Belmont was Secretariat’s brush with perfection
In any year when there won’t be a Triple Crown champion, the Belmont Stakes brings to our memory’s surface the powerful image of Secretariat, the nation’s consummate hero in 1973 when Vietnam and Richard M. Nixon’s scarred White House were uppermost on people’s minds.
Here in 2017, there have been different winners of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes – meaning the Triple Crown chances are no more and there is no wunderkind of a 3-year-old thoroughbred running around race tracks this year.
So, let’s return to the most remarkable thoroughbred of all time.
“Big Red,” as he was called by many inside and outside the sport, came to the country’s common spotlight as a 2-year-old in 1972. He accomplished so much and even dominated his age-group with his photogenic presence that he was named “Horse of the Year,” a rare occurrence for a mere two-year-old.
The calendar turned to 1973 and Secretariat maintained his obvious status as that year’s favorite to win the Kentucky Derby … and maybe even becoming the first Triple Crown champion since Citation had swept the three-race series back in 1948.
The media literally worshiped the physical genius that was Secretariat. His likeness adorned the covers of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Time magazines. Television networks fawned over him. His owner was a once-in-a-lifetime story herself and his trainer and jockey needed no arm-twisting to sit and talk a spell to anyone with a microphone or camera.
Secretariat was as famous as Babe Ruth, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens and Bobby Jones had been when they commanded the headlines and radio waves in by-gone eras of adulation.
A four-legged colossus with a regale chestnut presence, three white stockings on his legs and the look of a copper-colored dynamo whose chest might hold an engine designed by General Motors, Secretariat won his first two races in 1973, but came a cropper in the Wood Memorial, his last test before the Kentucky Derby.
An abscess in his mouth was discovered in the post-race examination just after a disappointing third place finish in the Wood Memorial.
But doubts had been raised about the super horse who had just been syndicated for $6.8 million.
Despite the clouded finish in the Wood, Secretariat was the 3-2 betting favorite in Kentucky … and he didn’t appear to be merely mortal when he won by 2.5 lengths in Derby-record time. In Baltimore at the Preakness, he might have been jet-propelled when he circled the field the end of the first turn and roared off to about a 2.75-length win, again in Preakness-record time.
Three weeks after the tour de force win in the Preakness there was the 1.5-mile Belmont Stakes.
Sham, the runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, was back again but only three others joined him in trying to dispatch Secretariat as only a paper tiger.
There were 80,000 folks at Belmont that June day. Most of them were on hand to see if Secretariat’s feet would even touch the ground as he ran.
And run he did.
People cry at weddings. They cry at funerals. They cry at graduations and other rarely-seen ceremonies.
But they don’t often cry at sporting events where the supposed Hercules wins the day.
They cried at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
In the presence of such an overpowering performance by Secretariat where he actually won the race by 31.5 lengths and shattered the world record for the 12-furlong distance by 2.1 seconds, many in the throng couldn’t help themselves. They cried at the brilliance of the chestnut lion, who received their cheers and applause with his head turned toward the thousands of cameras … and even more thousands of adoring hearts.
It was Secretariat’s day. It was America’s day. A hero with no taint, no feet of clay, no hidden background of ill doings had just run the race of all races … chasing Nixon and Watergate toward the back pages of daily newspapers and nightly television newscasts.
There is no Triple Crown this year where Patch, Tapwit, Classic Empire, Lookin’ at Lee, Meantime, Epicharis and J Boys Echo are the runners in the Belmont Stakes.
Secretariat and his exploits can be celebrated for what they were – the most impressive late afternoon in racing history.