Late last week Trainer Pancho Martin, a shrewd Cuban who has engineered singular success for Owner Sigmund Sommer, was putting out a strong signal. The word was that Martin was willing to make a $5,000 horse-against-horse wager that Sommer's Santa Anita Derby winner, Sham, would beat 1972 Horse of the Year and current Kentucky Derby favorite, Secretariat, in New York's Wood Memorial, the last major eastern test for 3-year-olds hoping to earn a ticket to Churchill Downs for the big race on May 5. Had Pancho made his boast on Saturday afternoon before a largely pro-Secretariat assembly lunching in the trustees' room at Aqueduct, he would have found all the action he was looking for. However, it was made before an early morning crew of grooms and hot-walkers at Belmont Park, and the challenge was not accepted. Too bad, Pancho.
What happened was that Sham did beat Secretariat by a hefty four lengths in the Wood Memorial. But wait. First to finish in this mystifyingly run mile-and-an-eighth race, just a short head in front of Sham, was Secretariat's stable-mate, a colt named Angle Light, who had been easily dispatched by the champ in their two prior meetings. What also happened in the one minute, 49 and [4/5]th seconds that it took Angle Light to pull off his upset (he had never won a stakes race) was that the son of Quadrangle, who races in the white and green silks of Toronto's Edwin Whittaker, changed the entire complexion of the 99th Kentucky Derby.
Before the Wood Memorial the 1973 Run for the Roses was being conceded to Secretariat despite the fact that until last week he had never tried running beyond a mile and a sixteenth. He was the big, glamorous chestnut who could do it all on any kind of track. He could run on the pace or come from behind. He could circle his fields or bull his way through them. They gave him names like Sexy or Big Red II, for here was the second coming of Man o'War, another horse of the people like Native Dancer, Kelso and Carry Back. They considered him a shoo-in to become the first colt since Citation in 1948 to capture the Triple Crown.
Now, suddenly, all that has changed and there is going to be a Kentucky Derby after all instead of a one-horse walkover. It may not be necessary to start the race in rows, Indianapolis 500-style, but following Secretariat's defeat a lot of guys are going to be cranking up 3-year-old maidens from New England to Nevada and shipping them to Louisville.
In a way the 49th Wood Memorial was a series of vignettes that show why the sport of horse racing is a very special attraction for many different people. Stars of Secretariat's caliber draw large crowds to any track, and Aqueduct's attendance of 43,416 was the best of the New York season. Racegoers are fickle: they began by cheering Secretariat in the walking ring, then, after he had finished third, they boisterously booed him (or was it his jockey, Ron Turcotte?). Winning (and losing) Trainer Lucien Laurin was so nervous before the race that when he went to the saddling enclosure he stood by mistake in Sham's stall. When the challenger walked in, Laurin looked at him and exclaimed, "Who's this?" And after the race was over and Laurin's eyes remained focused on Secretariat, a fellow in the box behind the trainer leaned over, slapped him on the back and said, "Congratulations!" Laurin spun around and said, "Congratulations for what? Who won?"
"You did—with the wrong horse!"
Pancho Martin had intended to have two of Sham's stablemates, both owned by Sommer, accompany his big horse to the post. But when he was criticized for trying to knock off the favorite by using "rabbits" to insure what racetrackers call "an honest pace," Martin responded angrily by scratching both Knightly Dawn and Beautiful Music. "Sham will go out and beat Secretariat alone—with no help," he declared.
Did this make things a little sticky for Laurin, who was still running an entry, but for two different owners? "Not at all," said Lucien. "My instructions to the jockeys [Jacinto Vasquez was to ride Angle Light] will be to do their best and ride their own races. I would never consider telling Vasquez to set it up for Secretariat, sacrificing the horse of one owner for the horse of another. After all, Edwin Whittaker pays training bills, too, you know, and he is entitled to a fair shake."
The fair shake for Whittaker, an electrical company executive, came in the form of $68,940 out of the purse of $114,900 (Angle Light, who cost only $15,500 as a yearling, now has won $191,956 with four victories in 14 starts). Long after the numbers went up, people were asking themselves—not to mention Laurin and Turcotte—what happened.
It was quite simple. When the starting gate burst open to set loose the eight colts, seven of the jockeys took tight holds on their mounts while Vasquez and Angle Light, breaking from the extreme outside, roared to the front and had a clear lead of a length after the short run into the clubhouse turn. Jorge Velasquez, subbing for Laffit Pincay on Sham, put the son of Pretense right behind Angle Light (he was never more than a length and a half off the lead) while Turcotte kept Secretariat back in seventh position. The two leaders had the race to themselves the rest of the nine-furlong trip. But what surprised onlookers even more was the absurdly slow time in which the horses ran. Angle Light's fractions were 24[3/5] for the first quarter of a mile, 48[1/5] for the half, a pathetic 1:12[1/5] for the six furlongs and a mile in 1:36[4/5]. Two weeks earlier, in winning the Gotham Stakes, Secretariat had set his own fractions for three quarters in 1:08[3/5] and a winning mile in a dazzling 1:33[2/5].