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Secretariat Remembered

By William Nack

Now 40 years later, on that grainy film strip of memory, in black and white, through the rising vapors of heat on that June day, I can still see the ghostly figure of Secretariat as he plunged along the backstretch at Belmont Park – charging in the distance toward the far turn, like some disembodied phantom in a dream, Ron Turcotte crouched motionlessly on his back as they left Sham and history behind. And then the colt raced by that pole, half way through 12 furlongs of the Belmont Stakes, and I turned my head on instinct to the teletimer and saw the warning lights flashing:

They blinked once, twice and froze: 1:09 4/5 …

Oh, my. I closed my eyes and shook my head, cursing softly at the jock and thinking:  Good God, he’s blown the Triple Crown. He’s goin’ too damned fast! What is he doing? What is he thinking?

Of all the little memories that linger from that day, the sight of Secretariat leaving Sham remains among the most vivid; that and the instinctive glance I shot at the infield tote to see the lights conveying that split – by far the fastest three-quarters of a mile ever recorded in the Belmont, three-fifths of a second faster than Bold Ruler, Secretariat’s sire, had hung up while setting his suicidal pace in the ’57 Belmont; that. and the queasy sense I felt, a little ripple of nausea, which arose with the sudden realization unto fear that Secretariat was going way too fast, way too soon, and surely burning in the fires of his own pace: like father, like son.

Before that moment, it had all been unfolding so neatly, so perfectly, that it appeared Secretariat’s quest that day –June, 9, 1973 –would be far less a race than a coronation, a stroll around the Belmont bridle path, a jaunty walk into the winner’s circle, all to thunderous cheers and acclaim.

No horse in history had ever come to the climactic moment in the Triple Crown with such a powerful wind at his back, one that had been gaining speed since his victory in the Kentucky Derby in 1:59 2/5, a record clocking that he hung for history behind a string of quarter-mile splits, each faster than the preceding one, that left even the most blasé sophisticates agog: 25 1/5, :24, :23 4/5, :23 2/5, :23. Two weeks later, in a performance predicted by a blazing six-furlong work in 1:10 flat at Pimlico, Secretariat shattered his second record in two weeks when he won the Preakness in 1:53 2/5, three-fifths faster than Cannonero’s mark set two years before; a mark that this year was officially lowered to an even more astonishing  1:53.

The colt came out of the Preakness utterly unfazed by the mayhem of the crowds and unbowed by the enormous energy demanded by his efforts. I rode back with him on the van from Pimlico to Belmont Park the next day, and he spent  those four hours gazing out the open top door of the van, calmly taking in the scenery along Route 95, tearing at his hay rack, his eyes looking as alert as a spring robin’s. The three weeks he spent at Belmont Park, training in a media crush for the Triple Crown, were charged with a crackling energy day after day, whenever the colt appeared on the track to work, or even gallop. On the muscle, he never missed an oat, and he put on a show in the morning that was far gaudier than any seen at Belmont in the afternoon.

Secretariat had a prodigious appetite for hard, fast works, the more the better, and he positively flourished in the grueling regimen that Laurin put him through.  Eight days after the Preakness, he worked three quarters of a mile at Belmont Park in 1:12 1/5, but that was just a prelude to the big move five days later, when Lucien sent him out to rock and roll a mile. He spun these splits like breaking sticks – :23 4/5, :47, 1:11, 1:34 4/5, up in 1:48 3/5. Good grief, what have we here? Over the same track, 4-year-old Tentam had just won the Met mile in 1:35 flat. In a last flourish, Secretariat finished his training with a final move three days before the Belmont: a half mile in :46 3/5.

Word was leaking out that America had itself a Superhorse. Three of the leaks were sprung at Time Magazine, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek, all of which had the colt on the cover, the only time in history that the same subject was on the cover of America’s three largest weekly news magazines. The U.S. Senate hearings on Watergate had begun to be nationally televised on May 18, the day before the Preakness, and suddenly here was this heroic beast -this gorgeous, unspoiled, and incorruptible mute – providing a kind of national recess from the infamies of the biggest political scandal of the 20th Century. 

Unmoved by it all, Secretariat came to Belmont Day looking like Pegasus himself. Those two record-setting races, and all those blazing morning works, had tuned him as finely as a Stradivarius, and he came to the race as fit as any horse who ever stared, white-eyed, through a bridle. I was at his barn at 6 a.m., having slept most of the night beside a tree outside the shed, and what a figure he cut when exercise rider Charlie Davis brought him out at 6:05 to walk him round a cinder path just out the door. A bucket rattled in a nearby stall and Secretariat rose up and started walking on his hind legs around the ring, his forelegs pawing at the blue sky, his nostrils flared, his eyes rimmed in white, and his rippling neck and shoulders gleaming in the sun.

Poor Charlie cowered under him, snatching at the chain. “Come on down, Red,” he yelled. “Come on, down!”  

The sight of the colt that morning, walking on his hind legs and coming down as if on springs, like a horse in dressage, snorting and prancing as though heading to the breeding shed, began a day that culminated in what many veteran horseman called the greatest single performance in the history of the sport. Nearly 70,000 souls came in caravans of cars to Belmont Park that day, bearing signs of encouragement – “Go Big Red!” and “Triple Crown or Bust” – in the fervent hope that the sport would finally anoint its ninth Triple Crown winner, the first since Citation in 1948.

Such was the historic context leading to that moment when he flashed past the three-quarter pole in 1:09 4/5 and I looked in fear and loathing towards the far turn, muttering my curses. Secretariat never backed off. Never dropped a beat or snapped his tail. He pulled away from Sham and opened fourfivesixseven lengths as he pleased, right now, sprinting through a mile in a dazzling 1:34 1/5, through a mile and a quarter in 1:59 flat. In the closing grip of the pandemonium –at the sight of that horse drawing off to lead by 20 lengths on the turn for home –you could hear the roar of the crowd grow deafening, feel the girders shake, hear the winds of history howling through the eaves; as he neared the wire, now 28…29…30 in front, he never lost the fluid rhythm of his stride.

Tick-tock, tick-tock … In the end he won by 31 and broke the world’s record for twelve furlongs on the dirt, 2:24, the last and most challenging of all three Triple Crown records he broke then and still owns still today.

The film strip is grainier now, the morning lights lower around Stall 7, Barn 5, but I can still see him walking on his hind legs round that cinder path, pawing at the sky, and feel the elation and the wonder I felt 40 years ago, and still savor now, at the sight of him that morning and late that afternoon -on the day he flat ran out of Belmont Park and into history.

A seven-time winner of the Eclipse Award for turf writing, William Nack is the author of Secretariat: The Making of a Champion; My Turf: Boxers, Blood Money and the Sporting Life, and Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance.