Nearly all horse racing fans and even most causal sports fans know the name Secretariat. The thoroughbred shattered track records on the way to a Triple Crown sweep in 1973. What many people may not know is that Secretariat didn’t break the track record at the Preakness Stakes, at least not officially, until almost 40 years later.


Analog Devices engineer, Tom Westenburg, helped set the record straight. You may remember Tom from a February blog where he talked about his experience with ensuring the accuracy of the timing systems used at many of the Winter Olympic sliding tracks.


With this year’s Preakness Stakes just a few days away, Tom was kind enough to share his story about Secretariat and record that almost wasn’t. Here’s Tom’s account:


When Secretariat won the 1973 Preakness Stakes, the official time was 1:55, which appeared to be around 2 seconds longer than what hand-held timers recorded (1:53.2). You can read more about what happened and why Secretariat didn’t hold the track record even though the horse should have here and here.


Back in 1973 I was a teenager mowing a woman’s lawn when this race happened. She insisted that I come inside and watch it. She had grown up in Kentucky and her family had raced horses, so she filled me in on all the “behind the scenes” details and how, if Secretariat won the Preakness, he’d probably be a Triple Crown winner. There was something different about the Preakness, I think length and/or surface of the track. As I watched her jump and scream as Secretariat won, I had no idea that I’d be working to correct a bad time 39 years later.


My work would involve reviewing the videotape of the race to determine what time I thought was correct, and why. I had a piece of software that could count fields of a video. A frame is made up of two fields, so using fields gave me twice the time resolution, or 1/59.94 Hz. My plan was to count frames, then calculate the worst possible time error, multiply it out and I’d be done. It wasn’t that easy. I also thought it’d be easy to find specifications for 1973 (or older) equipment, and locate the older NTSC standards. I wanted to find out how tight the 16.683 ms field rate was. I was able to find specifications from that era, but not specifically for 1973. However, when I went through the math on oscillator and thermal drift errors, that error was minimal. Trying to count frames was much more difficult than I expected. The cameras at the start and finish were not perpendicular to the track, so I had to estimate. I also had to interpolate between fields. As it turns out these were the largest error sources. I came up with 1:53.08, with a range of 1:53.00 to 1:53.15. There was no question in my mind that 1:55 was incorrect.    


While doing this I learned that a horse race does not start when the gate doors open; it starts down the track. This short stretch is called the “run-up.” It varies from track to track, and can be as long as 375 feet from the starting gate. At the Preakness the run-up is around 150 feet. I also learned that in the past, horse racing was timed to one fifth of a second, or 0.2 s resolution, (1:53 0/5th s). Tracks today are timed to 1/100 s, or 10 ms.


In my written testimony, I speculated on what could have caused the error. It seemed likely that the start-timing light started the timer early. It could have been from a bright glint of light (sun on a mirror or a camera flash) saturating the receiver and causing it to trip erroneously. After the testimony, someone who was there at the race in 1973 told me that a man ran out onto the track to pick up a piece of trash that blew onto the track about the time the gates opened. He left the track near the start-timing light. This is my revised theory as to what happened, but we’ll never know for sure.


This was the third hearing attempting to correct Secretariat’s time, and track record. Penny Chenery (Secretariat’s owner) was getting up in years and she was determined to correct this before she died. I never met Penny during this, but she did write me a very nice letter after the time and record were corrected and thanked me for my assistance. I would have liked to have met her, she seemed like a very interesting and unique person. I received her thoughts and concerns through Leonard Lusky, who was working meticulously to put everything together. He did a great job at laying out and building the case to get the Maryland Racing Commission to understand and change Secretariat’s time. Penny died September 16, 2017 at 95 years of age. I’m very happy I could be part of this, and that everybody involved may have given her a little peace of mind that things were set straight before she passed.