A 26-year fight over a single tick of the clock may be nearing resolution. Last week, the Maryland Racing Commission quietly agreed to investigate whether the great Secretariat was indeed given a long count in the Preakness Stakes.

Secretariat came into the 1973 Triple Crown series with an almost mythic reputation, and built on it. He was the first 2-year-old ever named Horse of the Year, and early into his 3-year-old season a syndicate paid a record $6.08 million to have him retired to stud by the end of the year. He proved his worth in the Kentucky Derby, finishing the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5 seconds to become the first colt to break the two-minute mark in the 96-year history of the event long billed as “the most exciting two minutes in sports.”

Two weeks later, at Pimlico, before the biggest crowd in Preakness history, Secretariat, a huge animal known around the paddock as Big Red, breezed to the wire two-and-a-half lengths in front of his closest rival, Sham. But even before jockey Ron Turcotte could steer Secretariat into the winner’s circle, the brouhaha over his running time was percolating.

The official clock at the Baltimore track, an electrical system made by a company called Visumatic, showed him hitting the wire in 1:55 flat. That’s a very plausible time for a 1 3/16-mile trip for a mortal animal—the third-fastest Preakness in history, in fact. But nobody in the press box that day was ready to confer mortality on Secretariat. And when three veteran clockers announced that they had each hand-timed the winner in 1:53 2/5 seconds, or 3/5 of a second off the old track record, the murmurs grew to shouts.

Clem Florio, then a turf writer and handicapper for the Baltimore News American, was one of the unofficial clockers for the 1973 Preakness. Florio had been blasting the accuracy of the Visumatic timer in his columns for years prior to that race, arguing that the technology was designed for trotter tracks and couldn’t follow the pace of Thoroughbreds. Most hardcore horse players put more emphasis on a horse’s previous race times than any other single statistic or attribute—trainer, jockey, class, age, weight, post position, earnings, breeding, name, number, silks—when making betting decisions, but Florio scolded gamblers who gave any credence to the official fractions released by Pimlico. (Some of Florio’s diatribes even made his paper’s front page. No wonder race fans tend to reminisce….)

“The clock never worked,” recalls Florio, now the official handicapper at Pimlico and among the greatest raconteurs in Maryland racing—or anywhere. “I’d yell at the [track] management, I’d go to commission meetings and turn over tables, I’d write stories—’Hello, suckers!’ was the lede I always used when I wrote about the times. But nobody ever did anything to change it other than to try to get me fired. So I started timing the races myself. It was a lot of work, but I made a lot of money that way. Nobody else was getting the real times.”

Florio had credibility to spare with fellow turf writers when it came to Big Red: Before Secretariat had ever won a race, Florio had bellowed to a full press box at Aqueduct that the robust 2-year-old would grow up to be a Triple Crown champion, a prediction he’s still lauded for. So after Secretariat’s Preakness win, Florio had a whole choir of Pimlico bashers singing with him. A day later, under pressure from the national media and Secretariat’s trainer, track stewards agreed to review the time. Early in the investigation, a Pimlico employee who was listed as the official timer admitted that he, too, had clocked Secretariat a little quicker than the electronic equipment: at 1:54 2/5. Such discrepancies are supposed to be reported to the stewards immediately, but for whatever reason he’d failed to follow the rules. However, his admission forced an emergency meeting of the Maryland Racing Commission, held at the studios of the Baltimore CBS affiliate. At that gathering, station engineers rigged a split-screen match race, with Secretariat’s Preakness tape going frame for frame against a tape of Cannonero II, who set the official Pimlico track record of 1:54 flat while winning the 1971 Preakness. Secretariat trounced Cannonero II by 26 frames, or, in the eyes of the engineers, about a second.

Secretariat’s proponents thought they’d made their case for 1:53 2/5. But the Maryland Racing Commission, much like the Warren Commission, wasn’t swayed by video evidence. In its ruling, the commission agreed to lower the official time, but only to the 1:54 2/5 reported by the official hand-timer, meaning Secretariat still didn’t have the Preakness record.

“It would appear that Secretariat might have run the Preakness somewhat faster than Cannonero II ran the same race,” read the report approved unanimously by the commissioners after the 1973 meeting. “This commission, however, is bound by its rules and regulations which provide that the official time of any race is that which is clocked by the official timer….[T]o change records established by the official timer because of later electronic analysis of such events would be destructive of the integrity of all sporting events.”

Although Pimlico wouldn’t give him a track record, Secretariat was fast becoming an American hero and the biggest star in racing history. The editors of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated all made him their cover boy the week before the last leg of the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. Despite that hype, though, the Preakness clock dispute would surely be long dead by now had Secretariat not come up so big in the Belmont. Even hardened track veterans get weepy with joy when recollecting Big Red’s run in New York, generally regarded as the single greatest performance in racing history.

“I agreed to call the Belmont over the phone for an Atlanta radio station,” Florio says. “So I’ve got one eye on Secretariat and one eye on the clock, and I’m giving my running commentary over the air: ‘And Secretariat with the lead, he goes around the turn in 1:09 and change…oh,boy!….He’s got the first mile in 1:30 and change…oh, that’s impossible!…oh, my!…oh…I gotta go!’ And I hung up the phone and just watched the race. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nobody could. The station called me back and a guy says, ‘Clem, what the hell happened?’ I said, ‘Sorry, I got excited.’ That must have been great radio.”

Florio’s excitement was understandable. Coming down the stretch of the Belmont, Secretariat’s lead was so big that CBS had no lens in its arsenal that could catch him and any other horse on the track in the same shot. Secretariat won by 31 lengths, still the greatest margin of victory in a Triple Crown race. Once again, Secretariat set a track record that still stands.

The Preakness controversy has outlasted both Secretariat and Visumatic. Secretariat, his legend secure, retired from racing later that year and lived out his life standing at stud. On Oct. 4, 1989, after a long bout with laminitis, a hoof disease that brings unbearable pain, Big Red, 19, was put down at famed Claiborne Farms in Paris, Ky. Pathologists declared that Secretariat’s heart was the largest equine pump they’d ever encountered. The Visumatic timing system was pulled out of Pimlico in 1976.

Over the years, various individuals and groups asked the Maryland Racing Commission to revisit the 1973 race, without success. But the movement got a big boost last year, the 25th anniversary of Secretariat’s greatest glories. Pimlico President Joe DeFrancis, whose family bought the track in 1986, publicly requested a reopening of the case. In response, an assistant attorney general from the Maryland Attorney General’s office banged out six pages of legalese in May 1998 counseling commissioners that state law forbade them from humoring DeFrancis.

“The official time which Secretariat won the 1973 Preakness must remain as 1:54 2/5—two-fifths of a second shy of the track record,” the assistant attorney general’s memo concluded.

But DeFrancis and the Secretariat crowd continued lobbying, and, lo and behold, the state code was amended this spring, apparently just for them. As of March 22, whenever the electric timer fails, the official time of a race can be any time “provided by a method considered to be accurate by the Commission.”

On April 27, Pimlico staffer Craig Brownstein formally petitioned the commission on behalf of DeFrancis and the Maryland Jockey Club, the Thoroughbred horsemen’s main advocacy group, to reopen the investigation and let new technology and the new law be their guide. Using state-of-the-art video equipment, Brownstein, a longtime C-SPAN producer, had determined that Secretariat’s actual Preakness time was 1:53.12. Brownstein’s testimony apparently did the trick: Word from the commissioners is that a special meeting and semijudicial procedure to decide the matter should be held during the upcoming Preakness Week. Look for Secretariat’s time to be officially adjusted downward before the 124th version of the big race is run on May 15.

“We’ve got a good case,” Brownstein says. “We can be pretty exact with the video now.”

The Smithsonian hosted a seminar on horse racing Monday night. Connections to seven Kentucky Derby winners from the ’90s (including Bob and Beverly Louis, owners of this year’s champion, Charismatic) shared the stage with one from the ’70s: Penny Chennery, Secretariat’s breeder and owner. Moderator Jim McKay kicked off the program by thanking Chennery for everything her horse had done for the sport. At the reception at evening’s end, guests were given complimentary bottles of Kentucky bourbon and picture postcards of one horse: Secretariat, the soon-to-be Preakness record holder.—Dave McKenna

More from WCP