50 Years Ago Today, I Was At Secretariat’s Derby

It hit me hard the other night how old I have become. My brain was slowly processing that it was 50 years ago I saw Secretariat win the Kentucky Derby.

I exaggerate. A lot.

I caught a brief glimpse of Secretariat as he flew by my strained vantage point.

After insistent begging, my older sister and her friends relented and took me with them to my first Derby.

It was May 5, 1973 and we were in the infield.

Frankly, at age 14, my day was already complete way before post time for the Derby rolled around.

I was allowed to stay up all night, since we had to get in the infield queue around midnight. On top of that, by noon on Derby day, I had witnessed more infield debauchery than I could wrap my young head around–alcohol, drugs, nudity.

Remember it was the ’70s.

How could the day get better?

The day could get better by having seen Secretariat, the horse who would captivate America by winning the Triple Crown and chart the course of my future by hooking me on Thoroughbred racing and breeding.

Why was I processing that it had been 50 years since that magical day?

Because I just moved into a new home I built and was unpacking boxes.

I unpeeled the bubble wrap from my framed photo of Secretariat, bought to commemorate another anniversary, upon which his owner wrote: “To Dan, A Real Expert, Penny Tweedy, 1993.”
In a nearby box were other framed items: Secretariat’s four-cross pedigree; his past performances as they appeared in Daily Racing Form on Derby day 1973; a copy of the first page of his syndication agreement; and a limited edition head shot, taken in 1973 by Tony Leonard.

Another box contained my four envelopes sealed in plastic when the Secretariat Stamp was unveiled–two from Keeneland dated Oct. 16, 1999; the other pair from Churchill Downs dated Nov. 20, 1999.

A plastic bin had my cache of bobbleheads of horses, trainers, and jockeys, among them a Secretariat model, wearing his trademark blinkers and saddle cloth 1A. In the same treasure trove I found my mini Secretariat Louisville slugger bat.

Among the more than 200 Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders’ Cup glasses that had been packed away were the glass from the year Secretariat won the Derby, the year after when his name first appeared as a a winner of the race; and two glasses issued on the 25th anniversary of his Derby win.

In a small box, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, a pair of jockey goggles purchased at auction last year. Inscribed on the goggles: “Ron Turcotte, TC 73.”

A Lifetime of Secretariat Memorabilia | Dan Liebman photo

There is a new addition to the collection of memories, just acquired; a 2023 Woodford Reserve Secretariat bottle. On the front stands a beautifully painted picture of Secretariat in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle. It will fit neatly alongside my numbered 2003 Maker’s Mark bottle, signed at Keeneland by Penny, then track president Nick Nicholson, and then Maker’s president Bill Samuels Jr.

From that day in the infield I charted a course that saw me work for The Frankfort State-Journal (twice), Daily Racing Form, The Racing Times, and The Blood-Horse.

Of course I have watched, and handicapped, every Derby since Secretariat set the track record of 1:59 2/5 for the 10 furlongs. Here’s hoping that record stands forever.

I’ve attended many Derbies along the way as well, both as a spectator and member of the press.

Never seen a horse as good as Secretariat. Never expect to. Maybe never want to.

As good as his Derby win was for this Kentucky-bred, Secretariat’s move in the Preakness and domination in the Belmont were even more spectacular.

It is not so bad being 64 years old, knowing 50 years ago you saw the greatest racehorse run the fastest time in the history of the world’s most well-known horse race.

It is what put Secretariat atop my horse pedestal.

I wish I had taken a Kodak to the Churchill Downs infield that day in 1973.

Alas, I have no photo of that day, but I do have a lifetime of cherished memories, and memorabilia collected ever since that reminds me every day of how special that day–and that horse–was.

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