For six months in 1973-from the afternoon of Secretariat's record-shattering triumph in the May 5 Kentucky Derby to that crisp November afternoon in Kentucky when the chestnut strode off the racetrack and into stud at Claiborne Farm, his trainer, Lucien Laurin, paced the colt's corner of the planet with a look of perpetual wonder on his elfin face.
Almost 30 years later I can still see Laurin on that early morning of March 14 at Belmont Park, when he hoisted jockey Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat for the colt's final three-eighths-of-a-mile workout leading up to his first race in that magical Triple Crown season. "Let him roll, Ronnie," Laurin said. A few minutes later there was Laurin, draped on the rail with stopwatch in hand, as Secretariat raced through the Belmont stretch, running as fast as a horse can run, making the back of Turcotte's jacket billow. Snapping the watch as the horse crossed the wire, Lucien cried, "Oh, my god! He went 33 and three fifths!" Horses rarely break 34 seconds going three eighths. Laurin looked ashen. Moments later he was telephoning the clocker, Jules Watson, in his aerie high above the track.
Laurin's mouth dropped open as Watson read him the message. "Thirty-two and three fifths?" Laurin repeated. A full second faster than his own clocking, it was one of the swiftest workouts ever recorded in New York.
For the Canadian-born Laurin, who died on June 26 at age 88, nothing could have seemed more unlikely in the summer of 1971 than that rush to glory. After all, Secretariat was an unknown yearling on a Virginia farm, and Laurin had just retired as a horse trainer. He had begun as a jockey but had been suspended for three years when he was caught carrying an illegal battery—a device used to shock horses into running faster—at Narragansett Park in 1938. Laurin claimed that he had been framed, saying someone had slipped the buzzer into his pocket, but he never recovered as a rider, and in 1942 he turned to training horses. By '71 he had prepared one champion, the brilliant filly Quill, and he had saddled the winner of the 1966 Belmont Stakes, Amberoid, but they were notable exceptions in a 30-year career during which he trained a long line of mostly forgettable horses.
At 58 he was looking forward to a long retirement when his son, Roger, also a trainer, made what turned out to be the most momentous decision of his and his father's lives. Roger was training for Penny Chenery's Meadow Stable in New York, with a promising 2-year-old, Riva Ridge, in his barn, when he accepted the job of training for the powerful Phipps family stable of horses. That left Chenery without a trainer, and when she asked the departing Roger whom she should hire, he said, "How about my dad?"
So she did, as her "temporary" trainer, just as racing's Jupiter was aligning with Mars. Lucien turned Riva Ridge into America's 1971 2-year-old champion. The next year Riva Ridge won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. Laurin could hardly fathom his good fortune. "Can you believe this?" he muttered more than once. He regarded himself as the luckiest trainer who ever lived. And that was before Secretariat raced as a 2-year-old. By year's end Laurin had managed Secretariat through a brilliant campaign that ended with his being voted America's 1972 Horse of the Year.
Secretariat's record-breaking charge through the 1973 Triple Crown season transformed the formerly retired horseman into the most famous trainer on earth. Through that five-week ordeal, Laurin fretted openly. "I wish this thing were over," he'd say. He beamed as Secretariat roared through the stretch in the Kentucky Derby, winning what remains the fastest Derby ever run, and fairly danced into the winner's circle at Pimlico two weeks later, when the red horse won the Preakness. The night before the Belmont, I called Laurin at his Long Island home to talk about what the horse might do. "I think he'll win by more than he's ever won by in his life," he said, his voice rising. "I think he'll win by 10!"
The colt won by 31 lengths, smoking through the 1� miles in 2:24 flat, still a record, and became only the ninth Triple Crown winner—the first in 25 years—as well as the horse of the century. No wonder Laurin walked around for weeks grinning like a Cheshire cat, pinching himself and muttering incredulously at his good fortune. The Belmont was his crowning moment, propelling him on the shortest, fastest journey ever taken to the Racing Hall of Fame.
Riva Ridge held the door. Secretariat carried Laurin inside. He belongs with them there.