Made for Hollywood: Secretariat and the 1973 Belmont Stakes

June 2nd, 2023

The 1973 Belmont Stakes has never been racing’s version of Woodstock, an event more people claimed to have attended than were actually there. No one would blame them if they did, though. After 50 years, it remains racing’s most iconic and culturally-defining moment.

Among the fortunate 67,000-plus paid attendees at Belmont Park for Secretariat’s epic triumph was longtime Lexington, Ky., resident Rab Hagin. Then in the midst of a long career in advertising and writing for various Thoroughbred publications, Hagin by that point had closely observed and witnessed Secretariat on several occasions.

After leaving an editorial position with Blood-Horse, Hagin spent the summer of 1972 walking hots for trainer Roger Laurin, who had fatefully given up his position working for Meadow Stable the previous year to become private trainer for the Phipps family. His recommended successor at Meadow, his father Lucien, fortuitously arrived just as multiple champion and dual classic winner Riva Ridge was beginning his career, with Secretariat on deck.

Rab Hagin (Photo courtesy of Rab Hagin for TwinSpires)

Secretariat and Rab Hagin

“The first time I ever saw Secretariat was at Saratoga, when he won an allowance,” Hagin said. “I was off that afternoon; I didn’t have any horses I needed to walk. I just went into the track and recognized the pedigree. Here was a half-brother to Sir Gaylord coming off of a six-length maiden win. I had to see this colt.

“What I saw looked like a four-year-old. I had never seen a two-year-old that muscular and with that kind of conformation. He had that dropped off, big muscular rear end and straight hocks. All those Bold Rulers had those straight hocks and short cannons; you never saw a sickle-hocked Bold Ruler. He had that appearance of being built downhill, like a lot of Quarter Horses. You see these pictures in western tack rooms of the ideal Quarter Horse. He was close to it.”

Hagin witnessed two of Secretariat’s three wins at Saratoga, the other being his stakes debut over the talented Linda’s Chief in the Sanford.

“What I noticed when he won his allowance race, he had a stride I’d never really seen before and haven’t seen since,” Hagin said. “He had a really unique stride of throwing himself into his lead leg and the lead leg coming out absolutely straight. He was clearly an efficient ground gainer, and he always had that.”

Watching a budding superstar was an additional perk for Hagin, on top of being around some of the best-bred horses in the country every morning. But there was underlying tension around the Phipps stable at the time.

Although graced by champion filly Numbered Account, the barn was not consistently producing as many top runners as it had during the latter half of the 1960s. Also, it was surely never lost on Ogden Phipps that he missed out on owning Secretariat himself as the result of a coin flip with Penny Tweedy a few years earlier.

“I felt sorry for Roger; he was under a lot of pressure. He was not happy,” Hagin said. “One of the problems was a lot of the horses were by Buckpasser and out of Bold Ruler mares. They were not sound. Later on, one time, I talked to Seth Hancock. I didn’t ask him about it specifically, but Seth mentioned the phenomenon of the negative nick: something you don’t want to do. It was a cross that just didn’t work.”

Another thing that didn’t work, in Hagin’s view, was racing Secretariat when his preparation was compromised and unsuitable to his individual needs. His losses in the Wood Memorial and Whitney, when he was battling illness, and the Woodward could all be blamed to a large extent on a lack of fitness.

“One of the things I noticed about him later is that he needed hard workouts. If he didn’t have those, he was a little bit off. He could throw in a clunker,” Hagin said. “Physically, he had a tendency to gain weight. He had to be worked hard and he could get out of shape really quickly.”

Unlike many observers who felt Secretariat’s ability to go long would be hobbled being a son of Bold Ruler, whose best two-year-olds until then had not stretched out, Hagin was instead skeptical from a physiological standpoint.

“One of the reservations I had about him getting a classic distance was that he had the conformation of a Quarter Horse. What’s amazing is he got better as the distances got longer,” Hagin said.

Concerns about Secretariat’s ability to get classic distances were dispelled in the Kentucky Derby, when he set a still-standing track and stakes record of 1:59 2/5 for 1 1/4 miles.

“In the Derby he ran what folks in track and field call negative splits; every quarter was faster than the previous quarter. You just don’t do that,” Hagin said. “In track and field that’s very unusual. If you run negative splits, say 800 meters, and you run your second 400 faster than your first 400, you’re one badass. For a horse to do that, with a rider on his back, even more so.”

Secretariat and Sham in the Kentucky Derby (Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Derby Museum/Churchill Downs)

After another stunning, track-record performance in the Preakness, Secretariat was the darling of America, making the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the same week. By then working at the New Jersey headquarters of Daily Racing Form after a brief stint as turf reporter for The Lexington Herald, Hagin was among the throng that congregated at Belmont to witness history.

“There was a lot of anticipation,” Hagin said. “Granted, he was good, but he was also really pretty, which is a big deal in the media. He was this flashy chestnut with all this white on him. I remember my date saying, ‘Good grief, I didn’t know he was that gorgeous!’ He was made for Hollywood.

“It started off like it was going to be a heck of a race with Sham. They went head-and-head at each other right away. Then Sham bled,” Hagin said matter-of-factly. “He didn’t quit. He bled.”

With his only serious challenger in rapid retreat, Secretariat waltzed to a 31-length victory, stopping the timer in 2:24 for 1 1/2 miles.

“Sham set up that fantastic time going that fast early on. It was almost like Secretariat had an unintended rabbit. I was blown away,” Hagin said.

“I had wondered if Gallant Man’s time for the Belmont (2:26 3/5 in 1957) would ever be broken, but he just shattered it. I tried to explain to my date that you just don’t see records broken like this. That was a lot of fun.”

Later the publisher of the Thoroughbred Record before serving a second stint at Daily Racing Form among other pursuits, Hagin followed the rest of Secretariat’s racing career via television. He was especially enthralled with his last two wins in the Man o’ War and Canadian International, both against older horses on grass.

“His ideal would have been going a mile and a half on turf,” Hagin said. “It’s a shame he didn’t go over to Europe and run in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe and the King George and all those races. On those big sweeping European courses, he would have been devastating. That would have gotten peak racing interest on an international level.”

Secretariat’s stud career has at times been viewed as underwhelming, though the expectations of reproducing himself were always unrealistic. His most successful offspring, Horse of the Year Lady’s Secret and dual classic winner Risen Star, came along near the end of his life. His legacy was vaster as the broodmare sire of influential stallions Storm Cat and A.P. Indy.

“In a lot of ways there’s a lot of what-might-have-beens if Secretariat had been handled a little more judiciously,” Hagin said. “If he’d been allowed to run as a four-year-old in Europe, and in his breeding career if he’d been bred to the right kind of mares right off the bat, he’d be more famous now than he is.”