His performance on the track in Elmont, New York, on June 9, 1973, placed a close second behind basketball star Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on ESPN’s “Who’s No. 1” list of greatest sports performances by individual athletes. It was that spectacular.
Secretariat was the only athlete on that list with one name. And four legs. As we watch the 149th running of the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, the story of that race is worth telling. And worth watching, which you can do by clicking the videos inserted in this piece. But let’s set the stage for the race before you watch it.
Going into the race that day, there hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner — racing’s ultimate prize for horses in their three-year-old seasons — since Citation back in 1948. There’s a reason: Each race tests different skills of a race horse. The first of the three races, The Kentucky Derby, is one and one-quarter miles long. The second leg, The Preakness, is a shorter race at one and three-sixteenths miles long, and with some really tight turns. And the last leg, Belmont, is practically a marathon in the world of horse racing, measuring in at a one and one-half miles in length — and with a far turn that feels like it never ends.
On the day Secretariat saddled up at Belmont, the fans were hoping for a win. But the odds were against this horse: Only seven horses had won all three races in the 100-plus years that folks had been keeping track of such things — making it about as difficult, and improbable, as a baseball player winning the Triple Crown. Or a tennis player winning the Grand Slam.
After Citation’s Triple Crown victory in 1948, six horses had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown leading up to the 1973 season: Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Northern Dancer in 1964, Kauai King in 1966, Forward Pass in 1968, and Canonero in 1971. Their dreams all died in the dirt at Belmont Park.
But Secretariat was no ordinary horse. He was different than the others. And he knew it.
“You could look at Secretariat, and you knew he was something special,” said Pat Lynch, who was the head of the New York Racing Association from 1957 to 1981. “In addition to being an extraordinarily good runner, there was a very imperious look to him. He had a big flashing copper coat on him, and when the sun’s rays would hit him, it was a beautiful thing to see. It was the way God intended to make a horse.”
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That wasn’t just one man’s opinion. Sports writing legend Jerry Izenberg, a tough guy from the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey, and a man not prone to romanticizing athletes let alone animals, said this about the horse known as “Big Red”: “You can’t anticipate greatness; you can’t even define it, I suppose. It is something that God sticks into someone every once in a while and because it comes from God, the gift can’t be ignored and it can’t be defeated and the great athletes use it, even if they are not human.”
But Secretariat’s God-like qualities weren’t always apparent for all to see. In his inauspicious debut as a two-year-old at Aqueduct on July 4, 1972, he had trouble at the starting gate and got banged around the track. After finishing fourth in that race, Secretariat won his next two races.
The second was under a new jockey, Ron Turcotte. But it wasn’t until the Sanford Stakes in Saratoga Springs, New York, that Secretariat would show his real potential.
“I was sitting behind two horses, and I started to make my move because there was an opening, and when those two horses came in together, they just ricocheted off him,” explained jockey Ron Turcotte. “Just like nothing had happened. He went on to win it by himself and that is when he began to really impress me.”
What track pros had just witnessed wasn’t just an ordinary win.
“When Secretariat made his move in that race, it was unlike any move that I had ever seen any two-year old make,” recalled track announcer Dave Johnson. “It was the kind of move that took your breath away. You could hear the collective gasp from the entire Saratoga grandstand. It was like, ‘WOW, did you see that?'”
“You could hear the collective gasp from the entire Saratoga grand stand. It was like, ‘WOW, did you see that?'”
Secretariat would go on to dominate racing that year and become Horse of the Year. “For a two-year-old to become Horse of the Year, he can’t just be good, he has to break the mold and do something really sensational,” explained Daily Racing Form writer Steve Crist in early 1973. “Secretariat looks like a two-year-old that could turn into a Super Horse.”
Secretariat’s star quality sparked interest from investors throughout the racing world. In early 1973, shares were sold for a then-record breaking $6 million.
And then, after winning his first two starts of the year, came the run-up to the Kentucky Derby at Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York: the Wood Memorial.
Secretariat didn’t just lose the race, but seemed out of sorts. Was the world’s latest super horse a super dud?
“Secretariat came to the Kentucky Derby with a huge number of detractors,” Jerry Izenberg explained. “The buzz around the track wasn’t good. Some were happy to spread rumors that the horse was lame.”
“This horse was such a great two-year-old, he was horse of the year and now he is coming in here as possibly the greatest thing since the Man O’ War, but you can’t block out all of these rumors and you wonder what is going to happen here today,” CBS Sports commentator Jack Whitaker recalled.
Despite the rumors, Secretariat was still favored to win the biggest race of his young life, as a track record of 134,000 people jammed into Churchill Downs.
Secretariat not only won the first leg of the Triple Crown with ease, he was the first horse ever to run the race in under two minutes. But that wasn’t the most impressive part of his performance.
“Secretariat just did something that no other horse ever did,” explained Bill Heller, Ron Turcotte’s biographer. “He ran each of the five quarters faster than the one before, which defies logic.”
“Secretariat did something that no other horse ever did.”
“Another quarter mile and he might have taken to the air, he might have flown,” wrote sportswriter Heywood Hale Broun. Secretariat’s record still stands as the fastest Kentucky Derby performance of all time. And the fastest one and a quarter ever run at Churchill Downs.
Secretariat arrived in Baltimore as a three-to-10 favorite, and the horse didn’t disappoint, cruising to an easy win in the second leg of the Triple Crown. The stage was set for the showdown at Belmont Park and a shot at making racing history. And Secretariat was ready.
“He was the fittest that I had ever seen a horse,” said William Nack, author of “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion.” “His eyes were as big as saucers, and his nostrils were flared, he was nickering and his ears were playing and his muscles were rippling and he was walking around on his hind legs, and I remember thinking to myself, ‘Oh, boy, what are we going to see today?'”
The entire track — and the entire world — was pulling for Secretariat to win. “Before the race you could see not only what Secretariat meant to veteran, hard-boiled, step-over-a-guy-with-a-heart-attack-so-I-don’t-get-shut-out-of-the-window gambler, but also for people who were at that track who were not gamblers,” gushed Jerry Izenberg. “People brought their kids to see the horse. He was the people’s horse.”
A record crowd packed the grandstands, and the world was rooting for “Big Red” to make history.
He went off at 1-9 odds.
It didn’t take long for Secretariat to establish himself. Unlike other races, where he raced near the back of the pack until the time was right to make his move, Secretariat made his move early. Onlookers were worried that Secretariat had made his move too early.
“He just accelerated and took the field,” said racing writer Billy Reed. “I was like, Good Lord, what is Turcotte thinking?'”
But Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner, knew better. “It was too early in the race to be running like he was running, but it must have been what the horse wanted to do.”
This was one horse, as Chenery knew, that didn’t need a jockey to do his thinking. Ron Turcotte understood that, too, which made him the perfect man to ride Secretariat. “Once we got to the lead there, I just turned his head loose and he wasn’t backing out,” explained Turcotte.
Turcotte was sitting on the world’s first, and only, self-driving thoroughbred race horse. He knew not to get in the way.
Halfway into the race, Secretariat began to pass the only competition in the field, Sham. “I looked at the clock, and saw that the horse had gone three-quarters of a mile in 109 and two, which is the fastest three-quarters of a mile ever run at Belmont, and he is leaving Sham at this point,” explained William Nack.
Many onlookers, fans and experts were worried. Was the early pace too fast and furious for even Secretariat to survive?
“He is running and running and running, and I turn to the guy next to me and I say, ‘He has lost the horse!'” Jerry Izenberg explained, thinking Turcotte had lost control of Secretariat.
“I’m thinking, ‘He has gone insane,'” said William Nack.
“I’m thinking, ‘He has gone insane,'” said William Nack. “I’m cursing under my breath. ‘You moron, what are you doing? You are going to kill the horse. You are going to lose the Triple Crown.’ He still has a quarter of a mile go. Everyone is thinking he is going too damn fast.”
Penny Chenery wasn’t as worried. “All we could say to ourselves was, ‘Ron, just don’t fall off. Don’t fall off.'”
By the far turn, it was clear Secretariat was going to be the winner. It was just a matter of the margin of victory.
“Finally, as I turned for home, my curiosity got the best of me and I had to turn around,” noted Ron Turcotte. “When I looked back, I scared myself. I never saw anything like it in my life. It was like the horse I was on and the others were racing on two different race tracks.”
He ended up winning by an astonishing 31 lengths.
Even old-time track pros like Pat Lynch were left gushing. “It was like the Lord was holding onto the reins, and Secretariat was one of his creatures,” he explained. “And maybe He whispered to him and said ‘Go,’ and that horse really went. It was like a supernatural experience.”
“It was like the Lord was holding onto the reins, and Secretariat was one of his creatures.”
Jack Whitaker, one of CBS’s most seasoned broadcasters, couldn’t hold back his astonishment.
“Everybody was speechless and when it set in, people were crying,” he said. “I literally saw people crying, it was such an overwhelming thing.”
It was a performance of a lifetime. Secretariat set not only a track record but a North American record for a one and one-half-mile dirt race.
“When you beat a track record you normally beat it by one-fifth of a second,” explained horse racing writer Mile Battaglia. “But he knocked two seconds off the track record. There is no horse in the history of racing that could have beaten Secretariat that day.”
Sportswriter Steve Crist may have put it best when he said, “You’re not supposed to win golf majors by a dozen strokes, and you’re not supposed to score a 100 points in a basketball game, and you’re definitely not supposed to win the Belmont by 31 lengths.”
In the fall of 1989, Secretariat came down with laminitis, a debilitating hoof condition. When it failed to improve after a month of treatment, he was euthanized on October 4 at the age of 19. Secretariat was given the rare honor of being buried whole. Customarily, only the head, heart, and hooves of a winning race horse are buried.
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Secretariat’s autopsy revealed some things that many race fans already knew. “When we did the autopsy on Secretariat,” Dr. Thomas Swerczek told reporters, “we were quite astonished. He was almost a freak of nature but a freak in terms of being so abnormally perfect.”
The autopsy also revealed what the world didn’t know: His heart was huge. Literally. At 22 pounds, it was two-and-a-half times larger than the horses running behind him.
“He just had a superior power pack and he loved showing it to the world,” said Penny Chenery. “I wonder what he thought. He must have had a sense of accomplishment.”
We can’t ever know what Secretariat thought. But Heywood Hale Broun may have best summed up what we all thought about Secretariat’s performance that day in Belmont: “Every now and then some athlete is touched for a moment with a kind of higher level of greatness that [he] may not ever achieve again, but at that moment they are more than life allows. It was the same thing that Babe Ruth did for baseball and was something that everyone could think about and be amazed about, and that’s what he did for racing.”
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.