There were three Triple Crowns in the 1930’s. There were four more in the 1940’s. It was still a big deal, but it wasn’t rare. Back then it was one of those things that racing fans didn’t get to see every year but they did expect from time to time. That is, to witness a 3-year-old horse so much the better of his peers that he wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.
CITATION swept all three races in 1948, and then there was a 24 year Triple Crown drought. Seven different times during that quarter-century a horse Won the first two legs. But each of those was unable to seal the deal and Win at Belmont.
SECRETARIAT came to Belmont Park in 1973 having Won the first two legs. Some folks didn’t get their hopes up. While others believed that this horse was the one to break the dry spell. In fact, so many bettors believed he would Win, that you had to Wager a dollar in order to Win a dime.
On that Saturday in June 46 years ago ‘Big Red‘ showed why he is one of the all-time greats. He finished the race 31 lengths (almost a football field) ahead of his competitors. The dramatic distance between SECRETARIAT and the rest of the field underscores how magical the race was to watch. But even more so is how he gradually opened up that lead.
Track announcer Chic Anderson’s call of the race captured it perfectly. “On the turn, it’s SECRETARIAT. It looks like he’s opening. The lead is increasing. It’s three, three-and-a-half.” At a mile he was seven lengths ahead. With a quarter mile to go in the mile & a half race he was 20 lengths ahead. He seemed to glide forward effortlessly and the other horses appeared frozen in time. And then Anderson gave the millions of fans that were watching and listening a line for the ages;
“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.”
The words are now immortal, and their poetry gave appropriate gravity to the historic moment. Racing fans had waited 24 years to see a horse like SECRETARIAT. After such a long time many thought one may never come along again. And now one had.
There are not enough superlatives to describe what SECRETARIAT did that day at Belmont Park. Which is why Chic Anderson’s description has found a permanent place in our culture because it was one of those rare moments where sports feels poetic, artistic, transcendent.
A CBS sportscaster of the era, Heywood Hale Broun, wrote about his own experience witnessing SECRETARIAT at Belmont that day: “There was the awesome physical perfection of the horse tearing down the stretch, the race incontrovertibly won, the jockey sitting still. … The horse was running simply out of the fierce joy, the tumultuous merriment, if you will, of feeling his own physical balance and power.”
There will be no Triple Crown Winner this year. Even the casual racing fan knows of the controversial events of the Kentucky Derby and the post-race fallout of all the horses involved. So it’s nice to look back, and regain the pleasure. For where else but horse racing can a tremendous machine feel such tumultuous merriment? Where else but horse racing can both spectator and athlete, animal and man, feel such a fierce joy?
This years Belmont Stakes is June 8th.