2 minutes 24 seconds – Winning margin 31 lengths
Fifty years ago the incomparable Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes, the third and final leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown. It’s a difficult task for three-year-old horses. The Kentucky Derby, the most famous of all horse races in this country is 1 1/4 miles, a distance unfamiliar to such young horses. It also has the most crowded field, making the task of getting through all the jostling and finding enough running room to hit their stride and then maintain speed during that last, punishing quarter mile is an incredible feat.
A couple of weeks later the horses run the slightly shorter (1 3/16 miles) Preakness. The field is much smaller than the Derby, but the distance and Pimlico’s (in Baltimore) unusually tight turns on top of a shorter “turnaround” that the horses are used to, especially so early in their careers is also a special challenge. But then, a few weeks later comes the Belmont Stakes in New York.
Often, the Belmont offers no chance for a Triple Crown winner as no horse in the field has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Regardless it’s one of horse racings premier stakes races. And when horses do have a shot at the Triple Crown? The Belmont has sometimes been said to be the place where Triple Crown dreams go to die.
Secretariat? Going into the Triple Crown his breeding suggested to most experts he wouldn’t be able to last for the length of either the Derby or the Preakness. But his owner, and later trainer Lucien Lauren saw a horse in his bloodline that suggested he might be more than a horse suited to shorter “sprint” races. The Derby and Preakness showed Secretariat had both speed and some endurance.
In fact his record winning times in both races still stand. But the Belmont? It was an has remained a challenge for any horse, especially the three-year-olds in the Triple Crown series. Even in the old days before horses were given so many drugs, and tougher because they trained and races more three stakes races in such a short time was so difficult even great horses couldn’t get it done. Secretariat was the betting and fan’s favorite going in. Experts now conceded he might do it the distance still had them concerned. A slow pace, or a too fast one and they believe Sham who had after all performed terrifically would win. Sham had the breeding to run the three races well including that last, extra quarter mile of the Belmont.
The race began at a quick pace with Secretariat and Sham separating themselves from the others before halfway through the first turn. As they got to the middle of the backstretch it had effectively become a match race, and at what could be a record pace which is just what the experts thought would doom Secretariat and cause him to fade & badly. Instead, he appeared to be going even faster! Turns out he was. The experts were wrong. The record pace didn’t cause Secretariat to fade back to the pack during the long final turn. As the race announcer said he was running like a great machine. He came out of that turn and into that long home stretch where so many other Triple Crown contenders wound up failing with a commanding lead.
And extended it!
There’s an iconic photo of him far, far ahead of the other horses in the closing furlong. The official Belmont photographer who took that famous picture passed away six months ago. But his son, who now holds the same job and “played the role of his father” in a biopic before the race noted even the best NFL quarterbacks can’t through a football the length of the gap between Secretariat and the pack at the end.
No horse has performed in the Triple Crown series like Secretariat did fifty years ago. Three races. Three records. And in the final one he dominated in a manner we’re unlikely to ever see again. Not since racehorses became so coddled and shot up with drugs. They simply aren’t a strong or tough as they used to be.
I could say so much more, especially having lived ten plus years on a farm which didn’t grow crops but bred racehorses, and which those who raced got turned out at times for a rest. They truly are amazing with a range of personalities. And yes, they ARE athletes. I love Redford’s character in The Electric Horseman referring to the champion horse he’d stolen and intended to release into the wild telling the pesky reporter (Jane Fonda) “Lady, that horse is a champion. And he’s got more heart, more soul that most people you’ll meet.”
So during this time of so much turmoil, tonight I offer a reminder of something wonderful. A performance by an athlete, a champion unlike any other. Watch and marvel:
UPDATE: Shame on me! It was pretty late where I live when I completed and posted this article. But you should know that 50 years after Secretariat’s historic 1973 Belmont run more history (the good kind) was made in the 2023 edition.
The winning horse was Arcangelo. What makes his win historic? His trainer is Jena Antonucci. Yep. A woman! Ms. Antonucci is not only the first woman to train a Belmont winner, she’s the first to train the winner of ANY Triple Crown Race. I don’t know about you, but that is some great and heartwarming new history on an already historic day. This was Fox Sport’s first crack at televising a Triple Crown Race. The viewer’s reviews are somewhat less than kind, with lots of criticism of the sound mixing during the actual race.
I tuned into the broadcast before the race to see some of the tributes that would be made to Secretariat and his performance in 1973. And other cool stuff about that day and race. There was also, as happens with any of the big horse races a set of features on key horses and their “story” that include the horse’s teams – including owners and trainers. One such segment was with Ms. Antonucci, and of course it addressed the question of her possibly making history along with her horse. I know, this was Fox but I felt they did a good job with this.
The other thing about this they got right was just after the race. When they cut to the box where Antonucci and the owners were to show their reaction it was pretty damned special. So for all the not-so-good aspects of Fox’s foray into horse racing coverage, there’s a wonderful piece of history they covered pretty well.
1973. 2023. I wonder what fifty years from now the 2073 Belmont will have in store for horse racing fans?