Today, I’m thinking about Secretariat, the thoroughbred that won the Triple Crown on this day in 1973. That’s only a vaguely familiar name to a lot of people now, but he was a stunning champion at a time when that still mattered. I remember his victories well — especially his Belmont Stakes triumph.
Horse racing today is not like horse racing in 1973. Online betting that keeps fans from the track, a decline in public interest overall, and a pile of corruption and horse deaths have turned the sport into a shell of what it once was. Heck, even in 1973, its popularity was on the fade. And then Secretariat came along.
I’d never heard of him until he won the Kentucky Derby, which is no surprise — I was a tween kid and I paid about as much attention to the ponies as you might suspect. But he broke the track record and sportscasters started talking about him in absolutely reverential terms, especially the rumpled old railbird types who obviously spent a lot of hours at the track. After he won the Preakness (also in record time), he was in position to be the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
Now, to the 13-year-old that I was at the time, 25 years was unimaginably ancient history. I assumed no horse was going to get the Triple Crown in my lifetime — that the nature of racing appeared to have changed too much for this to happen any more. A number of horses had scored the first two legs of the Triple Crown in those preceding 25 years, but the very different nature of the Belmont — it is a mile and a half, a really long distance that doesn’t get used much — looked like too much for any horse that had already won two incredibly demanding races in the preceding five weeks.
But, hey, this was still definitely worth watching and everyone was talking about it, so the family tuned in to the race.
What happened was…well, unbelievable. I still can’t believe I witnessed it.
Secretariat just crushed…destroyed…humiliated the competition. He won by a record 31 lengths. Fields of this caliber don’t have horses that win by 31 lengths, or 21, or 11 or usually even four or five. But there was Secretariat, crossing the finish line so far ahead that he looked like he was having a solo training romp. He also set another record. Those three race records still stand today, nearly half a century later, despite all of the presumed advances in breeding and training (that mostly seem to have created much more fragile horses).
After this, I kept following the horses for a bit, as Seattle Slew and Affirmed also scored Triple Crowns. In my mid-20s, I became a proper racing fan, thanks to living within easy driving distance of the Oaklawn track in Hot Springs, Arkansas. It had a racing scene in the 1980s that looked like something Damon Runyon dreamed up. That interest faded for me after I moved away, but a little spark returned this year thanks to Rich Strike’s crazily improbable Kentucky Derby win.
I suspect Rich Strike will be beaten like a rented mule at the Belmont, but even if he comes through on Saturday, all it will do is remind me of Secretariat once again.