One June weekend in 1973 at Belmont Park, a legend was born before our eyes. By the time they ran the Belmont Stakes that afternoon, Secretariat was already a folk hero, and a pop-culture icon on par with The Partridge Family, Smiley Face t-shirts, and Mood Rings. But on that warm New York afternoon, Secretariat passed from pop-icon to other-worldliness, to legend, in less than three minutes.
I was eleven years-old and followed racing mostly because my Dad was a fan. I watched the Derby every year, and I understood what “those three races”, were all about, and just how tough it was to win all three jewels. I recall watching that race with a certainty that something big was happening. To be fair, most observers thought Secretariat was going to win, but what he showed us all that day was so far beyond greatness, that words actually cannot do it justice
I’ve seen and heard interviews from reporters and on-scene spectators saying there has never been a more fit horse than Big Red was on Belmont Day 1973. Of course it’s easy to say that in retrospect, but if you actually watch the race you can see they’re correct. He broke from the number one post and went to the lead right away, taking Sham with him. Sham was a great horse in his own right, and suffered the supreme injustice of simply being born in the wrong year. By the time the two hit the backstretch, Secretariat was already leading and would never be caught. There is a sequence of just a few jumps that fully, and finally propel Secretariat into the lead, in which you can almost physically see Sham’s will break completely.
By the time he reached the far turn, Secretariat was clearly not just running a race, he was being allowed to show just how great he was. It was as though he decided that day, that he would show the world what HE already knew. “I am the biggest, baddest, stud on any track the world over–and you’re all about to see why.” Mike Tyson once called himself ‘the baddest man on the planet’. But Iron Mike never met Big Red.
There have been many accounts from the famous of exactly where they were, and how they reacted to Secretariat’s performance on the fateful day. Jack Nicklaus told esteemed commentator Heywood Hale Broun that he was on his knees weeping in front of the TV and applauding as Big Red thundered home. To which Broun brilliantly observed that Nicklaus, for all his greatness, had never witnessed the perfection he saw that day from Secretariat. The late NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle reported he was standing atop his table by the end of the race, with no earthly idea of how he got there.
I knew I was seeing something otherworldly and as a mere eleven year-old I was pounding the floor in front of the TV as Secretariat bounded across the line. I delighted then–and now–in Chick Anderson’s call on CBS Television. Anderson, who was as good as anyone has ever been that day in calling a race, knew he was seeing something transcendent, but was at a loss. At one point he describes the field, and stops himself saying, “But Secretariat is all alone!?” As though he realized the folly of his thinking that other horses mattered on that day. He had other great phrases in his race call of the day. “Secretariat is blazing along!” and the best ever, “He is moving like a tremendous machine!” And so he was. Like no other equine machine we ever saw. The day, the moment, and the immortality forty years ago belonged to Secretariat.
Several years ago, I visited his grave at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky. Other truly great horses are buried there, including his stable mate and Derby Champion Riva Ridge. Hoist the Flag, and a lot more you would recognize if you’re a racing fan, but the stone we all wanted to see was Secretariats’. I witnessed no fewer than four people place flowers on his grave that afternoon, and a Claiborne worker told me they must clear the flowers every day, lest they pile up.
I count myself fortunate to have seen amazing things in my life. Man landing on the moon, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a black man elected President, and two other amazingly great “those three races” winners in Affirmed and Seattle Slew. Secretariat tops them all for me. A seminal moment of my youth, that still resonates today with true greatness. Here’s to You Big Red.