On May 5, 1973, a brilliant chestnut colt named Secretariat took his first steps toward racing immortality with a 2½-length victory in the Kentucky Derby on his way to sweeping the Triple Crown – consisting of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. "Big Red" set a track record for 1.25 miles at Churchill Downs that day and, later, shattered the track and world record for 1.5 miles at Belmont Park for good measure.
Those records still stand today. But Secretariat did something else that Saturday afternoon – something that changed the Sport of Kings forever.
From racing to breeding
Although he earned $155,050 for his Derby win (equal to about $760,000 today), that amount paled in comparison to the $190,000 that Secretariat was assured to make every time he, well, expressed his affection for the opposite sex. And that $190,000 was guaranteed before Big Red had even notched his first victory as a 3-year-old, as part of a then-record $6 million syndication deal, which included a stipulation that the colt be retired at the end of his sophomore season.
According to a feature story that ran in Time magazine prior to the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Secretariat's owner Penny Tweedy Chenery was against the multimillion-dollar deal, but the family needed money to pay estate taxes following the death of her father, Christopher T. Chenery.
"I personally would prefer to race him as long as he stays sound," Ms. Chenery told the magazine.
Where the money truly is
Of course, at its core, thoroughbred horse racing has always been about promoting the breed, but many blame Secretariat's record-setting syndication agreement for shifting the focus from the racetrack to the breeding shed.
"The economics of horse racing is totally cockeyed," noted Time. "Nobody would ever think of retiring a pitcher as soon as he throws a no-hitter, a quarterback as soon as he wins in the Super Bowl. But horse racing, heavily taxed by every state where it exists, requiring tremendous investments in racing plants and breeding farms and the manpower required to train and run its animals … has been turned into a sort of rich man's lottery."
In the five years prior to Secretariat's Romp for the Roses, every whole (non-gelded) Kentucky Derby winner came back to race at age 4, except for Majestic Prince, who was injured. Yet, today, a Derby champ competing at 4 is about as rare as an infomercial demanding full and immediate payment rather than offering three easy installments. In fact, Monarchos, in 2001, was the last Derby victor to race the following year – and he started exactly one time.
Of course, this is understandable given the fame and fortune the "Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports" can bring. After his win on the first Saturday of May in 2008, Big Brown was syndicated for over $50 million by Three Chimneys Farm of Midway, Kentucky – nearly twice the amount, in real dollars, that was paid to secure Secretariat's procreation services.
This year's drama
All of this leaves one to ponder the millions of dollars that Ahmed Zayat may have lost when his stable star and morning-line favorite for this year's Kentucky Derby, Eskendereya, was withdrawn from the big race due to a leg injury on Sunday.
Not that Zayat isn't used to losing money. Recently, his Zayat Stables was sued by Fifth Third bank for allegedly being delinquent on $34 million in loans. After counter-suing, Zayat immediately filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is now being investigated by various racing commissions regarding his possible financial dealings with convicted bookmakers Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky.
In any event, with Eskendereya's defection, the focus will inevitably shift to Lookin At Lucky, who, like Secretariat, was a 2-year-old champion. Trained by Bob Baffert, who has won the roses three times (in 1997, 1998 and 2002), Lookin At Lucky is already a millionaire and could add to his bankroll, as well as to his stud value, with a win on May 1.
But whichever horse wins, one thing is sure: it won't be racing at 4. And you can blame Secretariat for that.