Sunday, June 9, 2013

40 years ago today, racing magic was created at Belmont Park

Today marks the 40th anniversary since Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes in the record-shattering time of 2:24, thereby becoming the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown.

Sports Illustrated released a gallery of photos commemorating the 40th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown win, which you can view here. Of the photos presented, number 10 is my favorite. That instant in time is one I know well: Ron Turcotte twists his body to glance back as Secretariat changes leads with effortless precision.

These two moves, encompassing a single second, speak volumes. Turcotte--in hearing the massive roar of the crowd, from what I remember reading--bypasses the typical glance-under-the-arm, as such a small move wouldn't have been enough to comprehend the great distance Secretariat had put on the field. Then comes the colt's fluid changing of leads, which exhibits his limitless power, his unchinked armor--weariness was not the horizon for him, despite having just run some of the fastest quarters in the history of the race. In that second, it belied the distance he had gone and had yet to go. In the present time, with millions of races run worldwide since that fateful day, we can only study that second with awe.

Secretariat didn't just win the Triple Crown--he annihilated it. In Greatest Races of the Past 60 Years: Part Two, I detail Secretariat's Triple Crown run:

"Secretariat--1973 Triple Crown Races
1973 Kentucky Derby
1973 Preakness
1973 Belmont   Alternate footage

Everyone is familiar with Secretariat's tremendous world-record win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. In truth, the 1973 Belmont Stakes is quite possibly the greatest race ever run in the history of the American turf. But in the long dusky shadow of the 1973 Belmont, Secretariat's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes are almost forgotten. Which is a shame.

Both as a whole and individually, the gems of Secretariat's Triple Crown run are unmatched. While it is common knowledge that his Kentucky Derby was run in the current record time of 1:59-2/5, a closer look at the fractions of the race reveals something magical. Going from dead last to first, Secretariat ran each subsequent quarter faster than the last--:25-1/5, :24, :23-4/5, :23-2/5, and :23--an accomplishment otherwise unheard of in 137-year history of the Derby. In short, the big red colt was just warming up as he went by the twin spires for the second time. Act one was complete.

The 1973 Preakness was a thing of blink-and-miss-it beauty, and in my humble opinion the first half mile of Secretariat's Preakness is nearly as breathtaking as the last half mile of his Belmont. As was his custom, Secretariat settled last early in the Preakness. As the field entered the first turn, a change came over the big red colt. The forelegs lifted higher, as if to take flight. Then with graceful ease, the colt changed leads and appeared to enter another dimension. Never breaking tempo, he passed horses on the turn, three to four wide, Turcotte clinging tight and motionless to his back. Secretariat then left the turn and re-entered our dimension; he had just passed the entire field and was in the lead. If you blinked, you missed it--it was one of the biggest moves in the history of the Preakness. The tempo of Secretariat's smooth stride remained unchanged to the finish line, where according to the Daily Racing Form, he recorded the stakes record time of 1:53-2/5 (officially marked as 1:54-2/5 for years due to a malfunctioning track teletimer). Act two was in the books.

The Belmont Stakes--the finale, the climax of Secretariat's three-act Triple Crown saga--was a wonder to behold. There was no last-to-first move in this race. Secretariat seized the lead from the gate and hurtled forward through time on a plane still not understood to this day. After the Belmont, great turf writer Charles Hatton wrote,'From the tintype days of Old Rosebud, high-buttoned shoes and livery stables to the jet-propelled present, one has seen a whole cavalcade of champions. It may sound very loud to say, but Secretariat is the 'Horse of the Century'. The colt now has unprecedented starfire. His only point of reference of himself. Americans have found a hero in an anti-hero age.'"

With each passing decade, with every race run and every good horse that parades before our eyes, the knowledge that we will never again see a horse like Secretariat is further hammered home. But this knowledge only makes his remarkable achievements shine all the brighter.

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