTION OF TURCOTTE, all principals from the Arlington Invitational are deceased. The former rider has been a paraplegic since a catastrophic accident at Belmont in 1978.

He and wife Gaetane live about 20 minutes north of Maine in eastern Canada. They have four daughters and five grandchildren.

Thankfully, no one shot him or Secretariat at Arlington that long ago June afternoon.

For five decades, Turcotte has been answering a lot of the same questions about his greatest mount. His patience and recall are stellar.

“With the fiftieth anniversary this year, sure it's been a little more concentrated than normal,” Turcotte said. “But so what? It's a tribute to Mrs. Tweedy and Lucien and the horse that the memories live on. For two seasons, I was the most fortunate rider on earth.”

And for one glorious June afternoon, fans at Arlington Park weren't very far behind.

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Thursday. Reach him at All communications may be considered for publication.

Secretariat would race only six times after winning the Triple Crown, and Arlington Park had him for the very first stop on his North American farewell tour before he was sold to syndication and retired to stud. DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTO
Electricity filled the Arlington air as 41,223 elbowed in to see Secretariat race on June 30, 1973. The infield was open to spectators, an extreme rarity at AP. DAILY HERALD FILE PHOTO
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