A new movie reminding all of us of the excitement surrounding one of the great “athletes” of any generation is moving into theaters. The movie is about the horse Secretariat, the magnificent triple crown winner of 1973. I expect to go see it and cry like a baby. Why? Because Secretariat is intimately tied to my life long emotionalism regarding the concept of being a witness to an act of perfection. Whether it is Usain Bolt winning the 100 meters at the Olympic games in a style so thoroughly outclassing his opposition, Roy Halladay pitching a no hitter, or Franz Klammer skiing at the edge of catastrophe and death willing himself to victory in the downhill at Innsbruck in 1976, I have always struggled with my composure at the moment of triumph. Amazingly, in 1973, the hero-athlete was a horse and an epic one at that.
Secretariat was not a great story that snuck up on anybody that year. He was from the moment he stepped on the track at age two already a horse with incredible attached expectations. He looked like a winner, with a beautiful sorrel finish, three white stockings and a blazing white star on his forehead. And Secretariat was huge; 16.2 hands tall and in his prime cracking the scales at a Peterbilt size of 1,175 pounds. He had a appetite like a glutton, and a bizarre “human” personality – spunky, confident, and particularly fond of crowds and cameras. He was in short, “the Natural”, at a time when the national media was capable of framing a story and the public was desperate for a feel-good true life hero. At the end of his entry year in racing, he was already voted Horse of the Year by the horse racing establishment, and was the odds on favorite to bring home a triple crown for the first time in 25 years – consecutive wins in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont over a 5 week period. Considered the ultimate racing competition , this marathon process demands progressively longer distances out of the race horse until the final sprint of the Belmont, where the animal is expected to duel over 1 and1/2 miles to complete the crown.
Like any great victor, Secretariat needed a foil. In the Triple Crown races of 1973, it was an extremely talented horse named Sham, who it seemed was capable of matching Secretariat stride for stride and clearly was the class of the competitor group. Sham dueled with Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby, requiring a track record performance by Secretariat to nose out Sham by 2.5 lengths. The Preakness followed, and the duel continued with Secretariat again applying a late surge to catch Sham and win the Preakness. With the Preakness win, Secretariat was reaching legend status and simultaneously appeared on the covers of Tim, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated as “Superhorse”, a level of celebrity hard to describe at a time when there was no internet or 24/7 coverage of events as the Internet and cable TV now provide.
The Belmont loomed as the ultimate match race between Sham and Secretariat, as other horse owners cowed by Secretariat’s dominance refused to participate in the expected humiliation of their prized horses. As a result, only three other non-descript horses were entered in the race. Ali had his Frazier, Laver had his Newcombe, and now Secretariat would have his Sham.
I was a child at the time but it seemed that all the world was watching on that Saturday afternoon, June 9th, 1973, for the great Belmont Stakes duel. The Triple Crown was on the line, the hype of a “superhorse”, and the overflow New York crowd at the Belmont bet on Secretariat for the simple right to covet the winning ticket if Secretariat could pull off the win, as the winner was going to collect only 20 cents on a 2 dollar ticket. The right to say “I was there” with the momento was felt to be more important than cashing in the ticket. The crowd was psyched and wanted to see something special – and that is what they got.
The horses broke and by the first turn the two protagonists had separated themselves from the others. Secretariat and Sham pressed each other neck and neck through the first mile at a blazing speed. Sham’s jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. a hall of fame jockey knew his horse was at maximum capacity, and prayed that Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s jockey was as concerned about his steed. It didn’t really matter what Turcotte had in mind. At the 6 furlong mark, Secretariat pushed into the lead, and created a level of performance no jockey had any right to control. As unforgettably described by Chic Anderson, the legendary horse race announcer on CBS that afternoon, the unfolding event stunned Anderson into emotional awe – “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!”
No one had seen anything like it in a championship event. The horse was now 9 lengths, now 16 lengths, now 20 lengths, and finally an impossible 32 lengths in front of the field. He stormed down the stretch alone, no whip driving him, the hysterical crowd roaring, to the fastest quarter ever recorded, and the fastest mile and 1/2 distance in history. In a race records set by tenths of a second, Secretariat would break the Belmont record by 2.5 seconds and crushed the competition in a performance for the ages. Pincay, knowing the challenge was hopeless in the face of such greatness, eased Sham back to a last place finish to preserve the competitive colt’s body against certain destruction. I will never forget the unforgettable moment, the sense of perfect beauty and power that this special horse provided in that two minute interval of my life. Secretariat averaged almost 38 miles an hour, and was still accelerating at the finish.
When the great horse died of laminitis at age 19, an autopsy revealed what we all suspected – the great heart of Secretariat was at least two times the size of an average thoroughbred. In a world where thoroughbreds were driven by propellers, Secretariat was powered by a jet engine. Behold – “Superhorse”.