When most people go to the gym to workout, they usually listen to an I-pod…not me…as strange as it may sound; I watch videos of horse races. (Yes, you would be correct, I have no life). I especially like the older races and since I’m in the gym several times a week (for a lot of years now) you can image how many I’ve watched. I actually started saving a few in my “favorites” folder. I started out with about 3 or 4, but when I looked recently, the list had now grown to about 10 or 12.
So, unbeknownst to even myself, I compiled a list of some of the most amazing horse racing moments (races) over the past 50 or so year.
I will be publishing them over the next several months in no specific order. So remember this is not a ranking system, but more like ones that just stand out in my mind for one reason or another.
That being said, I can’t help but to put Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes up first.
Called one of the greatest performances ever by an athlete on two legs or four, this race was a nothing short of a tour-de-force by a horse in a race that, in my mind, would become the standard for which others are judged.
If you’ve seen the recently released movie about Secretariat, you probably know a little about his life. But just to refresh your memory, if you go back to the beginning of the 1973 Triple Crown, Secretariat silenced a lot of his critics and doubters when he won the Kentucky Derby in May of 1973. Most were saying that because he was by the great Bold Ruler, who threw more short in stamina, but long is speed offspring, that Secretariat would never get the mile and a quarter Derby distance. But actually the Kentucky Derby would wind up being Secretariat’s finest performance to that point in his career.
Secretariat broke last, but gradually moved up on the field in the backstretch, then overtook Sham at the top of the stretch, pulling away to win by 21⁄2 lengths.
On his way to a still-standing track record (1:59 2⁄5), Secretariat ran each quarter-mile segment faster than the one before it. The successive quarter-mile times were 251⁄5, 24, 234⁄5, 232⁄5, and 23. This means he was still accelerating in the final quarter-mile of the race. No other horse won the Derby in less than 2 minutes until Monarchos did it in 2001.
Two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes, Secretariat broke last, but then made a mind boggling, last-to-first move on the first turn. In fact, it was a move that will live with me forever as I’ve never seen anything like it before or after it. Anyway, after reaching the lead with 51⁄2 furlongs to go, he was never challenged, and won by 2½ lengths, with Sham finishing second and Our Native third.
As Secretariat prepared for the Belmont Stakes, he appeared on the covers of three national magazines: Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated and had grown into a national celebrity.
Only four horses showed up to challenge Secretariat for the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 1973. Sham, who had finished second in both the Derby and Preakness, along with three other horses Twice A Prince, My Gallant, and Private Smiles.
Secretariat was sent off as a heavy 1–10 favorite before a crowd of 67,605 and when the gates opened, (he broke from the inside post) he went right to the front. He was challenged by old rival Sham around the first turn, and down the long Belmont Park backstretch. As a couple, they ripped off quarter-mile fractions of 23 3/5, 46 1/5, and a suicidal 1:09 4/5 for the first three quarters of a mile. The pace proved to be too much for Sham, but Secretariat only seemed to be getting stronger. How could this be? After such a grueling pace at such a grueling distance, was it only a matter of time before the big red running machine would begin to tire?
As Secretariat rounded the sweeping Belmont far turn, he seemed to be on cruise control. Without jockey Ron Turcotte asking for speed, Secretariat’s lead widened from seven lengths to an astounding 14 lengths.
This prompted race caller extraordinaire Chic Anderson to blurt out one of the most famous lines in sports history.
They’re on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a TREMENDOUS machine! Secretariat by twelve, Secretariat by fourteen lengths on the turn!
By mid-stretch, and with the Belmont stands rocking, Secretariat had amassed a 28 length lead, which was approximately 1/16 of a mile lead on the rest of the field, with the margin finally reaching 31 lengths by the finish.
Secretariat crossed the finish line as the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, and the first in 25 years.
Moreover, Secretariat recorded an average speed throughout the 12 furlongs of an unheard of 37.5 mph. If the Beyer Speed Figure calculation had been developed during that time, Andrew Beyer calculated that Secretariat would have earned a figure of 139, the highest he has ever assigned to any horse in the history of the sport.
Taking it one step further, Secretariat not only annihilated the field he faced that day, but also annihilated two previous records as well. The 31 length blow out was the largest win in the history of the race (Count Fleet won by 25 lengths in 1943) and he recorded the fastest time ever (by a full 2 2/5’s seconds- Gallant Man-1957) by stopping the tele-timer in 2:24 flat.
“In the Belmont, he (Secretariat) had such a nice, rhythmic stride,” said Turcotte. “He was just covering ground. He was doing it so easy”. Turcotte added that he looked back “one time, at the 5/16ths pole when he called me 20 lengths in front. I could see the crowd and hear the roar.”
When asked what his strategy was after the race Turcotte replied:
“My intention was to hold back. I galloped him and worked him. All this preparation was done by me and I knew that he could go from start to finish at a certain rate of speed. I started to take him back, and then there was a hole on the fence so the other jockeys started to take their horses back. Sham started to take the lead and come into the inside. I decided to move alongside him, so I wouldn’t get trapped behind him. He was breathing wonderful under me, his heart beating good. Everything was fine with him, he was not straining himself, he was not fighting me and at that rate he was covering a lot of ground because I didn’t have a short hold on the reign. I figured he could go like that all the way”.
“The (fractional) time was not really a factor in my thinking when I was riding.” Turcotte added. “Time is irrelevant; it’s how your horse is handling himself under you. Therefore, that is the reason I let him go on like that all the way”.
According to the official notes made by the Daily Racing Form:
“SECRETARIAT, sent up along the inside to vie for the early lead with SHAM to the backstretch, disposed of that one after three-quarters, drew off at will rounding the far turn and was under a hand ride from Turcotte to establish a record in a tremendous performance.”….
Afterwards there were two quotes that stuck out in my mind. Chic Anderson, who did a great job calling the history making race, later said: “I said 25 lengths it could have conceivably been more”. That in turn makes me think Anderson had never seen anything like this either…..then again, has any of us before or since?
But perhaps the best quote I heard after the 1973 Belmont Stakes was made by runner up Twice A Prince’s jockey, the great Braulio Baeza. Upon retuning to the saddling area, Baeza said: “Why isn’t anyone congratulating me? I won the race didn’t I? I mean, I beat every horse I could see”
After all was said and done, the most lasting image of the most amazing race I’ve ever seen, in fact, is probably not in the numbers at all. I mean if you throw out all the numbers, the fractional times, the final time, the number of lengths he won by, any quotes that were uttered after the race and mute track announcer Chick Anderson’s call and just watch the race?….you, like me, should still walk away from it with goose bumps. If you don’t, might I suggest you watch another sport?
Thanks for reading.