Friday, February 23, 2018

In company of legends

The story behind Secretariat and other gems


LEGEND: Secretariat, who swept the 1973 US Triple Crown and is regarded as one of the greatest thoroughbreds of the 20th century.

Donstan Bonn

IT’S NOT every day you get to meet someone connected with one of the legends of the racing game, so when the opportunity is presented you should jump at the chance.

That’s what I did when my younger brother, Morgan, who has been living in the United States for more than ten years, recently started working for owner-trainer Roger Laurin, the son of Lucien Laurin who trained the great Secretariat, winner of the 1973 US Triple Crown and considered one of the greatest racehorses of the 20th century.

Roger Laurin, who is now 75 years old, is a big name in his own right, having trained many top class horses, including for the Phipps’ family, one of the foundation families of American racing.

The last good horse Laurin saddled was the outstanding Chief’s Crown, winner of the very first Breeders’ Cup race as a two-year-old in 1984, who went on to place in all three legs of the next year’s Triple Crown, including being beaten a nose in the Preakness Stakes.

And but for a twist of fate, Roger Laurin—originally from Montreal, Canada and now living in Florida, USA— might have been the one who trained Secretariat instead of his father.

Roger was training for the Chenery family’s Meadow Stable, the owners of Secretariat, when the Phipps’ trainer died. That’s when Arthur “Bull” Hancock Junior, another US racing icon who operated Claiborne Farm, asked him to make the switch.

“Mr Hancock, who had recommended me to Meadow Stable, told me he wanted me to train their (the Phipps’) horses...he told me my dad would replace me,” said Laurin last November in Ocala, Florida, where he had purchased a 20-stall barn to board his weanlings and injured racehorses, which run in Canada, where he keeps his broodmares.

When the younger Laurin made the move, in 1971, one of the potential stars owned by Meadow Stable, which was in financial difficulty when founder Christopher Chenery passed away, was Riva Ridge.

“I trained Riva Ridge up to the week before he broke his maiden (as a two-year-old),” recalled Roger. “He was a week away from running and he was training well.”

Under his father’s handling, Riva Ridge went on to win two legs of the 1972 Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes.

“The horse that saved Meadow Stable was Riva Ridge,” Roger pointed out.

And they hit the jackpot that same year when Secretariat was named Horse of the Year as a two year-old, before going on to sweep the Triple Crown in ’73 and breaking the syndication record for a stallion upon his retirement from the track.

“Big Red”, as he was fondly known, is the subject of the movie Secretariat, which was released last October. The film focuses on Penny Chenery’s attempt to revive Meadow Stable after the death of her father.

I asked Roger if he had seen the movie and although he hadn’t, he knew enough about it to leave him shaking his head.

“It’s not a documentary, it’s a Disney film,” he said, referring to the filmmakers taking some poetic licence.

“The guy who played my dad is taller than you,” he told me, looking up at my six-foot frame. “My dad’s five-foot one inch! My father started as a jockey and when he started getting too heavy he started training.”

But he said he had too much respect for Ms Chenery to voice any more criticisms of the movie.

On his recollection of Secretariat the horse, Roger simply said: “He was a magnificent animal...”

During his training career, Roger Laurin saddled some great fillies who went onto become superb foundation mares of American breeding.

Among those were Drum Top, who beat the best colts of her generation and held a track record which was eventually broken by Secretariat; Numbered Account; Pearl Necklace; and Miss Cavendish, who was second in the Kentucky Oaks in 1964 and won the Alabama Stakes at Saratoga.

He also had the pleasure of sending out Great Contractor to beat another legend, Forego, by 12 lengths in the Brooklyn Handicap, running the last quarter-mile in 23.1 seconds.

Roger’s final turn in the limelight—not that he ever sought it—was with Chief ’s Crown, who led off the much anticipated inaugural edition of the Breeders’ Cup, now known as the World

Championships of thoroughbred racing.

“I was glad it was over,” he said 26 years later, two days before the 2010 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

“Are you kidding?” he exclaimed when asked if there was a lot of pressure leading up to the ’84 BC Juvenile at Hollywood Park in California.

“I was in the first race! “After the race I went and watched him (Chief’s Crown) cool out,” he said, conveniently dodging the media throng, which he was known for doing throughout his training career.

But that day in Ocala last November, Laurin graciously allowed me to intrude on his time and scan his memory of the glory days of US racing.

“I quit training other people’s horses after Chief ’s Crown (in 1985),” but he still holds a private trainer’s licence and intends to continue saddling the occasional runner, his last winner coming last February at Gulfstream Park in Miami.

“If I’m healthy and enjoying it...and if I don’t get too senile, I’ll keep training,” he quipped.

And of what might have been back in the early 1970s when he left Meadow Stable, when Secretariat was just a yearling.

“Things work out for the best...who knows?”