The Maryland Racing Commission made history by changing history Tuesday when it unanimously voted to change Secretariat’s official winning time for the 1973 Preakness from 1:54 2/5 to 1:53 flat, setting a record for the race that still stands.
In so doing, the Commission righted a wrong that stood for 39 years, depriving the greatest Thoroughbred in history of his last, final, rightful record: the only Triple Crown winner to set a record for each jewel of the crown, records which each stand today.
The Commission also cemented the reputation of Secretariat’s great rival Sham, the subject of an earlier column, as the greatest second- place finisher of all time. The new official time, adjusted for the fact that Secretariat beat Sham by 2 1/2 lengths, shows that Sham actually clocked the time formerly widely attributed to Secretariat — 1:53 2/5, a time which was recognized as a record for the Preakness at the time, and which has been equaled only three times since. Once again, had Sham not had the bad luck to have been born the same year as Secretariat, he would have won the race at a pace that would have set a track record at the time, and which has been equaled only three times since, and bested only by Secretariat himself.
The fact that each record still stands makes the memory of Secretariat, and of his great duel with Sham, that much more special, as if we have just received validation that the hero of your youth really was the greatest of all time, and his great rival the second greatest of all time: those memories are now official, not just youthful fancy.
Fans of Big Red have lobbied for this for years, and everyone I know has believed Secretariat actually set the record as long ago as 1973, when various TV shows duplicated — no doubt more crudely — what the Maryland Racing Commission did, which is to say they watched the original video recording of the race and timed it.
The official time for the race was 1:54 2/5, based on the result of a hand timer. Pimlico’s automatic timing system was down for the race, and it has been widely believed since the announcement of that official time that it was badly off. Among those thinking this were two separate hand clockers for the Racing Form, each of whom turned in a time of 1:53 2/5, a full second faster. This unofficial reported time was the Grassy Knoll of Preakness-watchers, the bit of clandestine evidence that made it certain (to us anyway) that Secretariat had set a record, but that an evil government bureaucracy (okay, the Maryland Racing Commission) conspired to cover it up. We pondered the numbers in our look at Sham:
“Once again, if the Form’s clockers (whose times I’d take over Pimlico’s any day) are right, not only was Secretariat cheated out of the record for the Preakness, but once again, that 2 ½ length margin of victory would add a half second to Sham’s time, putting him once again either with the second fastest time in history (at that point), or within hundredths of a second of it, again, in no record books. Since then, Tank’s Prospect (1985), Louis Quatorze (1996), and Curlin (2007) have run times officially clocked at 1:53 2⁄5, which would equal the record attributed to Secretariat, and therefore have bested Sham.”
Now that is no longer true: The adjustment of Secretariat’s time down to 1:53 flat also knocks 2/5 of a second off my proposed time for Sham, bringing it down to 1:53 2/5, exactly the time formerly reported — and widely believed — for Secretariat. This makes Sham’s second place finish in 1973 a tie with the three next best winning times, bested only by Secretariat himself.
This performance in the Preakness came, of course, after Sham was beaten by Secretariat by the same margin, 2 1/2 lengths, in the Derby. In that race, Secretariat posted a time of 1:59 2/5, which means that Sham tied Northern Dancer’s then-record of two minutes flat, and was within thousandths of a second of Monarchos’ 1:59.97, measured in 2001 with a digital timer, which is functionally the same as the two minutes flat of Northern Dancer. In short, Sham was arguably the second fastest horse in Kentucky Derby history.
Speaking of Secretariat and Northern Dancer in the same breath is not out of line, because each is a descendant of Nearco, the greatest stallion most people have never heard of: Secretariat was sired by Bold Ruler, son of Nasrullah, son of Nearco. Northern Dancer was sired by Nearctic, son of Nearco. The Commission’s ruling means that Nearcos may now be recognized as having produced the greatest runner of all time in Secretariat, as well as the greatest sire of all time, in Northern Dancer. Even before knowing any of that, the British knew Nearco was important enough to provide him his own bomb shelter during World War II.
Sham and Secretariat were cousins, too, through the dam side. Each was out of a Princequillo mare. For followers of the “x-theory” of breeding, that is, breeding to produce a larger heart, Princequillo was the foundation stallion of choice, and for years one heard the advice to try to breed to a Princequillo mare for stamina and speed.
Autopsies on both Sham and Secretariat were performed by the same pathologist, who has estimated that Sham’s heart size was roughly twice that of a normal Thoroughbred, and that Secretariat’s heart was even larger than that, perhaps two and a half times the average. So, for them, the x-theory came true.
Had Sham not had the bad luck to be born in the same year as his cousin, Secretariat, he could have taken that big heart and won at least the first two jewels in the Triple Crown: not only would he be listed in the record books as having posted a Kentucky Derby time equal to the then-record Northern Dancer’s 2 minutes flat, but, given the Commission’s announcement, a time in the Preakness which would have been a record at the time, and which has been equaled only three times since 1973. In short, he would be counted among the great runners of all time. But because he had that particular form of bad luck, we know him now, if at all, as only the greatest second place finisher in history.
So, as we applaud Secretariat one more time — and no one applauds him more loudly than I do — let us also give a small round of applause to Sham, the runner who, it is now official, was outrun in the Derby and the Preakness only by Secretariat, not only in 1973, but in history.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.