That summer I was going to school in Munich, and a desperate hunger for any news of Secretariat as he pursued a sweep of the Triple Crown intensified my homesickness.
What news I could find about America all seemed to focus on Watergate. The Senate hearings began. H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned, and every week brought a new revelation. President Nixon's administration was collapsing. This, of course, was how a "government of the people, by the people," as Abraham Lincoln famously put it, worked. But to my German friends, this made America, still reeling from Vietnam, look broken and diminished. Even Skylab, the first space station, was, as I recall, damaged during takeoff.
Looking for some news without all the Sturm und Drang and dying for a Secretariat update, I bought an International Herald Tribune a few days before the Belmont Stakes. The newspaper was terse in its approach to sports, but at least it assured me that Secretariat was running. The question then became whether I could experience the race somehow.
A friend owned a radio, a precious thing among impoverished students. Even more, she knew where on the dial we could find the Radio Free Europe station, which was sure to broadcast the Belmont.
"Sham and Secretariat are together going into the first turn. ... That's Secretariat now taking the lead. ... It looks like he's opening; the lead is increasing. Make it three, three and a half ... . He's moving like a tremendous machine, Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths in the turn. ... Secretariat is all alone. ... Here comes Secretariat to the wire, an unbelievable, an amazing performance."
"Superpferd," my friend said.
"Superhorse," I agreed.
Setting a world record for 1½ miles, Secretariat became, of course, the first Triple Crown winner since 1948, and he remains the greatest.
Rating the Triple Crown winners
1. Secretariat, 1973: When he won the Kentucky Derby, Secretariat accelerated throughout, running each quarter-mile faster than the previous one and completing the 1¼ miles in 1:59.40, or about three lengths faster than Northern Dancer's track record of 1964. As Jon White recently pointed out, Secretariat was so great that even 23 years after his death he set a record. Actually, he set a record in each of the Triple Crown races, but at Pimlico there was a timer malfunction, and rules forced the racetrack to accept the time of the official clocker, E.T. McClean. He had 1:54.40. Other clockers insisted, however, that "Big Red" had run much faster, and in 2012, the Maryland Racing Commission, with an assist from modern technology, unanimously voted to change Secretariat's official Preakness clocking to 1:53. But that Belmont Stakes, where, in the words of Charles Hatton, Secretariat won by "31 hysterical lengths," just might be the greatest single performance in the history of the sport -- certainly the greatest since Man o' War, who once defeated Hoodwink by 100 lengths to win the Lawrence Realization Stakes. Secretariat's winning time of 2:24 surpassed Gallant Man's record (2:26.60) by more than 10 lengths. Another indicator of Secretariat's greatness is buried in the running lines of his races and revealed in the quality of those outstanding horses he defeated, a gleaming group that includes Forego, Sham, Riva Ridge, Our Native, Big Spruce, Cougar II and Tentam. Secretariat won on an "off" track and on the turf; he won rallying from last, and he won leading throughout; he won going short and long, and at various distances in between, all while inspiring an entire nation. He retired with 16 wins from 21 starts, with three seconds and a third.
2. Citation, 1948: Speaking in 1996 on the eve of the Citation Challenge at Arlington Park, trainer Jimmy Jones said the 1948 Triple Crown winner was, quite simply, the best horse he ever saw and, he pointed out, "I saw Secretariat." Many would argue, but all would probably agree that Citation was an incomparable mover, graceful as a stream, but powerful as a riptide. He won the Kentucky Derby in a virtual gallop; two weeks later he led throughout to win the Preakness. He was having such an easy time of things that Jones apparently thought the colt needed a tightener before the Belmont. So he set a track record for 1¼ miles while winning the Jersey Stakes at Garden State; two weeks later, despite stumbling at the start, he took the Belmont by eight lengths. In one of the greatest campaigns in the history of the sport, Citation won 19 of his 20 races in 1948, his only loss coming in the mud at the Chesapeake Trial, where he was carried wide in the turn. He concluded his season by setting a track record in the Tanforan Handicap, but there he injured an ankle. He was never quite the same. His owner, Warren Wright of Calumet Farm, was determined to make the great horse the sport's first millionaire. And so after a year away from the races, Citation returned in 1950, extending his streak of victories to 16 and setting a world record for a mile at Golden Gate. With 32 wins and 10 seconds in 45 starts, Citation was finally retired after winning the 1951 Hollywood Gold Cup and pushing his earnings beyond the million-dollar mark.
3. Count Fleet, 1943: John Hertz considered selling Count Fleet, a notoriously headstrong colt who was difficult to handle and once worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:08.40, as a 2-year-old. But jockey Johnny Longden dissuaded the owner-breeder. Count Fleet set a world record for 2-year-olds when he won the Champagne, running the mile in 1:34.80. Although he never raced there, Count Fleet trained at Oaklawn Park for his 3-year-old campaign, which he began in New York in April, winning an allowance race four days before taking the Wood Memorial. He won the Kentucky Derby by three lengths, the Preakness by eight, the Withers by five, then the Belmont by 25 despite an ankle injury that ended his career. After the Belmont, Longden called Count Fleet the greatest horse he ever saw. He finished with 16 wins from 21 starts, with four seconds and a third.
4. Seattle Slew, 1977: Seattle Slew, of course, remains the only horse ever to enter the famed Triple Crown series unbeaten and come out of it the same way. Before traveling to Kentucky, he had dominated in all his races, leading throughout, setting a track record at Hialeah and winning everything handily. Easy wins, though, often aren't good preparation for the Derby, where trouble lurks. At the start of his roseate run, Seattle Slew swerved to the outside, nearly unseating his rider, Jean Cruguet. After some bumping, Seattle Slew found himself behind horses for the first time and caught in traffic. But he forced his way through and won by nearly two lengths, showing he had more than just speed and talent in his bag. It's often tenacity that makes the extremely talented racehorse great, and so it was with Seattle Slew. Except for an ill-conceived sojourn to California for the Swaps Stakes just two weeks after the Belmont, Seattle Slew lost only twice in his career, both photo finishes. He defeated Affirmed by three lengths in the Marlboro Cup. And Seattle Slew's loss by a nose to Exceller in the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup might be the greatest runner-up performance in the history of racing. Seattle Slew won 14 of his 17 races, with two seconds.
5. Affirmed, 1978: The great Hall of Fame trainer Wood Stephens called Affirmed-Alydar "the greatest act" in the history of the sport, and perhaps it was. They met six times in 1977, with Affirmed winning four of their races. The next year, they took the Triple Crown to an unprecedented level of drama and intrigue. Alydar won the Travers by disqualification, but otherwise he assumed the admirable if somewhat unappreciated role of bringing out the best in Affirmed. Although he didn't beat him often, Alydar pushed Affirmed to greatness and kept pushing. The winning margin shrunk throughout the Triple Crown, from 1½ lengths in Kentucky to a neck in Maryland, then to a head in New York, where the two chestnuts danced around the track together without a thought for any other horse. Darby Creek Road finished third, 13 lengths back. Affirmed repeated as Horse of the Year in 1979 and concluded his career with a victory over Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He won 22 of his 29 races, with five seconds and a third.
6. War Admiral, 1937: A son of Man o' War, War Admiral was owned, like his sire, by Samuel Riddle, who had shunned the 1920 Kentucky Derby, saying 1¼ miles was too far for a young horse to race. But the distance wasn't too much for War Admiral, who led from the start. In fact, he led throughout the Triple Crown, taking each of the races in front-running style. A rather diminutive colt who stood two inches over 15 hands, War Admiral used formidable speed to put rivals away early, then he cruised, winning many races while being "eased up," according to contemporary accounts. But Seabiscuit got the jump on him in their famous match race of 1938. War Admiral won 21 of his 26 races, with three seconds and a third.
7. Whirlaway, 1941: Calumet's other Triple Crown winner, Whirlaway, had an unfortunate love of the rail -- the outside rail. His habit of bearing out in the turn forced his trainer, Ben Jones, to be creative with equipment and training methods. Whirlaway bore out badly in the Blue Grass Stakes, but Jones had the problem in hand for the Derby. Whirlaway won it by eight lengths. A talented horse with an endearing vulnerability, he became very popular with fans, who gave him the descriptive nickname Mr. Longtail. He won 13 of his 20 starts in 1941 and 12 of 22 the next season, when he repeated as Horse of the Year. He finished with 32 wins in 60 starts, with 15 seconds and nine thirds.
8. Gallant Fox, 1930: It was the Fox of Belair's victories in the Derby, Preakness and Belmont that prompted Hatton to call the series the Triple Crown. Before then, the races had not been regarded collectively. But suddenly they became jewels, glittering in the handsome setting of Gallant Fox's outstanding campaign. He began that campaign with the Wood Memorial and quickly followed with an impressive victory in the Preakness, where he overcame a troubled trip. The Derby was run eight days later, so in 43 days Gallant Fox won the Triple Crown and the Wood Memorial. He later defeated older horses in the Saratoga Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup, finishing with nine wins in 10 starts on the year. He won 11 of his 17 races, with three seconds and two thirds.
9. Assault, 1946: A small chestnut colt bred on the famous King Ranch in Texas, Assault stepped on a surveyor's spike as a youngster. The injury left him with a deformity, and he became known as the "clubfooted comet." His deformed foot was so thin and brittle that he had to wear a special shoe that bent around the front of the hoof. He easily stumbled and forever walked with a limp, but he ran with courage, winning the Derby by eight lengths, then narrowly taking the Preakness a week later over Lord Boswell. In the Belmont Stakes, Assault stumbled and nearly went down at the start. He trailed by eight lengths in the second turn but somehow rallied to win by three. Injuries seriously compromised him late in his career. But Eddie Arcaro said that next to Citation, Assault was the best horse he ever rode. He won 18 of his 42 races, with six seconds and seven thirds.
10. Sir Barton, 1919: Sir Barton lost his first four races by a total of 56½ lengths. His co-breeder, J.E. Madden, then sold the hapless colt to J.K.L. Ross, who ran him twice more without success in 1918. Sir Barton completed his juvenile campaign winless in six races, all sprints. That's just how he entered the Derby -- as a six-race maiden. Yes, he had worked 1¼ miles, but he actually made his 3-year-old debut in the Kentucky Derby. His celebrated stablemate, Billy Kelly, had beaten Sir Barton three times. Eternal, the Derby favorite, had easily defeated Sir Barton too. There was even doubt that Sir Barton would run in the Derby; according to one report, he was going to be scratched. As it turned out, he not only ran, but he led from the start and won by five lengths over Billy Kelly. Proving the Derby wasn't a fluke, Sir Barton won the Preakness by four, then easily took the Belmont while being eased up at the wire. He and Billy Kelly met 12 times in their careers. Sir Barton beat him in only four of those races, but he won when victory counted most dearly. Sir Barton won 13 of his 31 starts, with six seconds, one of them behind Man o' War, and five thirds.
11. Omaha, 1935: Omaha is the only Triple Crown winner sired by a Triple Crown winner. A son of Gallant Fox, he had never won a stakes race before traveling to Kentucky, where he overcame a slow start to win with authority. A week later, he won the Preakness by six lengths. Two weeks after his victory at Pimlico, Omaha was upset in the Withers Stakes, finishing second to Rosemont. But Omaha easily defeated Rosemont in the slop at Belmont to complete his sweep of the Triple Crown. Trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Omaha won only two more races in this country. In 1936, he raced in England, winning two stakes and finishing second in two more. He won nine of his 22 races, with seven seconds and two thirds.