June 9, 2022

Secretariat Wins the Triple Crown

Secretariat Wins the Triple Crown

June 9, 1973. Secretariat makes horse racing history by winning the Belmont Stakes by an unprecedented 31 lengths, capturing the highly coveted Triple Crown.


Cold Open

It’s October 4th, 1989, on a farm in rural Kentucky. 

On a bright, cold autumn morning, a horse groom named Bobby Anderson walks across the paddock toward the stables.

Bobby unlocks a gate and strolls through sun-dappled grass, swinging a bucket filled with oats.

When he reaches the barn, Bobby removes a key from his pocket, turns it in the lock, and pushes open the barn door.

But as soon as he enters, Bobby can tell something’s wrong. One of the horses is loudly whinnying – obviously in some distress. Bobby’s frown deepens when he realizes which stall the noise is coming from.

Bobby drops the bucket and races over to the stall. There, lying on his side, his sweat-soaked body heaving with unsteady breaths is Secretariat – the greatest racehorse in American history. 

Bobby crouches by Secretariat’s side. As he inspects the animal’s hooves, his heart sinks. Several weeks ago, Secretariat developed a painful and debilitating hoof condition, called laminitis. For a while, it looked as if the condition might be improving. But now Bobby can see that the disease has returned.

Secretariat makes a high-pitched, breathless sound as he looks at Bobby imploringly as if begging for help. Bobby pats the horse’s chestnut-colored coat. He knows that Secretariat’s condition is untreatable. The disease will continue to cause the horse unbearable pain until it kills him altogether. There’s only one thing to be done: Secretariat will have to be put down.

A few hours later, a veterinarian arrives and parks his van next to the stables.

Bobby leads Secretariat toward the van. The horse limps and stumbles, hardly able to cope with the pain. But eventually, the horse makes it inside the vehicle, where the veterinarian awaits with a syringe.

Bobby shuts the door, unable to watch as Secretariat is injected with a lethal dose of barbiturates. And forty-five seconds later, Secretariat draws his last breath. 

By the time of Secretariat’s death, the 19-year-old stallion had long since established his reputation as the greatest racehorse in sporting history. But at the beginning of the 1973 season, few people had heard of Secretariat, and even fewer expected him to accomplish American horseracing’s most prestigious feat: winning all three of the country’s biggest competitions in a single year, completing what is known as the Triple Crown.

But Secretariat would defy expectations.

At a time when the nation was overshadowed by the Watergate Scandal and the Vietnam War, Secretariat provided the American people with a hero to cheer for in dark times; a legend that was forged on the tracks and written into history when Secretariat completed the Triple Crown by a record-breaking 31 lengths on June 9th, 1973. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is June 9th, 1973: Secretariat Wins the Triple Crown.

Act One: Don’t Forget the Name

It’s August 1969 – four years before Secretariat wins the Triple Crown.

At a racing track in Saratoga, New York, a stately middle-aged woman leans on a gatepost, fanning herself with her sunhat. The woman checks her watch, begins tapping the gate with her long, varnished fingernails. She tuts disapprovingly, and thinks: “These racing types – spending all day staring at a stopwatch, and they can’t even keep an appointment!”

Penny Chenery is the owner of Meadow Stable – a horse breeding facility in Virginia. Meadow Stable used to be one of the nation’s top breeding farms. But it fell on hard times. When Penny inherited the farm, her father, Meadow Stable was close to bankruptcy. Penny’s elder brother and sister wanted to sell the farm – but Penny was adamant. It was her father’s dying wish for Meadow Stable to produce a winner at the Kentucky Derby, America’s most iconic horse race. But Meadow Stable hasn’t produced a winning horse in years. A combination of poor management and bad luck has left the farm in a sorry state. But today, Penny plans to turn that bad luck around.

She’s in Saratoga to meet with Ogden Phipps, the wealthy scion of one of America’s oldest racing dynasties. Before he died, Penny’s father struck a deal with Ogden. They would mate two of their best racehorses, then flip a coin to determine who gets first pick of the foals. Penny’s father became bedridden shortly after striking the deal. So Penny is here to finish what her father started. All she needs to do is win the coin toss.

Finally, Penny sees Ogden approaching – swaggering across the manicured lawn in his white linen suit. With Ogden is Bull Hancock, the famous horse trainer. Ogden greets Penny warmly, kissing her once on each cheek. And after exchanging brief pleasantries, they go over the terms of the deal. Soon, Bull Hancock produces a quarter, and Ogden lets Penny call it. She chooses heads. Then Bull flips the coin high into the air, where it seems to spin for an eternity, before landing on the flat of Bull’s palm. 

Bull smiles and says: “Congratulations, Ogden. It’s tails.”

Penny has lost the toss. Which means Ogden gets first pick of the offspring sired by the two stud horses. He chooses a strong, promising foal called The Bride, leaving Penny with the runt of the litter: a clumsy and gangly creature, with a chestnut-colored coat and a white marking along his face. She decides to name the foal Secretariat.

And despite the horse’s physical shortcomings, Penny quickly warms to Secretariat, who has a sweet and playful nature. But she doubts the young horse will ever amount to much of anything.

Back at Meadow Stable, Penny continues trying to save the farm from bankruptcy. She spends long nights poring over the balance books, cutting costs, and reallocating funds. Horse racing is still considered a man’s world, and Penny frequently has to overcome prejudice while conducting her business. But Penny is tough and determined, and the mother-of-four is no stranger to defying the odds. While studying business at Columbia University, Penny was one of only 20 women in a class of 800 men. If anyone understands the underdog mentality, it’s Penny.

Gradually, thanks to Penny’s business acumen, Meadow Stable starts making some money again. Penny replaces the farm’s long-term trainer. And then, in 1971, one of the farm’s horses, Riva Ridge, brings in over $500,000 in winnings. The following year, in May 1972, Riva Ridge fulfills Penny’s father’s dream by winning the Kentucky Derby, keeping Meadow Stable solvent for at least another year. But Penny knows one successful champion horse isn’t enough to secure Meadow Stable’s future. If she wants to survive long term, she will need more good luck to break her way.

A few weeks later, a sports journalist named Bill Nack pays a visit to Meadow Stable. Bill is researching a story on Riva Ridge, and the Kentucky Derby win. When he arrives at the farm, he is greeted by a trainer named Jimmy Gaffney. But instead of taking Bill to see Riva Ridge, Jimmy leads to report to a different stall, occupied by a chestnut-colored colt with a white marking down his face. Jimmy turns to Bill with a twinkle in his eye and says: “This horse will make everyone forget Riva Ridge. Don’t forget the name: Secretariat. He can run." And soon everyone will have the chance to see it.

Secretariat’s debut race is fast approaching. Before long, the once clumsy, gangly creature will have a chance to prove Jimmy’s prediction correct; and ensure the future fortunes of Meadow Stable.  

Act Two: The Derby & Preakness

It’s April 21st, 1973, two months before Secretariat wins the Triple Crown.  

On an unseasonably cold spring day in New York, at the Wood Memorial horserace in Queens, journalist Bill Nack watches the field from the press box. Bill looks through his binoculars as the jockeys get into position at the starting gate. Secretariat is hard to miss. He is big and strapping, with a distinctive white marking down his nose and a glossy chestnut coat that shines red in the afternoon light.

Since meeting Secretariat last summer, Bill has been closely following the two-year-old’s career. Secretariat won several dazzling victories last fall, thundering to victory by such wide margins that he was awarded American Horse of the Year in 72 – a rare achievement for a horse so young.

But despite Secretariat’s early success, he has yet to prove himself in any of America’s big three races: the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Bookies have already predicted that Secretariat will win the Triple Crown this year. But before he can attempt to become the first horse in 25 years to do so, Secretariat must run several races in preparation, like this one in New York today.

Bill watches intently as the starting bell rings and the horses explode out of the gates. But almost straight away, Bill can tell something’s wrong with Secretariat. The horse looks jittery and distracted, and can’t seem to break out of the pack. After failing to hit his stride, Secretariat ultimately finishes third. Disappointed spectators tear up their betting slips, grumbling about Secretariat being a busted flush. Bill is speechless. After all the anticipation, Secretariat couldn’t deliver when it mattered most. With the Kentucky Derby fast approaching, Bill is left with the impression that Secretariat has already burned out.

Two weeks later, on the day of the Kentucky Derby, Bill arrives at the racetrack early to pull aside Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte. Bill has been working on a magazine piece about Secretariat. He has invested weeks of emotional and intellectual energy on the horse and wants to make sure his effort hasn’t been a waste of time. Bill asks the jockey why Secretariat finished third in New York. Jockey Ron shrugs and replies: “Something went wrong. But he’s okay now, that’s all I can tell you... He’ll beat these horses if he runs his race.”  But Bill isn’t convinced. He shakes Ron’s hand and wishes him luck.

A few hours later, the race begins. Secretariat is again slow out of the gates, and after the first straight, he’s dead last. Bill feels sick with disappointment. But then he sees the blue and white of Ron’s silks advancing gradually up the outside of the pack. Secretariat is stretching his legs now, moving steadily from eighth… to seventh… and into sixth. A horse named Sham is leading by a length, but Secretariat is gaining fast.

As he watches the race unfold, Bill begins muttering quiet encouragements, his binoculars glued to his face, and his heart pounding. As the horses enter the final stretch, Secretariat pulls into third. Bill can hear the words of the commentator drifting from the box.

Secretariat has won by two-and-a-half lengths, registering a time of 1 minute and 59.4 seconds – a Kentucky Derby record. Bill is jubilant. He’s just witnessed the greatest Derby performance of all time.

Two weeks later, Bill heads to Baltimore to watch the second race of the Triple Crown series – the Preakness Stakes. Again, Secretariat is slow out of the gates, immediately falling to the back of the pack. But as he reaches the first turn, a switch seems to flip in Secretariat’s brain. Bill watches with amazement as Ron leans forward in the saddle, and Secretariat runs faster than Bill has ever seen a horse move. By the time he enters the final stretch, Secretariat is two lengths in front of his greatest rival Sham - the horse he beat at the Kentucky Derby.

Bill and the rest of the crowd are on their feet, cheering yet another remarkable ride. Secretariat wins the Preakness Stakes with a record-breaking time: 1 minute 53 seconds – beating the existing record by three-fifths of a second. 

Over the next few weeks, Secretariat becomes a national celebrity, appearing on the front covers of Timemagazine and Newsweek. People with no prior interest in horse racing suddenly become transfixed. In an article for Sports Illustrated, Bill Nack will write that “Secretariat transcended horse racing and became a cultural phenomenon, a sort of undeclared national holiday from the tortures of Watergate and the Vietnam War.”

But Secretariat’s greatest challenge is still yet to come. Even with victory at the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, there’s still one more race to be run to complete the Triple Crown. The Belmont Stakes is the longest and most difficult of the three tracks. But Secretariat will meet the moment, and defeat the competition to earn his place in history.

Act Three: Belmont

It’s June 9th,1973, the day of the Belmont Stakes.

A blazing hot sun beats down on Belmont Park, Long Island, where the final race in the Triple Crown series is about to begin. Sweat drips down the muscular flanks of the horses positioned behind gates, bucking their heads and pawing at the famous turf. In the stands, spectators watch with bated breath, while millions more tune in on television, anxious to see if Secretariat will make history. 

Among those in the crowd is Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner. Thanks to Secretariat’s winnings, Meadow Stable has returned to prosperity. But with a win today, Penny’s status in the racing world will soar to new heights, and the future of her farm will be secure.

Meanwhile, in the press box, Bill Nack studies the field through his binoculars. Bill has followed Secretariat’s career more closely than anyone – spending countless hours in the stable, watching the horse train, and following him around the country as he traveled from race to race. There would be no better way to conclude his article than by watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown.

Soon, a hush descends over the stands as the starter gives the signal. Moment later, the bell rings. As Secretariat explodes out of the gate, the arena erupts into a cauldron of cheers. The jockey, Ron Turcotte, nearly loses control of the horse as he powers through the furlongs. Secretariat is running as if riderless; reaching speeds never before seen or dreamed of. The excitement from the commentators rises from the box and amplifies over the heads of spectators as Secretariat reaches the final turn…

Secretariat wins the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths – an astonishing feat that has still not been matched today. Over the course of his magnificent career, Secretariat will win 16 out of his 21 races, earning over 1.3 million dollars in winnings, and capturing the hearts of a nation in the process. After his death in 1989, the vet who performs the autopsy will discover that Secretariat’s heart was twice as big as that of a normal horse. This biological aberration might explain his remarkable speed and endurance – qualities that helped Secretariat rewrite history and carve his name into legend, when he won the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown by 31 lengths, on June 9th, 1973.


Next onHistory Daily.June 10th, 1692. Accusations of witchcraft spark hysteria in a Massachusetts town, leading to the execution of Bridget Bishop – the first victim of the Salem Witch Trials.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily,hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.