Before the start of my piece, I'll just give you some background. Yours truly is a big fan of Thoroughbred horse racing, and this past Sunday marked the 40th Anniversary of the great Secretariat winning the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown consists of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. To sweep these races is a rare achievement, with only eleven horses succeeding in well over a century. To pay tribute to Secretariat, I composed a piece about his triumph. Hope you all enjoy it.
Secretariat's Defining Moment: 40 Years Later
Every sport has a rare moment where what is seen will happen once in a lifetime. It is a moment where pure greatness is displayed and the athlete gives a performance that instantly attains legendary status.
Horse racing experienced such a moment forty years ago today on June 9, 1973.
This was the day everyone associated with the sport had waited for. The Triple Crown trail made its annual stop in New York for the Belmont Stakes. The Crown itself was on the line, with Secretariat attempting to become the ninth horse to claim it.
Twenty-five years had passed since Citation swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Over the next quarter of a century, seven horses would capture the first two jewels of the Triple Crown. The Belmont of course then became the final obstacle in their quest for horse racing's most elusive achievement. Not one of them passed the Test of the Champion.
As the years progressed, there was naturally talk of whether another Triple Crown winner would come along. Could Secretariat finally end the drought?
The colt had had a spectacular career going into the Belmont Stakes. He won the Horse of the Year title as a two-year old, which is no small achievement. That obviously put him on the list of Kentucky Derby contenders as he prepared for his three year old campaign.
After a stunning defeat in the Wood Memorial, a storyline going into the Derby was whether Secretariat could rebound.
He did just that. Secretariat silenced his critics in Louisville, taking the Run for the Roses after running each quarter mile faster than the previous one. His final time of 1:59 2/5 remains a track record to this day.
A fortnight later, Pimlico Race Course became the center of the horse racing universe when the Preakness Stakes was contested. Six horses left the gate that day, and Secretariat was last shortly after the start. However, that was only for a brief time. The Derby champion charged around the clubhouse turn, passing his opponents and seizing the lead going down the backstretch. Once he was in first place, he never relinquished it, leading the rest of the way. Like the seven horses after Citation, only the Belmont Stakes stood between Secretariat and the Triple Crown.
Secretariat did not have to deal with a large field in the Belmont. Only four horses were entered against him. My Gallant, Private Smiles, and Twice a Prince were among the opposition. Secretariat's chief rival, though, was Santa Anita Derby champion Sham, the runner up to Big Red in the previous two Triple Crown races. However, Secretariat had two other opponents to face.
One was history. As previously noted, it had been twenty-five years since Citation's Triple Crown. Seven had tried to succeed him, and all seven failed. The Triple Crown itself was a true rarity as well. Going into 1973, only eight horses had taken victory in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. The odds of course were not in Secretariat's favor, as good as the horse was.
The second rival was Belmont Park itself. The distance of the Belmont Stakes is 1 1/2 miles. The Triple Crown races are held over a five week span. Winning the first two legs of the series is laudable. To win all three races, including the marathon that is the Belmont Stakes, gives a horse legendary status.
The wait was now over. Everyone wondered, would Secretariat join that elite club of Triple Crown champions? Or would the Belmont conquer him like it had the previous seven Triple Crown hopefuls? These questions would be answered in approximately 2 1/2 minutes.
The five participants were loaded into the gate, Secretariat being the first one to enter.
Four seconds passed. The bell rang, the gates opened, and the Belmont Stakes was underway.
By the time the field reached the clubhouse turn, Secretariat and Sham were in front, and they had the race to themselves. They drew away from the other three horses, and set shocking fractions in the process. The half-mile was run in :46 1/5. Then they went six furlongs in 1:09 4/5. This was not the way to contest the Belmont. Both horses would tire. Secretariat's bid for the Triple Crown would collapse. How could these two set a pace like this in the longest Triple Crown race?
Then everything changed. Secretariat emerged in first place. He began to build a lead over Sham, and a roar began to come up from the crowd. Race caller Chic Anderson exclaimed that "Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!" Sham, the runner up to Secretariat in the Derby and Preakness, had no answer for his rival on this day.
The rest of the field caught up to Sham, but Secretariat continued to move forward. He was not slowing down. Anderson remarked that the colt was nearly a sixteenth of a mile ahead as he turned for the frontstretch.
As Secretariat thundered out of the far turn and headed for home, the camera focusing on him began to pan out. Those watching on television saw fans in the grandstands clapping, pumping fists in the air, cheering Secretariat on. Those watching on television heard the roar from that crowd. That roar was for two reasons: Secretariat was going to win the Triple Crown, and the fans at Belmont Park knew they were witnessing a tour de force up close that they would never see again.
Secretariat stared down Sham. He stared down My Gallant, Private Smiles and Twice a Prince. He stared down Belmont Park. He stared down history.
This day, this race, belonged to the son of Bold Ruler. The colt crossed the wire a record thirty-one lengths ahead of Twice a Prince. He ran the race in 2:24. Both the margin of victory and final time are records that still stand today.
The drought was over. Racing had a new Triple Crown champion. Secretariat joined the likes of War Admiral and Citation. Trainer Lucien Laurin now belonged to a club that included legendary trainers Ben Jones and "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons. Jockey Ron Turcotte joined Eddie Arcaro and Charley Kurtsinger on the short list of riders who swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, entered a sport that had been dominated by males, and reached its pinnacle. Each member of this group achieved something of significance as a result of this race, of this Triple Crown.
Forty years have elapsed since Secretariat's Triple Crown triumph. Between then and now, he has been regarded as one of the greatest racehorses of all time. In 1999, ESPN released a list of its top 100 athletes of the 20th century. Secretariat was ranked 35th, and was one of three racehorses to make the list (Man o' War and Citation were the others, at 84th and 97th, respectively). That same year, the Blood-Horse composed a list ranking the top 100 racehorses of the 20th century. Secretariat was 2nd, with only Man o' War ahead of him.
If one word could be associated with Secretariat, it is the word immortality. According to Webster's Dictionary, the word can be defined as "remembered through all time."
Secretariat reached immortality when he crossed the wire that June day at Belmont Park.