After three-year-old Secretariat finished only third in the 1973 Wood Memorial, doubt about his possible influence on the at-hand Kentucky Derby crept through the thoroughbred racing community.
Even when it was discovered that a large abscess in his mouth probably compromised his effort in the Wood, worry about what “Big Red” would show in the first race of the Triple Crown series was widespread.
After what he had accomplished in winning seven of his nine races as a budding media darling at age two, Secretariat had become a national phenomenon.
He was carrying thoroughbred racing toward the country’s attention span. And anything moral and ethical that brought newspaper headlines and Movietone film to theaters was a precious resource in the racing world.
People outside racing and its close-knit community knew of Secretariat. And what they knew was that the 1972 Horse of the Year could be dominating; could set track records; and could be the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years.
So the loss in the Wood Memorial was a genuine concern.
If Secretariat couldn’t win the Kentucky Derby, his steady rise to the edge of people’s minds would collapse. And thoroughbred racing would have missed another opportunity to regain at least a few feet from the miles of ground it had lost with the public.
On the afternoon of the well-attended Kentucky Derby, Secretariat appeared to be in excellent health. As part of an entry with Angle Light, he was made the 3-2 favorite by the Churchill Downs bettors.
Optimism rode herd on one corner of the world. Doubt and a little pessimism were joined together in another corner. It was finally post time for the Kentucky Derby.
The bell sounded on the Churchill Downs starting gate.
The bulky field was sent away to the clatter and noise of the straining crowd.
Soon enough, everybody realized Secretariat had broken dead last and was unable to be placed where jockey Ron Turcotte and trainer Lucien Laurin wanted him.
Optimism sagged to its knees.
Secretariat would need a super effort — and an unimpeded route past traffic — to even become a factor. His winning the race seemed totally compromised by his faulty start.
But by the time the field reached the backstretch, Secretariat had steadily advanced with his long and powerful strides. And he had moved toward contention without using too much energy.
Most of the crowd’s attention was focused on Secretariat as his strides brought him past all but one other horse. And that horse was the leader, Sham.
Sham was not faltering.
It was Secretariat that was gaining ground as he literally ran faster and faster. He was running each successive quarter-mile segment in a better time than the previous one.
Not far into the Churchill Downs stretch, Secretariat drew even with Sham. After another 50 yards, he had the lead and was moving away from his rival.
The blanket of sound made by the crowd conveyed the pleasure most of the people wanted when Secretariat powered past the finish line, the 1973 Kentucky Derby champion by 2.5 lengths.
His come-from-far-behind feat had been done in less than two minutes, the only time the Kentucky Derby had been won in such a track-record time.
The winning time was 1:59 2/5ths.
Secretariat’s time still stands as the Kentucky Derby record.
Optimism rose from its knees and jumped 10-feet off the asphalt.
Secretariat had been vindicated.
In a short two weeks, he was at faded Pimlico for the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
When he broke last again, the gasp uttered by the thousands gathered wasn’t quite as loud as it had been in the Kentucky Derby.
Turcotte got “Big Red” close to the rail.
Secretariat took it from there.
Around the first turn, he took Turcotte for the ride of his life. In a matter of less than 200 yards, Secretariat stormed past the entire field and could be found moving with a rhythm that didn’t announce his record-breaking pace.
The others were left to contest second place.
Ahead by 2.5 lengths at the wire, Secretariat had set another new stakes record of 1:53, a time that wasn’t confirmed until 2012.
Two Triple Crown races. And both times he broke from the starting gate and was dead last in each race.
The media stampeded in his direction. Three national periodicals put his photo on their covers. Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated featured him.
Only one race remained to be claimed for the always-elusive Triple Crown.
The grueling Belmont Stakes at 1.5 miles.
Only four others were there to challenge the record breaker.
A crowd of 67,605 flocked to Belmont Park for the Triple Crown finale.
From the beginning, Sham and Secretariat distanced themselves from the other three.
After six furlongs, Sham could no longer chase the driving heels of Secretariat.
“Big Red” had a lead of a dozen lengths. It wasn’t long before the distance between him and the others was 18 lengths.
Many people watched in astonishment.
Was Secretariat going too fast to last the full 1.5 miles?
When his lead was moved to distances never seen in the history of any Triple Crown race, a groundswell of applause arose from the packed mass.
Twenty-four lengths. Thirty lengths.Thousands wept at the sight of such greatness. The final margin was 31.5 lengths.
His time was 2:24, the fastest 12 furlongs on dirt in history. Secretariat’s time was more than two seconds faster than the previous stakes record.
He was the first Triple Crown champion in 25 years. All the records had been broken. A national treasure had run alongside the public’s growing affection.
Secretariat had become the best of all time.