The magnificent Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 and was celebrated across the country like a movie star. He was set to race a few weeks later at Arlington Park just outside Chicago, and ABC Sports had garnered the rights to the live telecast. As producer, I wanted our coverage to include some novel production techniques. We were the first to use a handheld camera on the track at the start of a horse race. We also put mikes on Lucien Laurin, Secretariat’s trainer, and Penny Chenery Tweedy, Secretariat’s winsome owner, the mother of four who took over her father’s Thoroughbred farm at age forty-five. I remember how hard Mrs. Tweedy tried to be analytical during the race, but as Secretariat passed the half-mile pole and was fending off a challenge from My Gallant, all she could muster was “Com’on, big boy!” When her Big Red finally pulled away in the backstretch, she hollered, “Wooo!”
Before the race, I asked Sam Renick, former jockey and our racing expert, what it was about Secretariat’s anatomy that made him the greatest racehorse of his time, if not all time. Sam said that the horse’s muscular chest and huge nostrils allowed him to inhale more oxygen (after he died, an autopsy revealed that Secretariat’s heart was two times the average size). We created a diagram to illustrate the horse’s superior physiognomy, but this was television. I thought it would be more effective to stand next to the actual horse and point out these attributes. Arrangements were made with the handlers to have Secretariat stop for us in the paddock before the race. Timing would be critical, as our window of opportunity would be no more than one minute. Roone would be coordinating the show from New York, which had four elements: the Queen’s Plate horse race live from Toronto, the NCAA Volleyball Championships on tape from San Diego, a live segment on All-Star pitcher Gaylord Perry’s alleged spitball, and, finally, our race from Illinois.
Unfortunately, New York came to us about a minute late. Well, you can’t hold up a horse race. Although Secretariat’s groom, Eddie Sweat, had stopped the horse as planned and was ready beside Sam for the interview, the parade started moving again. When commentator Chris Schenkel was finally able to throw it over to Sam from the booth, Sweat couldn’t wait any longer. He, Secretariat, and jockey Ron Turcotte moved out of frame. Sam chased Turcotte through the crowd, his mike cable dragging behind him from beneath his yellow blazer. Turcotte then mounted the horse and proceeded toward the track. Sam literally reached the end of his rope when the camera cable could stretch no further.
On screen, instead of our viewers seeing Secretariat’s enormous nostrils and chest, they saw his equally enormous derriere plodding away from the camera as Sam, desperately trying to save the botched interview, blurted, “Secretariat never looked better in his life!”