Once Upon a Time

So we know there won’t be a Triple Crown winner this year, but thanks to video we can watch a Triple Crown Belmont Stakes victory anyway.

First, a story. Once upon a time, two thoroughbred breeders made a deal. They agreed that the owner of pedigree brood mares would send two mares to the champion stud owned by the other owner. They flipped a coin, and the winner of the coin toss got first choice of the two foals. Then the same two mares made the same trip the next year, and the loser of the coin toss got the first choice of the second two foals, except one of the two mares failed to produce a foal the second year.

So, the winner of the coin toss took home one foal, a filly that proved to be unexceptional. The loser got the second choice from the first year — a colt, also unexceptional — and the only foal born the second year. That foal was Secretariat.

If you saw the videos of the 1973 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, you might remember that in both those races Secretariat was in last place early in the race. Then he moved up to take the lead in the stretch. According to William Nack in Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, this was how the big horse ran most of his races. Jockey Ron Turcotte felt Secretariat usually needed to settle into his stride early in a race. But once he was in his stride, he kept accelerating. For example, in the 1 1/4 mile Derby he ran each quarter mile faster than the last one. This is unusual.

Beside Secretariat, there were only four other horses in the Belmont Stakes — Pvt. Smiles, Twice a Prince, My Gallant, and Sham. Only Sham’s owner admitted to thinking his horse could beat Secretariat. Sham had run great races in the Derby and Preakness and might well have won any other year. In fact, in the Derby he would have beat the track record had not Secretariat just set a new track record.

The Belmont Stakes is the longest of the three Triple Crown races — 1 1/2 miles. Sham’s owner instructed the jockey, Laffit Pincay, to go to the lead at the beginning of the race and to try to keep the pace moderate. They probably expected Secretariat to hang back at the beginning of the race, as he usually did. But Ron Turcotte decided that if no other horse set a strong pace he’d let the big horse go to the front and set his own pace.

So, in the video below (there’s a bigger version here) you see Sham and Secretariat both going to the front at the beginning, and they pull away from the other three horses. As they go into the first turn, they both pick up the pace. Pretty soon the two of them are running as if they were in a sprint, not a 1 1/2 mile race. Pincay knows that Sham is running too hard, but he had been ordered not to let Secretariat get ahead. Turcotte, meanwhile, feels the big horse running easily and figures he can keep it up for a while. So the two horses sprint, and reach the half-mile pole at 0:46 1/5, which was the fastest opening half mile in the history of the race.

By now Secretariat’s owners and his trainer are tearing out their hair, convinced that Ron Turcotte has gone out of his mind and will cause the horse to collapse of exhaustion before he gets to the wire. But because Secretariat is running so easily, Turcotte doesn’t realize how fast the horse is going.

At about five-eighths of a mile, Sham begins to fall apart. They’re still running at a faster pace than Man o’ War, Count Fleet, or Citation had run at that same point in the race. Over the next eighth of a mile Sham struggles, and Secretariat just glides along. At three quarters of a mile into the race, Sham is done. He drifts back and eventually finishes last. But Secretariat maintains the same sprint speed. His owners and trainer still think the horse will break down any minute. But Turcotte hasn’t taken out his whip or pushed the big horse; he is just letting him run, still not realizing they’re going at a record clip.

Now Secretariat opens the lead. On the video, you can hear the announcer Chick Anderson:

“Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5. Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!

Secretariat pulls further and further away from the rest of the horses. His frantic owners watch for any sign the horse is hurting or stressed. There is no such sign. As he turns into the home stretch, Secretariat is running faster than he ran past the half-mile pole. The lead widens. The horse maintains his record pace. At about the point Secretariat is 26 lengths in front — I’m sorry you can’t make this out in the video — Turcotte glanced behind and saw the rest of the field in another county. Then he glanced at the timer and realized he was ahead of record pace. So at the very end of the race, you can make out that he is pumping his arms — for the first time since early in the race — to be sure Secretariat doesn’t slow down at the end and blow the record.

Secretariat goes under the wire at 2:24, 31 lengths in the lead (the announcers says 29 lengths, but the horse was so far out in front it was hard to count). The previous record had been Gallant Man’s 2:26.6, set in 1957.

Since then, the second-fastest clocking is shared by Easy Goer (1989) and A. P. Indy (1992) at 2:26, while Risen Star (1988) and Point Given (2001) hold the fourth-fastest time at 2:26 2/5, it says here.

OK, now you can watch the race. (Or click here.)

You can read about the rest of Secretariat’s life here. In short, the big horse was retired to stud at the end of the 1973 racing reason and euthanized in 1983 after developing laminitis. On the whole his offspring were not exceptional, but his daughters have an outstanding record as brood mares. The fillies got all his good genes, it seems.

Sham was also retired to stud in 1973, after a leg fracture ended his racing career, and died in 1993. In 1978, Ron Turcotte fell from a mount during a race and was paralyzed from the waist down.

To this day, many people still consider Secretariat’s 1973 Belmont Stakes race to be the greatest single performance by a running horse. Certainly, it’s the best performance ever captured on film.

14 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time

  1. I remember that day. I was 15 years old. Maybe I didn’t know it then, but I was watching the greatest non-human athlete of the 20th Century. Maybe ever…
    But maybe I did. When Secretariat blew past everyone and kept it up, we weren’t just astounded, we were electrified. I remember that natural high well. I wasn’t a horse-racing fan or a bettor, but I remember calling my friends and talking about the race. They had all seen it and had the same reaction. It was like the other horses had all fallen down. Secretariat was his own sun, the others were merely planet’s circling gently around him.
    I’m still not a big horse racing fan. In the time since that run I have never been to a horse race; nor have I ever placed a bet on a horse. But I try to watch the 3 races every year. I hope I’ll see something like that again. I doubt that I ever will.
    And I can tell you, I’ll remember that day ’till the moment I die. I’d never seen anything like it before, and I doubt I’ll see anything like it again. It was like Jordan scoring 110 points in a final or Jeter hitting 5 home runs in game 7 of the World Series.
    Maha, thanks for bringing back the memories of my youth.

  2. I will never forget that race. One wonders just how far Secretariat could have kept up that incredible speed. He had a huge “barrel”, girth, increasing his lung capacity, which no doubt was a factor in his success as a racehorse.

  3. Wow, cund gulag, that sounds almost exactly like my experience. I can’t believe I will ever see anything more amazing. Electrifying is the word. I was watching it with my dad, who isn’t a horse racing fan, but understood that Secretariat always went out slow and then came on at the end. And then to just ‘run away from the field’, as my dad says, Wow. I’m a huge sports fan but this race sticks in me, like watching the Berlin Wall fall. I remember reading the Sports Illustrated article about putting Secretariat down, and crying. There was just something about that horse. Maybe in 50 years when we’re all gone, they’ll make the Secretariat movie a la the Seabiscuit movie. 1973, America was still embroiled in Vietnam, a presidency was soon coming to its knees. And then, an amazing horse………..

  4. Like many of you, I remember watching this when it happened. It is one of those moments that I will always remember. Now, I can “always remember” it via youtube.

    I am going down to the barn and give our horses each a kiss on the nose and extra bit of orchard grass.

  5. I’d never seen that before. Knew about it, read about it, but today was the first time I’d seen it. It brought tears to my eyes. Perfection, arete, the Form of beauty, strength, determination, heart. Wow.

  6. This is the best example of why I watch sports. When something truly remarkable happens, like Secretariat, you have an experience like you have never had before. Even though, I have never been athletic, I discovered there were great, magical experiences watching Secretariat and realizing this is the greatest performance ever. I remember that race, too. I got goosebumps every time I saw Secretariat race. And, despite all the negatives about TV, this is one of the great things it has done. It brings to people something they would never see without television and a common experience for all us in many different parts of the country. I saw Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game as a very young girl in Tacoma, Washington. I saw Dr. Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. And, more sadly, I saw the assassination of JFK followed by the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald right before my very eyes just as we had returned from Church. And, while as stated above, we may never see a horse as great as Secretariat, anticipating the possiblity with each new year in the Triple Crown makes it that much more available.

  7. That video gave me goosebumps. Wow. I didn’t know anything about Secretariat till now.

  8. Now you know why us geezers still get all blubbery about Secretariat. I remember being so surprised when he died. It was hard to realize he was a mortal horse.

    I see they’re showing a made-for-TV movie about Ruffian tonight. I might watch part of it, but I can’t watch the ending. It was too sad.

  9. Thanks for this video! It just brings tears to my eyes. When I was a kid growing up outside of NYC, the races were aired every Saturday on TV! Two horse stick with me…Sunrise County and the incredible KELSO!
    Watching this film of Secretariat brings me back many, many years.

  10. More on KELSO!!!

    Kelso (April 4, 1957 – October 16, 1983) was an American thoroughbred race horse and is considered to be among the best racehorses of the Twentieth century. In the list of the top 100 U.S. thoroughbred champions of the 20th Century by Blood-Horse magazine, Kelso ranks 4th, behind only Man O’ War (1st), Secretariat (2nd), and Citation (3rd)……

    Unlike all too many of today’s top racehorses, Kelso did not ignite racing in his second and third year only to disappear to a stud farm. This great gelding[2] competed for eight seasons, from 1959 to 1966. As his career raced on, so did his popularity. Huge crowds flocked to see him. Kelso competed on fourteen tracks, won in six states, smashed any amount of records, won an unprecedented number of awards, and eventually became as beloved a horse as any who ever lived.
    In 1965, during a workout he suffered a hairline fracture of the inside sesamoid of his right hind foot. Though he’d planned for another year’s racing, Hanford retired him at the age of nine.

    …And then…he became a show jumper!!

  11. The great Kelso was a gelding, so they kept him racing. The business of retiring horses to breeding farms before they turn four is one of the reasons thoroughbred racing isn’t as popular as it used to be. The public can’t follow the racing career of a great horse, because as soon as he becomes a “star” they send him to the farm. The only exceptions are geldings and late bloomers like Cigar.

  12. Yes, that’s right…he was a gelding, so he didn’t have a future as a stud.

    But what a horse he was…..

  13. I got to see Secretariat in 1976 when he was at Claireborne farm in Paris Pike, Kentucky. Not only do I remember his races and how thrilling they were, but I remember that my friend and I (both teenagers at the time) were allowed to take the lead line and just walk with him and let him graze. He was just the sweetest horse, especially for a breeding stallion. I have my picture taken with him and we were even given a bit of his mane to take home.

    But my heart breaks for Sham, who in any other year, would have been a Triple Crown winner himself. I got to see him and Claireborne (however you spell it) also.

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