Murray Cluff was playing ball hockey with friends on June 9, 1973, when his father called him in to see Secretariat run in the Belmont Stakes.
As they watched from their living room in Alberta, the brilliant colt with a glowing red coat thundered into racing history and the 13-year-old’s heart. Secretariat’s stirring dash to the finish line, nearly a football field’s length ahead of his nearest rivals, ranks with the greatest sporting achievements in the past century.
“For me, that is where this whole journey begins,” Cluff says, eyes misting. “I wanted the first racehorse that I bought to have Secretariat’s bloodline so I could relive that day. It’s a connection I feel with greatness and a special moment with my dad.”
In a corral beside his house west of Calgary, Cluff keeps Tinner's Secret, a handsome nine-year-old grandson of Secretariat that he and his wife, Michelle Pacileo, acquired as a colt. Chestnut, as with his famous grandfather, Tinner's Secret has a similar white splash down his nose and white socks on three legs. He shares his space on Cluff’s acreage with an amiable old Shetland named Silver.
Generations of Secretariat’s descendants can be found throughout the world. His ancestors include a majority of horses racing in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, and others, such as Tinner's Secret, who have not enjoyed their progenitor’s success. There are many Canadian-owned and -bred thoroughbreds among his progeny, including a few of Cluff’s other horses and a granddaughter of Secretariat that belongs to a fellow Albertan, Roy McClintock. That mare, Crypta, is due to give birth any moment.
Unlike Secretariat, who set records in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes that have never been broken, Tinner's Secret did not prove to be a good runner. He finished far back in his lone race and retired with $100 (all figures U.S.) in career earnings.
“I never thought Tinner's Secret would make me rich,” Cluff says.
Born to an 18-year-old mare named Something Royal, whose progeny included other stakes-winners, Secretariat won seven of nine starts as a two-year-old in 1972 and nine of 12 the following year.
His near-invincibility invited considerable interest in him as a stud horse and a fee of $70,000 was collected each time he visited the breeding shed at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. He sired 663 foals, including 341 winners and 54 that won stakes races, but his ability as a stallion is still criticized.
“Secretariat was a very good sire, but he wasn’t the magical sire that people wanted him to be,” says Ed Bowen, president of the Kentucky-based Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation. “He suffered from the curse of unlimited and unattainable expectations.”
As a breed, thoroughbreds can be traced back to three stallions imported into Britain from the Middle East in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nearly all today share some characteristics of their forefathers.
Through generations of breeding there are likely tens of thousands of horses whose ancestry includes Secretariat on either their father or mother’s side, sometimes both, and on occasion multiple times.
Many of the starters in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby are related to him, including a long shot named Lone Sailor whose bloodlines can be traced to Secretariat in four different ways.
“He has a quadruple dose,” says Leonard Lusky, a racing historian in Louisville who runs a fan site called Secretariat.com. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Thoroughbred racing has long been popular with aristocrats and royalty, thus its nickname as the sport of kings. The Queen is a racehorse owner and composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber operates a breeding farm called Watership Down Stud. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, oversees the world’s largest international racing and breeding empire.
Unlimited resources improve one’s chances, but it is no sure thing. Sheik Mohammed has tried to win the Kentucky Derby since 1999 without luck. In one year alone, he spent $76-million buying yearlings as part of the quest.
“Over the long haul, it is better to have each of those elements, but patience, horsemanship or spending the most money doesn’t guarantee success,” Bowen says. “To breed horses is an incredibly complicated thing.”
Breeders evaluate a horse’s lineage and try to match them with others with promising bloodlines. They crossbreed and sometimes interbreed horses in hope they retain the traits of a Secretariat or Northern Dancer, the Canadian icon that won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in 1964.
Having the offspring of a famous racehorse in the stable is exciting. It conjures up memories, whispers of potential and provokes dreams. But the farther removed those and daughters are from pre-eminence, the more the genetic pool becomes diluted.
“The numbers are overwhelming to begin with, and then become even more overwhelming the more horses there are between the stallion and the horse you are interested in,” Bowen says.
Careful attention is paid to dams, because they usually have the dominant genes. Statistics support that, but the numbers are skewed because there are many more sires than dams. A stallion can father several hundred foals in a year, but a mare has just one.
Secretariat is best known for his daughters and in 1992 was the leading sire of broodmares in North America. The most successful racehorse he ever produced was Lady’s Secret, a multiple stakes winner that won an Eclipse Award as horse of the year. His other greatest offspring were Risen Star, a Preakness and Belmont winner, and Tinners Way, a colt from his final crop of foals. Tinners Way amassed $1.85-million in earnings in four years and in 1994 equalled Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby-record time of 1:59 2/5ths over a mile and a quarter at a $1-million stakes race in California.
In 2009, Tinners Way and a dam named Spendabuckforroses, the daughter of Kentucky Derby-winner Spend A Buck, co-parented Tinner's Secret.
Secretariat’s grandson was one and done
Growing up in Medicine Hat, Alta., Murray Cluff was talented at hockey, but lacked the size to play at elite levels.
“I was getting killed by big farm boys,” he says.
That caused him to turn his attention to skiing, at which he was spectacular. He was the Canadian men’s senior mogul champion at 16 and later competed on the World Cup circuit, finishing 73 times in the top 10. In 2000, he was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame with Wayne Gretzky.
Now a ski instructor, Cluff served as a coach to China’s women’s team at the 2014 Sochi Games. Before that, he coached Canadian Olympian Jennifer Heil when she won gold and silver medals in Turin and Vancouver.
In 2010 Cluff scraped money together and scoured the internet for a yearling related to Secretariat. He found Tinner's Secret at the Key Ranch in Salado, Tex., and drove 3,200 kilometres to see him.
“When they brought him out, it was like a dream come true,” Cluff says. “He was pretty and very gentle.”
He could not stop thinking: “This is Secretariat’s grandson.”
Cluff purchased Tinner's Secret for US$5,000, and left him at the ranch 80 kilometres north of Austin. He hired a trainer, who began to prepare him for his first race. Tinner's Secret’s only start was on April 21, 2011, at Lone Star Park, a short drive west of Dallas.
Cluff flew to Texas to watch. His horse was listed at 20 to 1 in the program, but wary bettors sent him off at 61 to 1. The racing chart shows that Tinner's Secret broke ninth out of the gate, was 10th as he entered the stretch and faded to 11th in the 12-horse field.
The four-furlong sprint took 53 seconds. By the end, Tinner's Secret was 26 lengths, or about 208 feet, in arrears.
Beforehand, he reared up in his paddock. Afterward, he bolted through bushes and nearly pitched off his jockey.
Tinner's Secret had never been on the track at Lone Star Park until the night he raced. He had never run in front of a crowd or with a large group of horses.
Whether it was fright, or just poor luck, nobody really knows.
“There are a lot of what-ifs,” Cluff says.
Being jittery is not unusual for young thoroughbreds. Even at three years old, some call out for their mothers when they are stressed.
“These are animals that will run from their own shadow for two miles,” Cluff says.
To make matters worse, Tinner's Secret tore a tendon early in the race.
“The consensus afterward was that I should put him down, but that is not something I would ever do,” Cluff says at home in Cochrane, Alta. He wears a T-shirt from a Secretariat Festival he attended a few years ago in Bourbon County, Ky. “I am not cold-hearted. I wanted him to have a good life. I wanted him to get a chance to be a horse again.”
Lone Sailor related to Secretariat through six generations
Despite centuries of data about thoroughbred bloodlines, even the most successful breeders are fortunate if they are able to generate a stakes winner eight per cent of the time. Among those, only a few win races with the largest purses, such as the Kentucky Derby.
Saturday’s victor will take home $1.425-million. If interest in the race has declined since Secretariat came from behind to capture the first race of his Triple Crown, the prize money has soared. The winner’s share in 1973 was $155,050.
About 160,000 spectators are expected to gather beneath the twin spires of Churchill Downs. Half will pay $80 and crowd into the infield. From there, many won’t be able to see the race and won’t remember it even if they do.
The road to the winner’s circle will probably go through Secretariat. Each of the past five Derby winners has shared a part of his bloodline, and he is listed within the pedigrees of 15 of 20 of this year’s starters. Four favourites – Justify, Bolt d’Oro, Noble Indy and Magnum Moon – are among them.
Lone Sailor is related to Secretariat on both of his parents’ sides back through six generations. He is likely to go off at long odds, but he stirred up interest two weeks ago by running the fastest five furlongs in a decade during a workout at Churchill Downs.
“He has always been brilliant in race preparations, but what he shows me in morning workouts he hasn’t shown me yet in a race,” his trainer, Tom Amoss, says. “He deserves to be in the Derby, but he must move forward to be competitive.”
Lone Sailor was purchased for $120,000 by the late New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson and his wife, Gayle, two years ago. Amoss trains horses for the Benson racing stable.
“I expected that he would sell for $100,000 more than he did,” Amoss says. “I was worried that maybe there was something about him that I had missed. I kind of had a little buyer’s remorse.”
Lone Sailor will be the fifth horse Amoss has trained to run in the Kentucky Derby. His best finish is fifth.
In other years, Amoss says he knew going in that he had no chance to win. While it is unlikely this time, Lone Sailor gives him cause for hope.
He came on strong at the end to finish a close second to Noble Indy at the Louisiana Derby on March 24.
“I would love to think it was a learning experience for him,” Amoss says.
His biggest problem to this point has been his emotional maturity. The young colt still calls out to his mother when he is under stress.
“He needs to catch up mentally,” Amoss says. “The Derby is a war. For him to win, he needs to get rugged.”
How Big Red became a legend
Secretariat came from off the pace to win at Churchill Downs in 1973. That began a five-week run that culminated with him destroying the field in the Belmont Stakes. Only four horses opposed him because by then everyone else knew it was futile.
Secretariat went to the front almost immediately in the 1½-mile race and engaged in a blistering speed duel with Sham that experts of the day feared would sap his strength. Instead, Secretariat pulled so far ahead that he caused his jockey, the New Brunswicker Ron Turcotte, to look back to see if the trailing horses had some sort of accident behind him.
He won the race so easily in a world-record time that bettors holding 5,617 winning tickets chose not to redeem them. They kept them instead as souvenirs.
“People couldn’t get enough of Secretariat then and if anything he is just as popular or magical now,” Turcotte, 76, says. “I am like everybody else. I love him.”
Secretariat’s rampage through the Triple Crown electrified fans in a way never seen before or since. It raised the spirit of Americans dragged down by the Vietnam War and turned him into a celebrity.
Forty-fifth anniversary pins are selling fast on Secretariat.com. Earrings cast from a nail from one of the shoes Secretariat wore in the Belmont Stakes cost $60. Winning $2.40 parimutuel tickets from his final race at Toronto’s Woodbine Racetrack are available for $250.
A few years ago, Leonard Lusky, the fellow who runs the fan site, got a call from Penny Chenery, the woman who bred, raised and owned Secretariat.
She asked Lusky if he wanted to own a racehorse with her. He jumped at the chance.
“It was like Tiger Woods calling and asking if you want to play a round of golf,” Lusky says.
Groundshaker, a great-great-granddaughter of Secretariat, raced two times. She was retired with $1,030 in earnings.
“It was fun while it lasted, and a financial lesson,” Lusky says.
Broodmare Crypta shares bloodlines of Secretariat and Northern Dancer
For those with deep pockets, owning racehorses is often a vanity thing. The track is a place to be seen on a summer afternoon in fancy threads. For most, it is a money-losing proposition.
“It is a can-miss or will-miss 99 per cent of the time,” Roy McClintock says. “You are very successful if you break even.”
An Irishman who immigrated to Alberta 40 years ago, he owns one stallion, six broodmares, two yearlings and two fillies with his wife, Mona.
They live on a 320-acre farm in Caroline, Alta., sandwiched between farms owned by two hockey players, Kris Russell of the Edmonton Oilers and Jim Vandermeer, who played for six NHL teams in 12 years.
The couple started their small horse-breeding operation in 2010 after Roy saw the Disney film Secretariat. He had retired a few years earlier after running an oilfield-reclamation business for a quarter-century.
“We watched the movie and I told Mona, ‘I want a racehorse,’ ” McClintock says. “I loved the story.”
He scoured the internet looking for a descendant of Secretariat and Northern Dancer. Much to his surprise, he found a granddaughter of both 30 kilometres away.
Crypta’s owners found her difficult and had little luck getting her to foal. She was a little nippy when Roy went to meet her, but he brought her home anyway. Now, she is about to deliver her fourth foal any day.
“She is such a kind horse,” McClintock says. “She is the only one I have that will lick you. And she is a gem of a mother.”
Crypta is brown and has a little splash of white on her nose. She is stout, like Northern Dancer, and has socks on the same three legs as Secretariat. She accepts peppermints enthusiastically.
In 2014, McClintock took Crypta to Kentucky and bred her with a stallion named Perfect Soul. He is grandson of Northern Dancer and Secretariat.
The bay filly they produced, My Miss Avayah, will make her racing debut this summer at Northlands Park in Edmonton.
“I love having something close to Secretariat,” McClintock says. “That is what everybody would like to have in the barn.
“Do you have to have Secretariat’s bloodlines to have great horses? No. But none of the other bloodlines have beaten him.”
The McClintocks invested $40,000 at the start and agreed they would quit if they needed another cash infusion. It hasn’t been necessary.
They have been able to sell some of their foals, buy a few others and have even found their way into the winner’s circle. In one day last September, two of their horses, Teemans Kid and Mr. Jangles, each won $50,000 stakes races at Northlands Park. Mr. Jangles is a great-great-great-grandson of Secretariat.
“I am just trying to keep the dream alive,” McClintock says.
Tinner's Secret retired to stud, will eventually be gelded
After Tinner's Secret was injured, Murray Cluff sent him to a farm in Bryon, Tex., for rehab. He had blood plasma treatments and hydrotherapy and his tendon seemed to be healing. So Murray had him brought by trailer to Alberta, but he suffered an injury en route.
“He came out lame,” Cluff says.
Cluff eventually retired Tinner's Secret and placed him on stud farms in Alberta, first in Olds and then at Running Fawcett Thoroughbreds near Okotoks.
There he was galloped and introduced to mares by Amber-Lynn Jacobson.
“He wasn’t gentlemanly at all,” Jacobson says. “He would get up on two legs and run at them. He wanted to breed before he even said hi.”
After etiquette lessons from Jacobson, Tinner's Secret calmed down.
“By the end, he would sniff them first,” she says.
He sired half a dozen foals, with a stud fee of $750 collected each time.
Among the horses that Tinner's Secret sired is a four-year-old filly named Secret Spirit that Cluff plans to race for the first time next year.
Cluff hopes to put together a small racing stable and is mulling training the horses himself. He has a colt named Stony from one of his mares and Grindstone, the 1996 Kentucky Derby winner. He also owns Rascal Cat, who sold for $1.3-million in 2006 as a yearling. Murray claimed him for $8,000 after a race in Maryland, and also owns one of his foals.
“The way my story works is that Secretariat captured my imagination, Tinner's Secret got me into horse racing and then his injury made me want to learn more,” Cluff says. “I have to do things my own way because of economics. I am small and I am poor.”
Standing in his living room, where a large framed photograph of Secretariat hangs on the wall, Cluff produces a worn copy of William Nack’s book, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion from his library. Its pages are tattered and the spine is taped together.
“I read it every year at Kentucky Derby time,” he says.
Outside, Tinner’s Secret and his Shetland pal Silver eat grain a few feet apart.
“I rode horses but didn’t know anything about race horses,” Cluff says. “Some would say I still don’t.”
He had delusions of racing him again, but not anymore. He plans to geld him and turn him into a riding horse.
“I am never going to be a millionaire, but I believe in taking care of horses cradle to grave,” Cluff says.