The winning athlete, of course is Secretariat, and the event was the 1973 Belmont Stakes which he won in record time, just as he did with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He also won by the biggest margin ever in a major American race, 31 lengths. He captured the first Triple Crown in 25 years, and utterly demolished the competition in doing so.
I remember it like it was yesterday. I graduated from high school the week of the race, but I was more interested--hell, obsessed is more like it--in the Belmont Stakes than I was in my high school graduation.
It is hard to overstate just how big a buildup it was in the three weeks prior to it. It was a national obsession, and Secretariat and his connections knocked the Watergate scandal right off the front pages of newspapers and newsmagazines around the country. He even scored a "triple" before the races with cover stories for Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. After all, no horse had won the Triple Crown since Citation did the job in 1948, and many were wondering if it would ever be done again. Six horses had won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but they came up short in the Belmont.
However, from the time Secretariat won the 1972 Hopeful Stakes, sports writers and other observers had already deemed him the second coming of Man O'War and a cinch to win the 1973 Triple Crown. Thanks to his owner, Penny Chenery, needing to raise money in order to pay the estate taxes after her father died, he was syndicated before he had even ran a race as a three-year-old, but enough people were confident enough to take a gamble and do it. While Secretariat had a couple of losses prior to the Kentucky Derby (and lost two times after the Belmont thanks to a virus in the Whitney and not being trained to his best in the Woodward thanks to his being a last-minute replacement for stablemate Riva Ridge), people still believed he had the ability to do it.
Secretariat did not disappoint, and it was almost he made sure nobody in future generations would approach his standards.
Although I have posted the race before on this blog, I'll do it again:
Some articles marking this occasion:
Owner Penny Chenery and jockey Ron Turcotte talk about Secretariat to the New York Times:
Q. What made Secretariat so special?_____
CHENERY What made him so special was that physically, he had no flaws. His conformation was about perfect. He got more out of his stride and was very well balanced. He didn’t get tired; he responded to it.
TURCOTTE He was a superstrong horse, superintelligent, you name it, he had it. He was great every which way you can think of. There’s nothing that any horse had over him. Every time he was right, he never got beat. He ran a couple times when he shouldn’t have run, and that’s how he got beat.
Secretariat's exercise rider, Charlie Davis, but for some reason the writer keeps calling him Davies, just knew he was going to win the Belmont:
As his exercise rider, Davies rode Secretariat throughout the week heading into Belmont and saw a horse that was ready to take on the small field in that race and set the pace early. He remembers sitting with the other exercise riders, on their mounts, watching the race and he knew that the early push out of the gate was no fluke._____
It was an improbable margin set by Secretariat at the first turn but even as others shook their heads, doubting that the horse could sustain it, Davies knew better. He remembers leaning over and telling one of the other exercise riders that he "knew it was all over. I knew it, it was all over. Fellas, he’s just cruising now.”
It was a premonition from a week’s worth of morning workouts that gave Davies such confidence.
“People ask me ‘How do you know he was going to win the Belmont?’ Well, he was training stronger and stronger each day,” Davies said. “Me and Secretariat, we had a bond. He watched my back, I watched his. He was telling me ‘I’ve got this.’ He sure did.”
Here is a reprint of what sportswriting great Red Smith had to say about the race.
Here is yet another piece about Chenery and Turcotte, this one from the Atlantic Monthly.