With the Kentucky Derby rushing toward us on Saturday, the beginning of the 2013 Triple Crown series brings on thoughts of the greatest race horse of all time, the wondrous Secretariat.
The copper-colored colossus came along when the country needed some positive distraction to divert us from the troubled times of the Vietnam War and from the stench created by then vice president Spiro T. Agnew. Politics on the national level was a dissension-causing subject.
Where could we find a place of quiet, one without controversy and possible corruption, to draw our attention away from more division?
In came Big Red. In came Secretariat with his body beautiful and his race record and background story. He had saved owner Penny Chennery from losing her Meadow Stable when his breeding rights were syndicated for over $6 million.
He caught the public’s fancy, so much so that he was the front cover of magazines like Sports Illustrated, Time and Newsweek.
To definitively prove just how fast time flies by us, Secretariat came to the Triple Crown series 40 years ago. It can’t have been 40 years, could it? Just goes to show that even Secretariat can’t outrun the passage of time!
It was 1973. There hadn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Calumet Farm’s Citation romped through the spring in 1948. It had been 25 years. And many believed there would never be another Triple Crown champion.
Secretariat hadn’t done well in his last prep race before the Kentucky Derby, faltering in the Wood Memorial. It wasn’t discovered until afterward that he had an abcess in his mouth in that race that probably compromised his chances.
With Secretariat’s loss in the Wood Memorial, the 1973 Kentucky Derby became a tangled corner of unanswered questions.
And when Big Red broke poorly from the starting gate and actually trailed the field, those questions could have been written in all capital letters. He was running last. After his dissapointing showing the Wood Memorial.
Jockey Ron Turcotte, later to be paralyzed from the waist down by a gruesome fall, moved Big Red. On the Churchill Downs backstretch, they steamed into contention. When the last of the sweeping turns had been cleared, Secretariat was at the throats of the two leaders.
Through the stretch, Turcotte and Big Red glided on past Sham and tore their way to the finish line, stopping the timer in 1:59 2/5ths for the 10 furlongs.
His time shattered The Derby record. He had run the only sub-two minute time in the race’s history. Here, 40 years (it can’t have been 40 years ago) later, he is still the only thoroughbred to run a Kentucky Derby in less than 1:59.97.
There weren’t any sighs of relief at his performance. There were hurricanes of relief.
It was off to the Preakness in Baltimore.
Sham was back as the major competition.
At the break, Secretariat was in midpack as the field squeezed around the clubhouse turn and straightened out for the run down the backstretch. Suddenly, Secretariat accelerated like a vehicle/rocket trying to break the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.
He flashed past the others, startling them with both his timing and his power.
Secretariat won in record time. The timer malfunctioned and only 37 years later did Pimlico admit its mistake, finally satisifying the public’s desire to have the race hand-timed from a replay. Big Red had the Preakness’s all-time record as well.
Three weeks after the Preakness came the Belmont Stakes. Over 100,000 people came to that race. Most wanted a coronation of Secretariat. A few scattered skeptics were still waiting for misfortune and another Triple Crown trail littered with shattered hopes.
The Belmont Stakes is 12 furlongs, one mile-and-a-half. A literal marathon for three-year-olds.
After one furlong, Secretariat and Sham vied for the lead. After four furlongs, they were still neck and neck.
And then Secretariat proved his greatness beyond anything anybody has ever seen. He powered along, passing six furlongs in just over 1:09.
Sham began falling back. It was Big Red by 10 lengths. Then 16 lengths. Then 22 lengths. The other horses passed Sham.
Secretariat was going too fast. He couldn’t possibly maintain his pace for one mile-and-a-half!
Not only did he maintain his never-seen pace, he finished an unheard of 31.5 lengths in front of the runner-up. His time was 2:24. He had broken the Belmont Stakes record by nearly three seconds.
Those in the grandstand who weren’t standing and wildly applauding were standing, wildly applauding and openly weeping at the all-consuming performance they were blessed to have seen.
An idol has just won the Triple Crown . . . had just a set a track record in all three legs of the journey . . . and had swept much of the negativity off the newspaper’s front pages, off television’s airwaves and even away from politics.
Secretariat was a national hero.
And it was 40 years ago. That can’t be right. But it has been that long. Where have our lives gone?