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.