Some athletic performances are so magnificent they assume an otherworldly feel. They are dream-like in quality -- and yet wonderfully real.
That was Secretariat when he stormed home by 31 lengths in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to ensure his place at, or near, the top of the list of the greatest Thoroughbreds to step onto the track. Announcer Chic Anderson perfectly captured the breathtaking romp to the first Triple Crown in 25 years when he exclaimed, "Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
"Big Red" -- all flesh and bones and fury -- tore around Belmont Park for a mile-and-a-half as no Thoroughbred has before or since. He stopped the clock in 2:24 flat, shattering the stakes record by more than two seconds for jockey Ron Turcotte, an incredulous passenger who glanced behind for competition nowhere to be seen. No horse has ever broken 2:25 for that distance on dirt.
While Secretariat's Belmont is the moment frozen in time, his resounding Kentucky Derby and Preakness triumphs also testified to his ethereal qualities. Doubts surrounded the 2-year-old champion entering the Run for the Roses because he had been no better than third in his prep race, the Wood Memorial, a defeat later attributed to a large abscess discovered in his mouth.
He broke last in the Derby, almost as if to give the others a sporting chance. Remarkably, on his way to a track record of 1:59 2/5 seconds that has never been touched, he blazed each quarter of a mile faster than the previous one. He clicked off quarter times of 25-1/4, 24, 23-4/5, 23-2/5 and 23. He collared Sham, a potential Triple Crown champion in any other year, at the top of the stretch and cruised home by 2-1/2 lengths.
The Preakness was never in doubt after Secretariat, ranging up from the back of the pack, wrested the lead around the first turn. He again held Sham safe by 2-1/2 lengths. The time of the race, initially displayed at 1:55 in the infield, would be debated for years since the electronic timer at Pimlico Race Course malfunctioned. At a hearing requested by owner Penny Chenery after she ordered a review of the videotapes, the Maryland Racing Commission met last June and unanimously voted to change the time to 1:53, a stakes record.
Secretariat soared from horse to national hero after his extraordinary performances in the opening two legs of the Triple Crown. He was featured on the covers of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and Time. Newsweek sports columnist Pete Axthelm wrote, "Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes. Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat's muscular build identifies him immediately; his glowing reddish coat is a banner of health and rippling power He produces a breathtaking explosion the leaves novices and hardened horsemen alike convinced that, for one of the moments that seldom occur in any sport, they have witnessed genuine greatness."
In all, Secretariat won 16 of 21 starts with three second-place finishes and one third. He earned $1,316,808 for owner Penny Chenery, who famously won the dashing son of Bold Ruler in a coin flip with Ogden Phipps in the autumn of 1969.
Secretariat suffered from laminitis, a painful hoof disease, in the autumn of 1989. He was euthanized at age 19. A necropsy revealed that his heart was approximately two-and-three-quarters times as large as that of the average Thoroughbred, no surprise to anyone who watched in amazement when "Big Red" turned for home.
* Secretariat's grandsire, Nasrullah, is also the great-great-grandsire of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew.
* Subject of Disney film released on Oct. 8, 2010.
* Inducted into Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame in 2007, the first animal to be so honored.
* U.S. Postal Service saluted him with 33-cent stamp issued in 1999.
* Bettors holding 5,617 winning pari-mutuel tickets on the Belmont never cashed them, presumably retaining them as keepsakes of that event for the ages.
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