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Book Review

Secretariat Thoroughbred Legends #19
by Timothy T. Capps
from Eclipse Press, 240 pages hardcover

Some fans argue that racing's "golden age" occurred in the 1970's when some of the best racehorses of all time competed. Racing fans who experienced that magical decade enjoy reliving those moments, while those who didn't, read about it in fascination wishing to someday experience horses of a similar caliber.

Although the decade started off with the Nijinsky II, the first English Triple Crown winner in 35 years, Secretariat was the horse who embodied greatness for the era. His exploits, including the record-setting Belmont Stakes performance, led many to compare him with 1920's great Man o'War.

Maryland Jockey Club executive vice-president Timothy T. Capps researched "Big Red" and in a convenient, compact form, gives a very detailed account of his life in his new book Secretariat. Following the pattern of the other books in the Thoroughbred Legends series, he starts off by outlining the subject horse's background, first his pedigree, then how his owner, the Chenery family's Meadow Stable, got into the business of racing and ended up with Secretariat. The pedigree analysis clearly showed why his sire Bold Ruler was not expected to be successful at siring classic winners. Interestingly enough, Secretariat could have been owned by Ogden Phipps, who won a coin toss but didn't make the correct choice, instead taking Secretariat's weanling half-sister named The Bride.

Capps dedicated an entire chapter on Secretariat's two-year-old season. Not spending too much time on any single race, he smoothly demonstrates Secretariat's steady improvement, from a beaten fourth in his first career start to his win in the Garden State Stakes to seal up champion juvenile and Horse of the Year honors for 1972. Following that championship year, Chris Chenery passed away, leading to Secretariat's over $6.08 million syndication in order to preserve the family farm and estate.

His three-year-old season is covered in much greater detail, over three whole chapters in the book. The reader feels the disappointment of his connections and the syndicate over his inexplicable Wood Memorial loss, and is brought right back with his scintillating performances in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and of course the Belmont. The events surrounding the timer malfunction at Pimlico, which denied him a sweep of the Triple Crown track records, were explained thoroughly. An entire chapter, appropriately titled "A Tremendous Machine", gives a detailed account of the Belmont Stakes, showing just how powerful a performance it was with track and world records being broken in internal fractions as well as at the finish. Capps wrote, "Secretariat was no longer a rarity among Thoroughbreds. He was singular."

Following the Triple Crown was for all intents and purposes a "farewell tour" given that the syndicate required retirement at the end of the year. Despite disappointing losses in the Whitney and the Woodward, his two turf wins in the Man o'War at Belmont and the Canadian International at Woodbine showed that then-Blood Horse editor Kent Hollingsworth may have been right that Secretariat should have been sent to France to compete in the Arc. His 9-for-12 record, highlighted by the Triple Crown, earned him a second Horse of the Year title.

Capps spends a chapter outlining Secretariat's career at stud. Although to some he was a disappointment, he did sire such horses as General Assembly, Lady's Secret, and "his closest approximation", Risen Star. Capps writes, "Secretariat was neither a bad sire nor an outstanding one [...] but Secretariat was not supposed to be average." Following his death due to laminitis in 1989, his value finally shone through as he has proven to be a great broodmare sire, with 151 stakes winners at the end of 2001 including such champions as A.P. Indy and European steeplechaser Istabraq.

In his epilogue, Capps writes a head-to-head comparison of "Big Red vs. Big Red". Comparing the 1920's superhorse Man O'War with the 1970's superhorse, the matchup is all but a dead heat, a fantasy match race that can be argued forever. The book includes 16 pages of black and white photos of Secretariat and connections and on the cover is the familiar photo of jockey Ron Turcotte looking over his shoulder at the competition 31 lengths behind him at the Belmont finish.

Obviously Capps had his work cut out for him, tackling such a celebrated subject horse as Secretariat and he admirably completed the task, portraying the emotional highs experienced by those fortunate to have witnessed Secretariat's powerful strides in person. This book is strongly recommended to all fans of racing, given that Secretariat is a one-of-a-kind horse whose equal may never come and who still captures the imagination of racing fans thirty years after he raced.

Secretariat has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $17.47.

Rating:     5/5

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