Secretariat’s Preakness: ‘…And He Was Gone.’

May 15, 2023

In the winner’s circle at Pimlico with Penny Chennery (left), Lucien Laurin and Preakness champ Secretariat adorned with the Black-Eyed Susans with Ron Turcotte giving the fans a tip of his cap. (Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club)

Pincay Jr., Brumfield Remember Chasing the Triple Crown Legend

By Mike Kane

BALTIMORE, Md. – Even after Secretariat unleashed a jaw-dropping rush from last to the lead on the first turn of the 1973 Preakness, jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. figured he could win the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown with Sham.

Pincay was 26 on that third Saturday of May, in the midst of a fabulous career that carried him to the Hall of Fame just three years later. He was well aware of Secretariat’s brilliance. Two weeks earlier, Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte had stormed past Sham in the stretch at Churchill Downs to win the Kentucky Derby by 2 ½ lengths.

Fifty years following Secretariat’s epic stakes record-shattering sweep of the Triple Crown series, Pincay recalls being confident that Sham could upset the Meadow Stable star at Pimlico. Secretariat and Sham were the standouts in the 13-horse Kentucky Derby and had moved on to Baltimore. Our Native, third under jockey Don Brumfield, eight lengths behind Sham, was entered, too, a few days before the race. The Derby veterans comprised half of the Preakness field.

Since Secretariat had emphatically answered questions about whether a son of Bold Ruler could handle the 1 ¼ miles distance of the Derby, Pincay plotted a different strategy in the 1 3/16th miles Preakness. Rather than aggressively press the pace as he did in the Derby pursuing speedy Shecky Greene, Pincay planned a more tactical ride to have Sham better rested for Secretariat’s expected run coming off the second turn.  

“I thought probably that less distance would benefit my horse,” Pincay said. “That is what I went into the race thinking, that a shorter distance would be better.”

Pincay paused for a split second for emphasis. “Well, you saw what happened,” he said.

“Going to the first turn, I was just going to try to lay second or third and save as much as I could for the stretch,” Pincay said. “Secretariat moved prematurely in the first turn, really fast. When I saw that, I liked it even more, because you don’t see horses do that. You don’t see horses make a move like that in the first turn and last.

A pensive Ron Turcotte and a very perky Secretariat in the post parade before the 1973 Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course. (Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club)

“So, I just said, ‘well, I’m just gonna lay close to him and at the head of the stretch I’ll get him.’ At the head of the stretch, when I asked my horse, he responded. I could feel he was trying, but he just couldn’t get to Secretariat. That’s the type of horse he was, that he could do something like that in the first turn and still have enough to win the race. That was fantastic race for him.”

Brumfield, whose fine 35-year career earned him a place in the racing’s Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. in 1996, has a vivid memory of how the Preakness unfolded.

“I remember going up there and going to the first turn I was laying right alongside Secretariat,” Brumfield, 84, said. “And Ronnie just moved his hands on him and he was gone. And that was the end of that. As far as catching him or anything, I didn’t have any idea of doing that. I would have liked to, but he was just too much for everybody in the race.”

Our Native was bred by Dr. Edwin Thomas, who was a co-owner with Elizabeth Pritchard and trainer Bill Resseguet Jr.  A closer, he did make his rally in the final few furlongs of the Preakness to secure third place. Remarkably, just like the Derby, the first three to the wire in the Preakness were Secretariat, Sham and Our Native, separated by the identical 2 ½ and eight lengths.

Pincay had reason to be optimistic about Sham’s chances in Maryland. While the bay colt did not have the star power Secretariat earned as Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, he had a very strong pedigree and a terrific race record. Like Secretariat, Sham’s roots were at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. Secretariat, a son of Claiborne’s renowned stallion Bold Ruler, was born in Virginia at the Chenery family’s Meadow Stable farm. Sham was a member of the first crop of the Claiborne stallion Pretense. The dams of both colts were sired by Claiborne’s important late stallion Princequillo. 

Sham started his career with trainer Woody Stephens in the colors of Claiborne Farm, but he was sold at Belmont Park in November 1972 at the dispersal of the racing stock following the death of Claiborne owner Arthur “Bull” Hancock. New York real estate developer Sigmund Sommer, the nation’s leading owner in 1971 and 1972, purchased Sham, still a maiden with a third and two seconds, for $200,000 and turned him over to top trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin. The native of Cuba put blinkers on Sham and he promptly won by six lengths. Martin shifted the colt to California and on Jan. 1 in his first race under Pincay he won an allowance race by 15 lengths.

On March 31, Sham handled the favorite Linda’s Chief by 2 ½ lengths in the Santa Anita Derby, equaling the nine-furlong stakes record of 1:47 set by 1965 Kentucky Derby winner Lucky Debonair. In an unorthodox move, Martin brought him back to New York for the Wood Memorial, where he was second by a head to Angle Light and four lengths in front of Angle Light’s famous stablemate Secretariat. Pincay did not ride in the Wood because he had business commitments in California but was back up on Sham at Churchill Downs. 

In the Derby, Pincay and Martin opted to try to take the race to Secretariat and challenge him to deliver in the stretch. Sham banged his head in the starting gate, losing two teeth. Despite that incident, he was never more than a few lengths behind Shecky Greene early. Pincay had Sham second by a length after six furlongs in :47 2/5 seconds. He and his colt had a half-length lead after a mile in 1:36 1/5, but Secretariat was looming.

Through the years, analysts have said that Sham couldn’t withstand Secretariat’s rally because Pincay had been too anxious to tackle Shecky Greene. Pincay disagrees. 

“I tell you, I was going beside him, but I was going very easily,” he said. “My horse was doing it so easily, even though he was fighting there. I moved a little bit sooner because Shecky Greene with Larry Adams was trying to get out really bad. It didn’t show in the movie that he was fighting him, but I saw him and he was really, really trying to hold him on the rail. I said, ‘if he bolted, if he goes out, he’s going to take me with him.’ So, I kind of put pressure on him, to try to keep him inside.

“As soon as I kind of nudged my horse to go by him a little bit and keep him inside my horse just went on. He was doing it very easily, so I didn’t feel like he was taking a lot from him. At the head of the stretch, when I asked him, he just responded again. He was really reaching out.”

In front with less than a quarter mile to go and feeling his colt running well under him, Pincay had reason to believe he was on his way to his first win in the Derby. The situation changed quickly.

“It surprised me when I saw Secretariat right beside me and he started going by me,”
 Pincay said. “I just couldn’t believe it. As hard as my horse was trying, he was still going by me very easily.”

Secretariat and Turcotte went on and reached the wire in a spectacular 1:59 2/5, eclipsing Northern Dancer’s record 2:00 set in 1964. Sham was next at 1:59 4/5 

“You saw the time. These two horses both broke the track record,” Pincay said. “Only Secretariat was better.”

Though he was a loser at Churchill Downs, Pincay felt Sham had shown he had the ability to reverse the outcome if they met again. 

“That’s why going to Baltimore, I thought that if I could save a little bit for in the stretch, I could beat him,” Pincay said.

The public was eager for the third meeting of Secretariat and Sham, and the Preakness drew a record crowd of 61,657, a 26.5-percent increase over the record set the previous year. Secretariat drew Post 3 and was the 1-5 favorite. Sham started on the rail as the second choice at 3-1. Secretariat got away last, but Turcotte said that he sensed the pace was slow and let the chestnut run. The dynamic of the race changed in about a quarter of a mile. Instead of Secretariat pursuing Sham, as Pincay had hoped, Sham was doing the chasing. 

“Once he made that move, I wanted to kind of just stay close to him,” Pincay said. “I let my horse run a little bit and he responded and I got right where I wanted to. The race was shaping up the way I thought it would. I placed my horse in a beautiful position that if I had enough, and he would’ve been a better horse, he would have gone by.”

Sham did make up a little ground between the quarter pole and the three-sixteenths pole, but Secretariat extended his advantage without any urging from Turcotte. There was a malfunction of the teletimer and his winning time was initially listed as 1:55, a second off the track record. Two days later, the stewards changed the time to 1:54 2/5, which the track clocker had on his stopwatch. Two other independent clockers, including the Daily Racing Form clocker Frenchy Schwartz, had the time as 1:53 2/5. The debate continued for decades until the state racing commission reviewed the video of the race in 2012 and made the winning time 1:53.

Pincay and Sham went on to the Belmont Stakes and once again tried to take the race to Secretariat, who had no problem with his rival. Secretariat won by a record 31 lengths in a time of 2:24 that is still the benchmark at Belmont Park. Prominent early, Sham ended up last in the Belmont, which was his 13th and final race. He was injured in training and retired with a record of 5-5-1.    

Ron Turcotte’ comments on Facebook during a discussion of Secretariat’s Preakness run, March 2019.

“Sham could have been the best horse I ever rode, if he would’ve won more races,” Pincay said. “If we would have been traveling around the country and winning here and winning there I probably would’ve called him the best horse that I ever rode. But I couldn’t call him that because I rode Affirmed, and Affirmed could do anything. Affirmed won in Hollywood Park, in Santa Anita, in New York.  Every place. And carrying a lot of weight so he was very, very consistent. But when it comes to speed, and, I’ve said this before, if Affirmed had run in the Kentucky Derby that year he would have finished third. Definitely. That’s how much I thought of Sham.”

Brumfield agrees with Pincay that Secretariat is the unquestioned standout of the horses he has competed against and seen in his lifetime. 

“None better,” Brumfield said.  “He was the best.” 

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