06/20/2012 3:21PM

Hovdey: Maryland has opportunity to further revise history


Well, that’s a relief.

For far too long the legend of Secretariat has been smudged by the failure of official history to bestow upon Big Red the all-time fastest clocking in the Preakness to go along with his records in the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes. This has been more of a problem for some than others, depending upon how the numbers on a clock impact one’s enjoyment of a horse race. Secretariat’s loss to Onion always seemed far more troubling than a couple ticks of the timer in an otherwise majestic 1973 Preakness performance. But then, there was nothing anyone could do about the scoreboard at the end of the Whitney.

As for the Preakness, Secretariat had barely cooled out after breaking Sham’s heart on that May afternoon in Baltimore before it became clear the automated Pimlico timer got it wrong. The CBS telecast of the race flashed a shot of the tote board and the “1:55” displayed as the final time, whereupon Chic Anderson, who called the race for the TV audience, noted that it was not a new track record, being one second away from Canonero’s Preakness mark set in 1971.

Having just watched Secretariat become the first horse to break the two-minute barrier in the Derby, there was palpable disappointment in Anderson’s voice. At that point anything less than a record-setting performance tended to sully the Secretariat brand. The controversy occupied nearly as much time over the subsequent weeks than the overriding issue of Secretariat’s attempt to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. When he shattered the Belmont record to win the Crown, the final Preakness clocking was further discredited, even when shaved to 1:54 2/5 based on a hand-timed number from the official Pimlico timekeeper.

Now it’s fixed, 39 years later, through the persistence of owner Penny Chenery and the efforts of a collection of chronometry experts who apparently had nothing but time on their hands. A revised 1973 Preakness clocking of 1:53 flat sounded good to them and to the Maryland Racing Commission, which gives Secretariat the Preakness record.

This is not the first time the Maryland commission has found itself in the center of a racing hurricane. As long as the commissioners are erasing the mistakes of 1973, I would like to suggest they might want to revisit a couple of other decisions that could have sent racing history in very different directions.

For starters, they ought to take a look at that 1980 Preakness again, specifically the head of the stretch, where Angel Cordero straightened the turn with Codex and packed Genuine Risk and Jacinto Vasquez past the middle of the track. The stewards ruled there was no offense, and the Maryland Racing Commission let the order of finish stand.

The Pimlico stewards maintained no contact was made between Codex and Genuine Risk, as if that was the only measure by which interference could have been called. In fact, the stewards were acting out of custom, practically handcuffed by history. To that point, in 104 runnings of the Preakness, 105 runnings of the Derby and 111 versions of the Belmont Stakes, there had never been a single winner disqualified for a racing infraction. And there hasn’t been since.

Such a footnote flies in the face of statistical probability. Many major races with nearly the historical clout of the Triple Crown events have had winners taken down, including the Travers, the Hollywood Gold Cup, the Arlington Million, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Spinster, the Woodward, the Whitney, the Champagne, the Blue Grass, the Beverly D., the Alabama, the Yellow Ribbon, the Sword Dancer, the Florida Derby, the Strub Stakes, the Wood Memorial, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

But never a Kentucky Derby, a Preakness or a Belmont? Had the Maryland Racing Commission done its job in 1980, bravely setting precedent in what should have been in any other case an easy stewards’ call, the cynically dangerous atmosphere of “anything goes” in trying to win a Triple Crown event would not be quite so deeply ingrained.

Then again, custom dies hard. Ask Kathy Kusner, who at age 27 in 1967 was denied a jockey’s license by the Maryland Racing Commission. Officials maintained it was not because she was a woman – to that point only a handful of unlicensed woman had managed to compete in North America, primarily at non-sanctioned meets – but because Kusner failed to impress stewards with her ability on a horse.

At the time, Kusner had represented the United States on its equestrian team at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. She also was riding work for Mikey Smithwick, the respected trainer of both jump and flat horses, and had the endorsement of many more horsemen familiar with her talents.

With the aide of attorney Audrey Melbourne, who had been married to Hall of Fame jump jockey Joe Aitcheson, Kusner sued the commission and won the right to be licensed. In his ruling, circuit court judge Ernest A. Loveless declared that “no reasonable mind could have reasonably reached the factual conclusion the commission reached.”

That was Sept. 27, 1968. Two weeks later Kusner was at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City competing with an American equestrian team that won three medals. On Nov. 10, jumping in the Nationals at Madison Square Garden, she fractured her leg in a fall. The injury delayed her debut as a jockey, but the movement was launched –– in spite of the Maryland Racing Commission.