BALTIMORE – And so the troubled sport of horse racing came on a warm and still May Saturday to crumbling old Pimlico Race Course, to have itself defined at the distant extremes of grief and euphoria by a pair of three-year-old bay colts, bought for a total of $700,000 by separate groups of people with very big dreams and even bigger means.
One horse named Havnameltdown, whose ankle snapped in flight, and who was put to death in the deep dirt on the far turn, behind an impotent black screen that shielded neither humans nor horses from the reality of the moment, while party music thundered in the background, and who was carted away in a big white wagon that’s always called a horse ambulance even though sometimes it’s a horse hearse. It was as bad as it gets.
And one named National Treasure, who more than five hours later went to the lead straight from the starting gate in the 148th running of the Preakness, the middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, a good horse who nevertheless had won just one of his five races, with a slender – even more slender than most – 51-year-old jockey named John Velazquez straddling his back, making magic with his soft hands in pursuit of victory in one of the few great American races he had not already won. Together, man and horse navigating the oval as if trying not to make any noise, doling out speed and effort only as it was needed until in the end there was just enough to hold off Blazing Sevens in a sensational stretch duel, part race and rodeo, and relegate Kentucky Derby winner Mage to third place, meaning that there will be no Triple Crown on the line in the June 10 Belmont Stakes. It was as good as it gets.
And. There was more. Impossibly more, because context is everything and on Saturday at Pimlico there was more context than beer.
Both Havnameltdown’s death, statistically barely significant, yet in the moment both powerfully meaningful, gutting and likely unforgettable for most who witnessed it; and National Treasure’s victory came 14 days after the Derby, in which Mage’s win came at the end of 10 days in which seven horses died at Churchill Downs, and a record five were scratched from the body of the race, the most in nearly a century. The sport was reeling.
And the kicker: Both Havnameltdown and National Treasure are – well, were and are – trained by Bob Baffert, the 70-year-old, white-haired, shades-wearing Californian who less than a decade ago was the face, voice, and substance of racing, the sport riding on his shoulders, with two Triple Crowns – American Pharoah in 2015, ending a 37-year-drought; and Justify in 2018. But who, with the disqualification of Medina Spirit, crossed the finish line first in the 2021 Derby but failed a post-race drug test (this is all still in litigation), as the most recent in a series of drug positives and questionable explanations (which he still stands by), became the face, instead, of a sport in deep trouble.
Which is why, 55 minutes before the starting gate opened for the Preakness, Baffert stood outdoors in fading sunlight, near National Treasure’s stall in the Preakness stakes barn, and said, “This… game… is… brutal.” And… complicated. (Keep reading). He watched the Preakness from Pimlico’s ancient indoor saddling paddock, where he had watched on a small, 1990’s vintage TV as the track washed away in a thunderstorm minutes before Pharoah’s victory; and where on the same little screen he struggled to find Justify running through the fog three years later. There is a bigger TV now, mounted high on a wall. But Baffert seemed somehow and almost purposefully smaller, his reputation (although not the power of his stable) diminished by the events of the last three years even as he fights to recapture it. (The long-delayed Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act – HISA – goes into effect Monday, just in the nick of time, or much too late. We’ll see.)
Baffert was flanked by two of the sons who were often with him on the Triple Crown runs: Bode, 18; and Forrest, 33. “My boys,” Baffert would say after the race (he has two other sons, and a daughter). His wife, Jill, was nearby. Much of the scene could have been clipped from ’15 or ’18, but that is misleading, because nothing is the same as in those years (not for Baffert, not for those who have chronicled his work, and not for the sport, writ large, all of whom are scarred). And the memory of Havnameltdown hung in the air.
It was five-and-a half-hours earlier, in the sixth race, when Havnameltdown, a 3-year-old bay colt making his first start in three months, and favored at 4-5 odds to win the Chick Lang Stakes, a six-furlong sprint, moved astride Ryvit exiting at the far turn leaving the three-eighths pole, as the crowd rose for the pitched battle soon to follow. Baffert had already won a race on the card, a dominant four-length victory by Arabian Lion in the fourth race. This looked to be another one. “He was rolling,” Baffert would say later. “Looked like he was going to win.” Abruptly, Havnameltdown bobbled once, and then twice, his head dipping awkwardly toward the earth – always an ominous sign – before pitching hideously forward, heaving jockey Luis Saez over his neck and onto the track, and then trying to do the thing for which he was given life: To run. But he did not run. He staggered. The crowd gasped as one, another sound that once heard, is never forgotten.
Two ambulances arrived, a small one for the jockey and a big one for the horse. As W.C. Heinz wrote 74 years ago in the too-often quoted and stubbornly relevant Death Of A Racehorse, “There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance.” Those two makeshift black curtains were held up by track workers, ostensibly – to create a barrier between the audience and the activity, which is that Havnameltdown was found to have a “non-operable left fore fetlock injury,” (in human terms, a severely broken ankle) and was euthanized. Saez was taken to the hospital reporting leg pain; Baffert said later that Saez is “okay.”
We are just devastated. This is a shock to everyone at our barn who love and care for these horses every day. Hanvameltdown was obviously hit pretty hard coming out of the gate. We don’t know if that contributed to the injury, but we will be fully transparent with those…
There was a time – not that long ago – when a breakdown might have played more like an inconvenience. That time has passed, and the world has grown more sensitive to racing’s central paradox: Horses do not choose to race, and sometimes die (although there has been improvement in the last decade, from more than two deaths per one thousand starts, to 1.25 last year; it will never be zero). Havnameltdown’s death threw a pall over the day. Baffert said, “It’s the most sickening feeling a trainer can have. And we grieve when it happens. You just hate to go back and see that empty stall. We will feel bad about it for a while.” Baffert’s grief is surely real. But the larger reality is that Baffert will have to earn back trust in areas of horse safety and welfare from a large part of the public. He (and his wife) will view that as unfair, and time may prove it so. But this is today’s reality.
After Medina Spirit’s Derby DQ (again, still in the courts, and Baffert could eventually win. The outcome might lie years in the future), Baffert was handed a laundry list of punishments, including a two-year ban from the Derby (which he has won six – or seven – times), and a ban last year from all three Triple Crown races. The Preakness was Baffert’s return to the sport’s biggest stage, and that narrative was no less central than Mage’s attempt to win the second leg of the Triple Crown. Poor Mage.
Just seven horses started the Preakness, the smallest field since 1986; Mage was the only Kentucky Derby starter to roll back in the Preakness, the first time that’s happened since Triple Crown winner Citation was the only Derby winner that started in the 1948 Preakness. None of this will be engraved on the trophy. Mage went off as the 8-5 favorite; National Treasure was 3-1.
Velazquez started National Treasure from the inside post, never a good spot, but less damning in such a small field. National Treasure had raced five times, but just once since January, a dull fourth-place finish in the April 8 Santa Anita Derby, a key Kentucky Derby prep. He seemed to be a respectable, but unspectacular colt. Johnny V, as he is known in the game, nudged National Treasure into the lead and several paths out from the rail, forcing others to pass wide or risk an inside move. Then he nursed the pace: 23.95 seconds for the first quarter, 48.92 for a half-mile, a crawling 1:13.49 for three quarters. “I knew there wasn’t a lot of speed,” said Velazquez. “So I pumped it to the outside and if those other horses wanted to go faster, I would let them go.”
None did, a miscalculation that left National Treasure in control of the race. Longshot Coffeewithchris ran with him early. Mage dawdled in fourth, not challenging. “No speed in the race, horses were going easy,” said Gustavo Delgado, Jr. assistant to his father, who trains Mage. “Those horses, you don’t beat them with that pace.”
It was Blazing Sevens who made the big run. Ridden by reigning Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr. and trained by two-time Preakness winner Chad Brown, Blazing Sevens hooked National Treasure in the stretch, and they bumped each other several times, rough riding; but could not pass. “The key was Johnny slowing the pace on the backstretch,” said Ortiz. “Just could not get past him.”
National Treasure dipped his head at the wire, stretching what looked like a nose to a very short, official head. In the dank, dark paddock, Baffert threw his head back and was embraced by his sons. Over against a wall, Jill Baffert wept. It was a nice moment, in a very small bottle, a slice of what had been and what makes the sport breathe. But it was just a moment, while Havnameltdown is just a memory. Much work lies ahead.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.
Secretariat at 50: How the Big Red Five have kept the story alive
They are the keepers of the legend, the tellers of the tale. Four men, one woman. One living, four gone. It has been 50 years since Secretariat won the Triple Crown (the first in 25 years at the time; prelude to a longer drought that would commence just five years later) and passed into a singular racing afterlife with his ethereal Belmont. The story stood tall in its own moment, deservedly and meaningfully; but it has since undergone that rarest of sports metastases: A moment already seen, forever becoming must-see. Big Red, long interred in rich Kentucky earth after a career less than 16 months in length, has grown bigger.
Because a woman stood strong.
Because a jockey sat just as strong.
Because a race caller went for broke.
Because a writer wrote.
Because a photographer shot.
Five of them, all born in the years from 1922 to 1941, two in the Midwest, two in New York, one in Canada. Together they have ferried the story across time. In the words that became a book, that became a documentary, that became a movie. In a photograph that silently transports its viewer. In a rhythmic voice that reached to describe perfection and nearly matched it. In a life that inspired women (and girls) generations younger and showed them a future that had been mostly just a concept. In the hands, the heart, the soul of a small man who sat hunched in irons with something otherworldly pumping blood beneath him.
On May 5 of 1973, Secretariat won the 99th Kentucky Derby, a 3-2 favorite despite having lost his final prep race, the Wood Memorial (almost certainly due to a mouth abscess discovered after the race). He rolled into the lead four wide on the far turn and pounded away to a 2 ½-length victory, his face covered – yet oddly accentuated — by a blue-and-white checkerboard blinker hood that would become his Kareem’s goggles — so ever-present that it reveals, not conceals. Two weeks later in the Preakness, he lagged from the gate at Pimlico and then circled the field in the first turn, an arrogant move – there is no other word – that presaged a dismissive victory, again by 2 ½ lengths, but more easily. He set stakes records in both the Derby and Preakness, and both stand today. Preposterous.
The Belmont. If you are reading this, you know about the Belmont. He went six furlongs in 1:09 4/5 and 1:59 for 10 (faster than his winning Derby time) and kept going, widening, sailing as if on holy rails. He won by 31 lengths in a time of 2:24, the best performance in history (although some will argue, just because, and you know, knock yourself out). Secretariat’s performance was transformative, even in a vacuum, more important still in a nation consumed by the Watergate scandal and the unhealed wounds of Vietnam, that saw in this remarkable horse a purity that offered, if not an antidote to nationwide angst and division – which would be a stretch — at the very least a powerful distraction.
(*Attendance at Belmont Park that day was a relatively modest 69,138, not among the Top 10 Belmonts; news reports in 1973 estimated the TV audience at just over 20 million viewers. For perspective, the Super Bowl in January of 1973 drew 53.2 million viewers; the ’73 World Series an average of 34 million viewers over seven games. Times change: The NFL and the Super Bowl have since exploded; baseball has contracted; The 2022 World Series averaged 11.8 million viewers. A more direct comparison: American Pharoah’s Triple Crown-winning Belmont on NBC in 2015 averaged 18.7 million viewers with a peak of 22 million… in a nation of 324 million vs. 207 million in 1973.)
As an event, it grew into an I remember where I was moment, unlike almost any in sports, writ large, beyond the Miracle on Ice, which came seven years later. Whether people actually remember is irrelevant; the race was resonant enough that they claim to remember. I’ll get this out of the way: I was at our family’s little cabin on a lake in Vermont, helping my father “open up” for the coming summer, the centerpiece of which was somebody (that would be me) shimmying through a muddy crawl space to twist open the house’s water valve, which was devilishly placed because Dad’s builder cut some corners. When the work was done, we watched the race on a small black-and-white TV (the broadcast was in color, our TV was not), and then we went home. I thought it was cool, but as for so many, its power has grown for me over time.
With eternal assistance from the Big Red Five:
Helen Bates Chenery was born into privilege in 1922, and because her mother was also Helen, she was nicknamed Penny, after the fairy tale Henny Penny (or more commonly, Chicken Little of Sky-Is-Falling renown). She at first despised – then later embraced — the nickname that would become so attached to her persona, and, let’s be honest, rolls off the tongue more lyrically than Helen. Her father, Christopher, had risen from common beginnings to hard-earned wealth and in 1936 started a horse farm in Virginia and called it Meadow Stable. Penny’s entry into eternal partnership with Big Red was birthed in 1968, two years before the horse, when she took over control of the farm known as The Meadow, which was struggling financially. Her mother had died the previous year and her father was in failing health; Penny’s two siblings wanted to unload the place, she chose to save it.
It’s an unlikely, yet accurate, piece of Secretariat mythology that Meadow won him in 1969 by losing the annual coin toss with fellow millionaire owner Ogden Phipps to divvy up the unborn foals produced through matings between Phipps’ stallion, Bold Ruler, and two Meadow mares. Once running, Secretariat left little to chance, and Penny – by then Penny Tweedy, by marriage – was the most prominent human face of the horse, ever more so as he kept winning. The coverage was of its time, drifting into sexist stereotypes even when it tried to credit Penny’s courage and business acumen. A piece in The New York Times just before the Belmont called her “Mrs. John B. Tweedy” on first reference and on second, “… slim, blond…” Later: A suggestion that racing was attempting to leverage “the attractive qualities of Mrs. Tweedy and her magnificent horse.”
Penny, by then twice-divorced, died at age 95 in 2017. Her daughter Kate Chenery Tweedy, was, and remains most involved in the Secretariat universe, and said her mother chafed against norms. Penny graduated from Smith, got an MBA at Columbia, and served in the Red Cross in World War II, all before her first marriage and having children. “She was very much her father’s daughter,” says Kate. “She loved horses, she loved business. But she came back from the war into this decade of conformity and was told to forget all that and just be content picking up dry cleaning. She was really angry, and the stable gave her wings.”
Yet in 1973 she was a role model without demanding to be portrayed as one. It was a time of change, of what was then called “Women’s Liberation,” and of Title IX’s beginnings. Penny’s audience heard. “So many women come up to me, women who were young girls in 1973, and say, ‘Your mother inspired me.’”
Penny was portrayed by Diane Lane in the 2010 movie, Secretariat. (To be fair, that portrayal straddled the line between lucky housewife and female powerhouse, seeking viewers that would embrace either angle. Hollywood.) “I made suggestions,” says Kate. “They ignored all of them.” To better understand Penny’s place in racing, co-producer Mark Ciardi went with Penny and Lane to a Belmont and with Penny to two Derbies. “It was nuts, like being with a queen,” says Ciardi, “You could just feel the respect and affection.” The movie, he says, did just fine at the box office. More pointedly, viewers watch it again and again, uncommonly so.
(Disclaimer: I had a small role in the movie and one spoken line, which I flubbed. I still receive quarterly checks that rise into the low single digits).
On an April afternoon, Ron Turcotte’s 81-year-old face snaps into focus on a Zoom screen. He is sitting at a desk in his native New Brunswick, Canada, where it’s still closer to winter than spring, wearing a neat dress shirt and sweater, with the same wavy hairline from photos half a century ago, just grayer and closer to the top of his scalp. There is memorabilia of some sort in the background. Turcotte looks younger than his birth certificate insists; he’s also sitting in a wheelchair that you can’t see, but you know is there, and that tells a more poignant story, even if it’s not the one he’s most often asked to repeat.
Turcotte – “Ronnie” back then, and still – was an established rider when he first took a leg up on Secretariat in the summer of 1972, among the best in the cutthroat New York jocks’ room. He had left school after the seventh grade and climbed up through the backstretch hierarchy – cleaning stalls, walking hots, exercising horses – before putting on silks. He rode the great Northern Dancer at age 22, won the Preakness and Kentucky Oaks at 23. He did not ride Secretariat for his first two of his 21 races, or the last (he was under suspension), at Woodbine in his native Canada. He rode the other 18. Five years and a month after Secretariat’s Belmont, Turcotte suffered a spinal cord injury in a spill – such an innocuous word – at the very same Belmont Park. He has been a paraplegic since.
Turcotte speaks the customary lines with ease, practiced over time — Billy Joel doing Piano Man. We talk and I am no better than the rest. I want to hear the hits, and so Ronnie plays them for me, sprinkling a pause here, a deep breath there, the hint of a tear. “He was a beautiful ride,” he says. “Whether it was morning or afternoon, galloping or breezing or racing, every ride was, like I say, beautiful. They won’t ever make another one like him.”
Then this: I ask Ronnie how often he thinks about Secretariat. “He pops up in my head sometimes,” he says. “But I don’t stop myself to think because then I really want to be going back to riding and there’s just something that’s impossible.” The words come from nowhere, a left turn from reverie into reality; they land like hammer on nail.
Ronnie nods and he’s quiet for seconds that pass like hours. “So…. “ Another deafening pause. “I don’t want to think about that too much.”
He should have been Mike Eruzione, famous once and then famous forever. Instead a horse put him in a wheelchair, a horse just like Secretariat only slower. The horse was Flag of Leyte Gulf, a workaday 4-year-old claimer; 10 jumps into the race on July 13, 1978 at Belmont, another horse drifted into the Flag, who clipped heels with a horse in front and pitched forward, throwing Turcotte over his head. Ronnie landed on his neck. That was that. He had been blessed and now he was cursed, at just 37 years old. Turcotte filed a lawsuit against multiple parties that was dismissed. “Inherent risk” was the bloodless judgment. Then Ronnie moved on.
Most of the gang are gone: Penny. Trainer Lucien Laurin, who put Ronnie on Big Red. Groom Eddie Sweat. Ronnie is left to tell the stories, and so he meets you halfway, giving you what you ask. This has been a busy spring, what with 50 and all. His publicist, Leonard Lusky (who also worked with Penny and both created and manages the website Secretariat.com), says Ronnie sometimes gets emotional, sometimes not. I last saw Ronnie in person at the 2014 Belmont, where racing waited to see if California Chrome could win the Triple Crown (he could not). Ronnie was sitting in his wheelchair near the finish line, talking for what seemed like hours. Life makes jockeys look up at the world, and here it had made Ronnie look up even further.
Last winter Ronnie sold Secretariat’s saddle — which he had kept all these years — in a private deal brokered by Lusky with Indianapolis Colts’ owner Jim Irsay, an avid collector (although the saddle is Irsay’s first horse racing-related item). The saddle’s selling price was $2 million, which will provide a nice nest egg for Turcotte’s four daughters; Ronnie has always said he would do that, “when the time is right.” Last fall Lusky told him, “It’s time.” Ronnie will gradually sell most of his stuff, and it is remarkable that he waited so long.
Now on the Zoom screen Turcotte is young again. The losses hurt him: In the Wood with that abscess. In the Whitney at Saratoga, when he had a virus and lost to Onion. “I begged Lucien not to run him,” says Ronnie. “That’s the only time I ever cried when a horse lost.” He’s been asked so many times what the Belmont felt like, to describe the indescribable. “ I felt right at home,” he says. “Just, you know, right at home.” Ronnie nods once, twice, three times.
To every moment in sports, and life, there is a soundtrack. To birth, a baby’s wail. To first love, a song. To the Miracle On Ice: U-S-A! U-S-A! To Secretariat’s seminal Belmont, there was the voice of race announcer Charles (Chic) Anderson, who witnessed a sublime performance – one that he could not have anticipated – and met it with a performance of his own. Turcotte was riding Big Red, but Anderson, perched, above the track, calling the race for CBS (Dave Johnson called the race on track), was tethered to both of them in spirit, his voice rising and falling, chasing history, unaware that his words would outlive him by decades.
…Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine …
Five years ago, with Justify on the cusp of racing’s second Triple Crown in four years, I wrote a story for Sports Illustrated about Anderson’s remarkable race call. You can read that story here. It’s a waste of keystrokes to plagiarize myself here at length, but there is value in giving Anderson his due in the context of this story. His contribution to elevating the Secretariat story is unique: A voice in real time, preserved, and in a culture that often revisits history only to highlight its flaws, it withstands scrutiny. While others reacted, and beautifully, and over time, Anderson’s job was different. Like Ronnie and Red, he had one chance and no net.
Anderson was a Hoosier (born in Evansville, with a degree from Indiana University), a racetracker, and a raconteur. A big man with big appetites, who took care of others better than he took care of himself and died of a heart attack in 1979 at age 47, just six years after calling Secretariat’s Belmont.
He moved from track to track, from tiny Ellis Park in southern Indiana to a seat at CBS, where he not only called the biggest races, but did pre- and post-race interviews. Former NBC announcer Tom Hammond was among Anderson’s closest friends. “He was a pretty nomadic guy,” said Hammond in 2018. “Always away. I met his wife, but Chic had five children, and to be honest, I never met any of them.” Nevertheless, after my story was published, two of his daughters reached out to thank me, and to say how much they loved their father. Life is complicated.
On the ninth day of June in ’73, he scored history, and we listen still, enthralled.
On wonderfully serendipitous occasions, a brilliant writer and a transcendent story intersect in time and there is literary wonder made for the rest of us. In the last week of June in 1972, Bill Nack, a 31-year-old reporter who had just been moved to the sports department and the horse racing beat (yes, there was such a thing) at Long Island-based Newsday, was introduced at Meadow Stable’s Aqueduct barn to a beefy two-year-old chestnut, a son of Bold Ruler named Secretariat. A week later Nack watched him lose his first race bravely after a terrible trip, and 10 days later, read about him breaking his maiden by six lengths, “handily,” according to the chart of the race. The next winter, Big Red was moved to New York for his Derby prep and Nack climbed aboard the train. Hell, he was the conductor.
Over the ensuing four decades, Nack would embark on a transcendent career in sports journalism, first at Newsday and then at Sports Illustrated. When he died of cancer in 2018, too many obituaries called him a “turf writer,” which he was, but so much more. Pull up his stories on Sonny Liston, Rocky Marciano, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and Rick Pitino, just to name four among many. You’ll see. Nobody better. But it was in those first six months of 1973, that Nack fell in love with a horse (not for the first time) and began building a body of work that would define him… and his subject. “He was so close to Secretariat that their hearts beat together,” says Carolyne Starek, Nack’s widow (they were married in 2004, the second for both, and together until Bill’s death, and to be honest, together still).
*Another disclaimer: Bill Nack was a friend and colleague of mine. I was first near him in 1985, watching him write a Travers gamer and then recite the last page of The Great Gatsby on a moonlit deck in Saratoga Springs; and last near him at a thoroughbred racing symposium in Tucson in December of 2016. We ate dinner one night in Tucson with friends like former jockeys Richard Migliore and Art Sherman, who later trained Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome. Art once rode the great Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby; Bill grew up in the Chicago suburbs and we all sat transfixed as Bill told Art about going one morning to Arlington Park, and coaxing Swaps to the rail, where he licked the back of Bill’s right hand. To read Nack was a joy, to know him was a gift.
He wrote a book called Big Red of Meadow Stable, published in 1975 and re-released in 2002 as Secretariat: The Making Of A Champion. It formed the basis of the movie version, from a script adapted by Mike Rich. (Bill just beamed on the night of the premiere in Hollywood; I was there, too, and rarely saw a man so proud). The book is square one for any Big Red researcher. But Nack’s magnum opus on Secretariat was his June, 1990 story in SI titled Pure Heart. (The title was conceived by longtime SI editor Peter Carry, and it is perfect). Nack commenced the piece after Secretariat’s death in the previous October. When I first read Pure Heart, I consumed it as the tale of a great horse and his Boswell; three decades later, I understand that it is more correctly the story of a man growing older (Bill was 49 when Secretariat was euthanized with laminitis) and recalling the most thrilling time in his life, a time long lost, and now only remembered. Nack understood that all sports memories land like this, as time passes through the fingers, as nostalgia.
Early in the piece, he writes: “Horses have a way of getting inside you, and so it was that Secretariat became like a fifth child in our house, the older boy who was off at school and never around but who was as loved and truly a part of the family as Muffin, our shaggy, epileptic dog.”
And at the end, recalling the day he learned of Secretariat’s death: “The last time I remember really crying was on St. Valentine’s Day 1982, when my wife called to tell me that my father had died. At the moment she called, I was sitting in a purple room in Caesars Palace, in Las Vegas, waiting for an interview with the heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Now here I was in a different hotel room in a different town, suddenly feeling like a very old and tired man of 48, leaning with my back against a wall and sobbing for a long time with my face in my hands.” (The part about being alone in a hotel room when important events transpire, helpless and guilty, my god, that part is so close to the bone that it hurts).
In his writing, Nack helped Secretariat get inside all of us. Carolyne told me that their home remains joyfully decorated with Secretariat memorabilia, including a photograph of Big Red above the fireplace. She understands that sharing a life with Bill meant sharing a piece with Secretariat, lovingly. “Secretariat opened a door for Bill,” she says. “And from there, it was a lifelong romance. He loved those creatures so much, but especially [Secretariat]. He was such a part of Bill’s emotional being. The two of them, they made each other’s lives fuller, and stronger, and longer.”
Another Tim story. Please bear with me. My first exposure to horse racing as a journalistic pursuit was as a fresh-out-of-college reporter at the Schenectady Gazette in upstate New York in the late 1970s. Mostly I covered high schools and local colleges, unglamorous work (but nonetheless vitally important for a local newspaper, and essential training for a young writer). The exception was the summer thoroughbred race meeting at Saratoga, which was straight-up major league. So I lapped up as much as I could, not knowing, as they say, a thoroughbred’s head from his ass, but willing to learn.
Part of the job at my shop involved stopping every late afternoon after the last race at the New York Racing Association’s little photo office to pick up a finish picture of the day’s feature race. NYRA’s track photographer was Bob Coglianese and he would step into the doorway of his office, underneath majestic elms next to the paddock, and hand me the picture, sometimes still damp from the developing soup, decades before digital. Coglianese was a barrel-chested man with a thick head of black hair and a no-nonsense New York accent that he would occasionally leaven with a smile. He also had a facial tic, which, being a clueless kid, I assumed was just something that happened to old people. (Bob Coglianese was 22 years older than me, in his mid-40s at the time).
I did not know his story. I did not know anything about him. Did not know that in the late afternoon of June 9, 1973, he raised his camera to his eye from a stand next to the finish line at Belmont Park, clicked the shutter on a pre-focused point, and captured one of the most recognizable sports pictures of the 20th century, an image that preserves the reality – and the surreality – of the moment: Secretariat nearing the wire, Turcotte glancing left at the timer, the rest of the field just tiny spots in the distance like a child’s toy horses, the vast expanse of the Belmont grandstand in the background, out of focus as if in a dream. It is not 1,000 words, it is as many words as the mind can imagine. Bob Coglianese took that photo.
What I know about Coglianese I learned from his son and only child, Adam, who turned 50 last December on the day before his father died in Florida at age 88, and who now operates Coglianese photography and, like his father, is NYRA’s official track photographer. The elder Coglianese was raised in Brooklyn and pronounces the family name “Colli-KNEES,” which splits the difference between the true Italian version of “Coal-yuh-NAYZ” and various American versions that usually involve a painfully hard G. It was a compromise to get along in the melting pot.
Bob went to work taking pictures at the racetrack in 1952, at the age of 18, as assistant to his uncle, Michael Sirico, and took over Sirico’s job in 1962. One day in the late 1960s, he saw a girl named Rosalind Berman sitting on a bench at Saratoga; Rosalind lived in the Albany area and was no racing fan but had come to the track on a business outing. Bob asked her out; they got married. Jewish girl, Catholic boy. Bob converted to Judaism. “We went to temple at all the High Holy Days,” says Adam.
Bob’s job at the New York tracks – Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga — came with a mandate. “Back then, everything was driven by the marketing department,” says Adam. “They wanted my father to shoot the winners’ circle. They wanted him to shoot the finish. And they always wanted him to get the crowd into the finish photo, to emphasize how many people were coming to the racetrack.
“My father shot every race the same way.”
So it was on that second Saturday in June of 1973 that Bob left the family home in Searingtown, 10 miles east of Belmont Park in Long Island’s Nassau County, and drove to work. He likely shot not only the Belmont Stakes that day, but all seven of the races that preceded it, and even the one that followed. Ten or 15 minutes before the 5:38 post time, he likely walked across the Belmont loam, climbed the four or five steps to the top of the green, wood platform and pre-focused his lens on a point near the finish line. He then waited until Secretariat entered his frame and punched his shutter. The horse, the other horses… lord knows, the crowd. All right there.
More practically: Bob Coglianese took one of the greatest and most meaningful sports pictures in history by going to work and doing his job.
Something else: Bob worked in a pressurized atmosphere. One race after another, day upon day. Grinding. He developed that tic. “I don’t want to say my father had anxiety,” says Adam, choosing his words carefully, protecting a man he loved. “He worked hard.” Pause. “But you know, funny thing, later in his life, that tic went away.”
Twenty-two years ago, author Laura Hillenbrand brought a famous and effecting horse to life with her book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. That book, too, became a movie and Seabiscuit has lived another life. I wrote to Hillenbrand (we know each other in a distant way; there are not that many turf writers trodding this earth) about Secretariat’s keepers and she wrote back, in part: “Secretariat was blessed with the storytellers his greatness deserved. In their words and images, they have bequeathed the memory of him to us with reverence and texture and immediacy. Through them, we don’t just know of him, we experience him — in the shiver of goosebumps, the tearful exultation, the grateful wonder of beholding so impossible a creature… Through them, he never fades and he never dies.”
It is a late April afternoon, in the year 2023. Bob Coglianese’s picture is on my computer screen, big as can be. I stare, it stares back. Fifty years gone, Big Red in the ground, Ronnie in a wheelchair. I’m quite certain I was crawling around in cold, New England slop that day, yet, in this moment, looking at this image, I’m sure I was there at Belmont Park. I’m sure we all were.
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.
INDIANAPOLIS – The Machine, 27 years old now, sleeps quietly and forevermore in a specially appointed corner of the basement beneath the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, on the infield lawn between turns one and two. (The basement itself is a museum, with more than 300 racecars dating back to the turn of the 20th century, which are periodically cycled upstairs into the smaller, main viewing space). More formally, the Machine is Arie Luyendyk’s Reynard 94I, which in May of 1996 turned four laps in an average speed of 236.986 miles per hour during qualifying for the Indy 500, the fastest in qualifying history, standing tall more than a quarter century later. (For many reasons, but nevertheless, still there). Informally, in awed whispers, it’s a beast.
Last week, more than a dozen drivers met with me and with an NBC production team to talk about the enervating and cherished tradition of Indy qualifying, in order to create both a TV piece that you can watch this weekend on NBC and the story that you are reading now. (Qualifying takes place this upcoming Saturday and Sunday). The interviews took place in the basement of the museum, in the long shadow of Luyendyk’s car, which lives in a garage bay mockup, pseudo-florescent lights all but crackling overhead, a workbench at the ready, re-created posters on the walls. Some drivers would wander into the space and just scan, slowly moving their eyes over the car from front to rear, and back. Others would just pause and look, nod, smile, and then sit. Still others, like 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power, scarcely looked at all. “I’ve seen it,” said Power, nodding respectfully. “Yeah…. seen it.”
The car is light red on the sides, mostly white on its nose, glistening like new in the lights, but with ads that betray its age, and its time: A multi-colored Apple logo (including a green leaf), wings shouting WAVEPHORE (a digital company that rose in the dotcom boom of the 90s, and then fell not long after Luyendyk crossed the line), but also Champion, Pennzoil, Firestone, STP.
Graham Rahal stood over the car, and then leaned into the cockpit, and grimaced as he envisioned the impossibility of squeezing his 6-foot-2 body inside. “If these were the cars we had now,” he said, “I wouldn’t be a racecar driver.”
Four-time 500 winner Helio Castroneves of Brazil circled the car wordlessly, almost as if trying to not awaken a sleeping child… or grandparent. He rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Yeah, a beast,” he said. “Incredible.”
Luyendyk’s car is more than an artifact — it is living history, a piece of fiberglass, metal and rubber that helps measure Indy Car racing, the 500, and in particular, the breathtaking ritual of qualifying, better than words or video. It speaks while sitting still. Luyendyk’s car ran with a 1,000-horsepower engine; today’s run at 750. It had fewer safety measures than those in place now (but more than those before it – a continuum). “Back then,” says Power, “It took big you-know-whats to qualify.” But above all, the Beast represents the unfiltered purpose of qualifying: To go fast. To be the fastest. “To feel like the fastest man on earth,” says French driver Simon Pagenaud, winner of the 500 in 2019. “That’s every little kid’s dream.”
The rules are simple enough: Drivers get four laps (10 miles) and their average speed determines where they will sit in the starting grid of 33 cars. The fastest sits on the pole, a significant victory in itself. “Getting the pole in this race is almost like winning a normal Indy Car race,” says 23-year-old U.S. driver Colton Herta. Yet it also is paradoxical: You need a fast car to qualify, but, says Scott Dixon, who has won the pole five times (second only to Rick Mears’s six from 1979-91), but the big race only once (2008; Mears won it four times): “The pole guarantees you nothing.”
Because: The skill sets are decidedly different. In qualifying, there is one car on the track, alone for four laps, with the single goal of reaching the highest possible speed, and then sustaining it over four laps, as the car increasingly becomes less viable. It is a sensory exercise. “Hair standing up on your arms,” says 24-year-old Mexican driver Pato O’Ward. “Frickin’ fast.”
“Mind-blowing,” says Swedish driver Marcus Ericsson. “Like you’re in a tunnel.”
“It’s almost poetic,” says Herta. “You’re out there alone, it’s strange, quiet and eerie, because there’s just one car. And you can really, really feel the speed in qualifying.”
And Castroneves: “In my head, just: Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god.”
Qualifying is like Home Run Derby, or the 3-point contest, if those gimmicks were used for playoff seeding. On race day, you start over. You are no longer alone, you are mingled with 32 other cars and drivers. There is turbulence, there is drafting. There are tactics. There can be debris. And there is the contradictory mix of competition and trust, where drivers are trying to defeat each other, but also make safe (and, to a point, predictable) decisions that reduce the possibility of harm. Moreover, there is a modern equality of equipment and tighter rules that make the race, according to one crew chief, more “processional,” and values tiny gradations of skill.
Rahal describes the difference between qualifying for, and racing, the full 500 as the difference between predominantly bravery and predominantly brains. “Qualifying to me, is a lot more guts,” says Rahal, 34, son of 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal. “Brains are certainly required, when you’re making adjustments during a qualifying lap and things like that. But there’s a lot of bravery that goes into qualifying. Race day is more about the brains.”
Ericsson puts it like this: “You want to be as close to crashing as you can, without actually crashing. Getting absolutely everything out of your car.” It is an axiom at Indy that qualifying for the next year’s race begins every year on the day after the Indy 500 ends, a 12-month process of tinkering, refining and perfecting. The car that takes the green flag in qualifying is as perfect as it will be, and everything that happens afterward makes it less efficient, less perfect, slower. It is a car that is meant to be driven at its maximum, immediately.
“Everyone is flat out,” says 42-year-old American driver Ed Carpenter, who has lived in Indiana since the age of eight. “No lifting at all.” (Lifting is a deliciously evocative racing shorthand for the act of raising one’s foot off the gas pedal, literally, lifting it up). Yet here, too, is a paradox. Qualifying is only four laps, 10 miles, less than three minutes, and while it must be contested with abandon – “My right foot is going down, and it’s staying down,” says 48-year-old Brazilian driver Tony Kanaan, winner of the 500 in 2013. “If you have a hiccup, you can start last” – it is yet another skill of its own to milk first-lap perfection for three more laps, even in the best cars.
“You dread the last two laps, because you’re hanging on for dear life,” says Michael Andretti, who started 16 Indy 500s (the best of those starts at third in 1986). “You try to keep running on the edge, and that takes a certain talent, because if you go over the edge here, it can be bad.”
In this ecosystem, Dixon is a unicorn. Mears’s six poles are almost mythical in Indy history, and now Dixon has won five. To qualify fast, it’s clear a driver needs a fast car and fearlessness. And something else: The ability to both take their perfect car into Lap 1, Turn 1, and yet not leave all their speed there. At qualifying speeds, tires degrade far more quickly than with a day setup, because the car is set up for speed, not endurance (on race day, a winning car will change tires at least five times). Many drivers can take a fast car into Turn 1 and finish with a much slower one. Also, there is the fickle Central Indiana weather, where temperature changes, wind and rain sabotage speed. Drivers talk of the oval as if it is a cranky human: “This place is temperamental,” says Carpenter. “It’s easy to lose your way.” Dixon, meanwhile, is a master at sustaining high qualifying speeds.
Mike Hull, longtime managing director for Chip Ganassi Racing, explains: “In my lifetime at Indianapolis, frankly, I’ve only seen four or five drivers that do turn one the right way,” says Hull. “[Dixon is] one of the five. You have to have so much momentum on that first lap. You have to get the big lap and you have to be so careful while you’re doing that that you don’t slide the car so much that you lose the grip for the next three laps.” (By overworking the tires). “Dixon does an extremely good job of that. And the driver needs to be willing to turn to the right” – toward the wall – “coming off turns two and four, and if you combine all those things together and the steering skill that’s involved in that, Scott Dixon is frankly one of the best I’ve ever seen.”
(Andretti talked about steering: “If you see a guy making a lot of little moves with his hands,” – here he gripped an imaginary wheel and twitched his fists up and down like pistons – “he’s hanging on for dear life. You want to see smooth.” Here, Andretti, moved his fists gently back and forth, like guiding a little motorboat on a glassy lake.)
Safety initiatives implemented in the years since Luyendyk’s qualifying record have made Indy Car racing safer. The last Indy Car fatality was in August of 2015, when Justin Wilson of Great Britain died at Pocono Raceway; two years earlier, the immensely popular Dan Wheldon was killed in a crash in Las Vegas, less than five months after winning his second Indy 500. The last fatal crash at Indy was in 1996, when Scott Brayton was killed in practice just days after Luyendyk’s record was set.
Those same initiatives have also slowed cars. Yet a year ago, Dixon averaged 234.046 miles per hour for his pole-winning run, the second-fastest qualifying run in history, and nearing a record that seemed to have been legislated into permanence. “That’s why Mario Andretti once said to me, ‘I’m glad I never had to race against Scott Dixon,’” says Hull. “That defines how much respect everyone has for the drivers that are here today.”
Dixon is a 42-year-old New Zealander those nickname is “The Iceman.” Yet he gives qualifying its space, and its respect. “It’s the most intense four laps of your life,” says Dixon. “The first lap should be easy, or easy-ish…” (In the language of the Indy Car driver, easy does not mean not difficult, it means the car is at its best, its fastest, its most compliant). He continues: “You’re going to go into turn one at almost 250 miles an hour, and you just hope you come out the other side…. And then you know, it’s just going to get worse after that, and you’re just holding onto it, and you’re on your tippy-toes because if you hit that wall at 250, it’s a big bang.”
Here The Iceman cracks just a little. He shakes and shows teeth.
“You’re nervous as hell, man.”
Tim Layden is writer-at-large for NBC Sports. He was previously a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for 25 years.