By Chris Lomon for WoodbineEntertainment.com
TORONTO, October 9 - In what seemed like a matter of seconds, the beast known as Big Red became smaller and smaller.
As the field lined up in the gate for the 1973 Canadian International, a young Sandy Hawley, aboard E.P. Taylor’s Presidial, fully understood the monumental task that awaited him: try to beat the fellow jockey bearing the blue and white silks, the man aboard the legendary Secretariat.
Like the other 11 riders saddled with besting one of thoroughbred racing’s biggest talents in what was his final race, Hawley knew the odds were against him, literally and figuratively.
In the last moments before the 1 5/8 mile turf journey began, a 24-year-old Hawley reminded himself that it was a horse race and anything could happen, even slaying a seemingly invincible 1-5 giant.
“You kind of want to see Secretariat win his last race,” said Hawley. “But if you can beat him by a nose, that’s even better. You wanted to say that you beat Secretariat. The horse I was riding, Presidial, was a good horse. He had a shot. He was a longshot and there were some other good American horses in there, but we were going out there to try and win it.”
And at 4:52 p.m. ET, the race was on.
After sitting second to Canadian champion Kennedy Road through the opening mile, Secretariat, the flawless-looking, chiseled chestnut, came outside of his rival as the pair dueled to the far turn.
Soon after, Secretariat began to effortlessly stride away from the pack. He was ahead of his nearest pursuer by 12 lengths at the stretch call.
“We were head-and-head for a while,” quipped Hawley, who had Presidial in third, one spot behind Secretariat, up to the half-mile mark. “Unfortunately, it was when we were in the gate. Then somebody opened the starting gate and that was that. It was like, ‘Okay, goodbye.’ It didn’t take long for Secretariat to get smaller and smaller. I got to see his backside for most of the race.”
It all went as planned for Secretariat’s connections, a fairytale ending to a stellar career for a group that included owner Penny Chenery (then known as Penny Tweedy) and trainer Lucien Lauren.
But it could have had a different look, so to speak.
Regular pilot Ron Turcotte, serving a five-day riding ban, couldn’t be in the irons for the International.
That opened the door for another jockey to get the coveted call. Hawley’s agent, Colin Wick, wasted little time in picking up the phone, hoping to beat others to the punch.
“We knew Ron was suspended, so Colin, being as sharp as he was, he got on the phone right away,” recalled Hawley. “He called Mrs. Tweedy because he couldn’t get in touch with Lucien Lauren. She said, ‘You know what? Sandy knows his way around Woodbine and I’d love him to ride him. I just have to okay it with Lucien.’ For maybe about half an hour before she called back, we thought we might have the mount on Secretariat. She called back and told us she was sorry – that Lucien went with Eddie Maple, who rides second call in that barn.”
Although the shot to ride Secretariat was gone, Hawley, in the lead up to the race, couldn’t help but marvel at the one that got away.
On one day before the International, he sat on the seats overlooking the turf course, watching the colt work under Turcotte.
Admittedly, Hawley, who in 1973 became the first jockey to win more than 500 races in a single year (toppling a mark set by Bill Shoemaker), felt more like a mesmerized fan rather than a diligent rider doing his homework on the competition.
“I remember watching him in a morning workout,” said Hawley, who went on to win two International crowns, in 1976 with Youth and three years later with Golden Act. “What a beautiful horse. He had a stride like no other horse I had ever seen. It would have been tremendous to have just been able to say you worked him. I won those 500 races in a year, which is the biggest accomplishment in my career. But if I had ridden Secretariat, that would have been No. 1.
“I think he knew he was good,” he continued. “Just his temperament and demeanor. People everywhere would want to take pictures and he would just stand there and pose. He would look over at someone with a camera and he knew what they were doing. He really was larger than life.”
A horse that had the rare ability to make the biggest talents in the sport, horse and human, feel very small.
Just like he did on that crisp fall day at Woodbine 44 years ago.
Steeped in tradition, Woodbine’s world-famous turf races have been captured by some of the greats of the sport including recent Woodbine Mile champs Tepin and Wise Dan; the Hall of Fame mare All Along who captured the International in a standout campaign; and the incomparable Secretariat, who concluded his historic career with a runaway score in the 1973 edition of the International. Join us as we profile Titans of the Turf, highlighting those who have triumphed on the Woodbine green.