Chasing the Triple Crown

It hangs in a corner of memory like one of those old English racing scenes whose paint has begun to crack -- an heirloom of the mind now seen in fading colors, with that sunlit horse and rider in the center of it, plunging through the lights and shadows of the late June afternoon. Through the gauzy vapors of heat that hung like veils on the rows of trees along the backstretch fence. Beyond the flags fluttering above the infield lake. Through the ancient gates of history -- to a place where no race horse had ever been or may ever pass again.

Two silhouettes, in solitary flight.

Of all the memories that Secretariat left behind, strewn for me along a road that ran from Saratoga to Louisville, from Baltimore to New York, none remains more vivid than the sight of that gracefully moving horse as he swept toward the far turn in the '73 Belmont Stakes. For it was there -- as he pulled away from Sham and widened his lead at once to two lengths then quickly to three ... four ... five ... six ... seven -- the scene grew surreal, almost mystical, with the colt galloping as if from the pages of a storybook, a creature out of myth. Instinctively, I glanced at the infield Teletimer and saw the story gathering in that ominous cloud of numbers hovering in the air: three quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5s seconds, the fastest three-quarter mile split in Belmont history, and the mile in a blistering 1:34 1/5! This mile clocking was faster, by almost a full second, than the swiftest older racehorse on the grounds, Tentam, had needed to win the fabled Metropolitan Mile at Belmont a week earlier. And Secretariat still had 880 yards to run.

The colt was racing to become the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, the first since Citation swept the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1948, and the instant I saw those splits -- the horse was sprinting through the Belmont's mile and a half -- I figured right there that all was lost. Figured that he'd be consumed by the fires of his own sizzling pace, that he'd thrown himself on the flaming pyre just like his own father, Bold Ruler, had done in 1957, when he set a fiery pace in Gallant Man's record-breaking Belmont, only to grow so weary in the final eighth that he staggered home third, beaten by 12 lengths. Now I could see it all happening again, like father, like son, and I dropped my head and cursed his jockey, Ron Turcotte:

You idiot! What do you think you're doing? You're going tooooo damn fast!

What happened next defied all known precedents in the annals of American racing, blurring all reason as it repainted history -- a 50-second blur in time that left the sport with a new standard against which all other performances might be measured. Secretariat never dropped a beat as he raced around that turn, widening his lead to 10 lengths ... 12 ... 14 ... 18 ... now 20 as he rushed past the quarter pole in 1:59 flat, faster than his record-smashing Kentucky Derby run five weeks before.

As Sham drifted back to last, Secretariat kept pouring it on, opening 25 lengths at the eighth pole and 28 lengths by the time he was 100 yards from the wire. Here Turcotte glanced to his left, saw the Teletimer blinking its frantic message: 2:19 ... 2:20. In disbelief, Turcotte did a double take ... 2:21! Gallant Man's daunting mark was 2:26 3/5s. For the first time that day, Turcotte asked the colt to run, pushing on him with his hands, scrubbing on his neck: 2:22! The crowd grew deafening. Twenty yards from the wire he was 30 in front. Turcotte pushed again: 2:23 ...

Eighty thousand people leaned forward. The colt swept past the wire 31 lengths in front. The electric timer froze, and thousands gasped: 2:24 seconds flat! A new Belmont record by almost three seconds, and a new world record on the dirt.

Secretariat's victory, widely perceived as the finest performance ever by a thoroughbred, crowned what became the Golden Age of racing in America -- the inimitable decade of the 1970s, a span that witnessed two more Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, and nearly a fourth in 1979, when Spectacular Bid, looking like a shoo-in to sweep the Triple, was sent chasing cheap speed by his inexperienced rider, Ron Franklin. At the top of the lane, he was in front by three lengths, but wilted like a Derby rose to finish third.

This was the decade that saw the rise and fall of Ruffian, the most brilliant female racehorse I have ever seen; the dominating presence of Forego, America's four-time Horse of the Year; and the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry, the most compelling in Triple Crown history, with Alydar finishing second in all three and losing the last, the Belmont, by the final thrust of Affirmed's head.

I began covering thoroughbred racing for Long Island's Newsday in the spring of '72. Tossing off the Bid's loss as an anomaly, I figured that three Triple Crown winners per decade was the new norm, that the Golden Age had come and would not end, that what we were witnessing was the full flowering of the modern American thoroughbred -- a phenomenon that grew out of American breeders aggressively fishing the richer gene pools of Europe before and after World War II. Six European stallions imported to America from 1920 to the late 1940s -- Sunreigh, St. Germans, Sir Gallahad III, Blenheim II, Bull Dog and Nasrullah -- all purchased by Americans to infuse new blood into old domestic lines, led to a whole new set of genetic recipes that produced nine of the last 10 Triple Crown winners and a bevy of other champions, from Ruffian to Forego to Foolish Pleasure.

Not incidentally, this year's Triple Crown contender, California Chrome, has a sire line that traces back to Nasrullah through Seattle Slew and Bold Ruler, Nasrullah's most prepotent son. Nasrullah, in particular, complemented American mares so well that he created the finest blend of unrelated flavors since ham first met eggs.

* * *

Thirty-five years have passed since that era ended, since Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont, and I look back today -- after all the failures that were to follow -- and see how bloody spoiled we all became by witnessing so many stars, so many indubitable giants of the turf, rise to such heights in so short a period of time.

A staggering total of 1,360,000 thoroughbred horses have come of age as 3-year-olds in that stretch. Of that number, only 11 managed to win both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but not one of them had what it took to sweep all three. I have been at Belmont Park for all these dances, and of all the pretenders who came up short, none evoked a final scene as stunning as the one that unfolded, in vivid color, following the defeat 10 years ago of Smarty Jones, the wildly popular colt who came to the 2004 Belmont, undefeated in eight starts, off smashing victories at Churchill Downs and Pimlico.

He was the people's horse, just plain folks. Everybody called him Smarty, or Jonesy, and loved him from his foretop to his fetlocks. He had one of those memorable handles, like Elvis or Ringo, that had a magic ring to it.

I was watching the post parade in the set of box seats owned by Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, when I glanced around and saw, standing right behind me in the box, Bill Murray, who should have won an Oscar that year for his work in "Lost in Translation." Murray had been discovered wandering the grounds alone, dressed by his favorite haberdasher at Goodwill, and Penny had invited him to join us in the Chenery box. A record crowd of 120,139 people, the largest ever to witness a sporting event in Gotham, had slipped into every crevice of racing's Taj Mahal, all come to witness the coronation of America's 12th Triple Crown winner. The track's enormous parking lots grew so crowded that, for the first time in Belmont's history, cars were being turned away.

Belmont Park was a barely moveable beast. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani strolled past, still viewed as a hero only three years after 9/11, waving to chants of "RuuuDEEE! RuuuDEEE!" Right behind Hizzoner came Nick Zito, the trainer of a 36-1 plodder named Birdstone. Zito lived in a heart divided. The New York trainer craved ardently to win his hometown's signature event -- he was 0-for-11 in the Belmont, with five seconds -- but he also wanted to see a Triple Crown winner, knowing what it would mean to racing after all these years, the longest drought in the history of the series.

Smarty was the son of a brilliant miler, Elusive Quality, out of a mare sired by a champion sprinter, Smile, and he looked like a horse who might get 12 furlongs on the strength of his unquestioned class, but only if his jock, Stewart Elliott, could get him to relax and keep him off the chain-saw of a rapid early pace. Elliott tried, to no avail. Grabbing the bit from the start, Jonesy ran the speedy Purge into defeat, chewed up Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, spitting them out as he pleased, and turned for home in front by almost four. He had killed his three main rivals and now it was time to stroll home and join the sport's immortals.

No, no, Nanette. The last 200 yards was agony in slo-mo.

You could hear Tom Durkin's voice above the thunderous din, the track announcer's words almost a plea: "The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It's been 26 years and just one furlong away! Can Smarty Jones hold on?"

Oh, no! There he was. Out of the trailing dust rose Zito's little bay. Durkin again, 70 yards from the wire: "And here comes Birdstone!"

Chugging up on the outside, Birdstone collared a weary Smarty just yards from the wire, and drew off to win by a length. The din collapsed into an eerie silence. I turned to look at the crowd. There was Murray, standing as still as statuary, staring across the racetrack toward the finish line, his jaw slack and his mouth open in shock. Nothing at all was lost in that translation.

At once, from his box seat, came ambivalent Nick, the sorriest looking Belmont winner I had ever seen. He rushed past the newly unveiled statue of Murray, looking quite grave, almost ashen, as he hurried along the aisle. He might have been a pickpocket who had just lifted Bill's or Rudy's wallet and was trying to disappear in the crowd. With Birdstone paying $72 to win, Zito had picked most every pocket in the place.

It was the only Triple Crown race I ever saw in which the winning jockey, Edgar Prado, apologized to the losing jockey. "I am so sorry," Prado told Elliott, "but I had to do my job."

It was a shocker. For all I know, Murray might be standing there still.

* * *

I know I was for a long enough time, wondering what was happening here. Smarty's was the sixth defeat in the last eight years by horses who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and were racing for the sweep at Belmont Park. The three Triple Crowns of the '70s had sated the hunger for them well into the 1980s. Indeed, no one missed crowning the 12th when Pleasant Colony, going for the Triple in '81, came up empty to finish third to the winner, Summing, whose owner, Charlie Wilson, ended up walking in a daze around the winner's circle, muttering in the muggy heat, "I'm just a country boy. I don't deserve this."

Nor were any eyebrows raised in '87 when Bet Twice won the Belmont Stakes by 14 hysterical lengths, crushing Triple Crown contender Alysheba on the way. Nor did California-based Sunday Silence, another Triple Crown contender, have any answer for Easy Goer at Belmont Park, his home track, when the Goer flew past him on the turn like a 707 and sailed home, in a laugher, to win by eight.

The hunger truly returned in the '90s, and it was felt most keenly in '97, nearly 20 years since Affirmed had won it last, when Silver Charm came to the Belmont looking ready, if luck rode with him, to eke out a third and decisive triumph at Belmont Park and do the huck-a-buck into that charmed circle. A paternal grandson of the great Buckpasser, he certainly had the pedigree to get the trip. Following his victory in the Preakness Stakes, the Charm's owner, Bob Lewis, invited a bunch of folks to a celebratory dinner at a restaurant near Pimlico. The race had been a dazzler right out of Ben-Hur, a Preakness for the ages, with the Charm winning by the bob of a nose in a three-horse blanket finish that looked too close to call but lifted Lewis to his feet screaming, "We did it! We did it!" Which prompted Bob Baffert, his trainer, to blurt, "We did?"

Yes, they really did. The Charm's gray foil, Free House, was second.

Halfway through dinner, I decided to tell Lewis, Baffert and the others a story about the history of the Triple Crown. It went something like this:

A few days before Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby, I drove from Churchill Downs to Stoner Creek Stud outside of Paris, Kentucky, the home of the 1943 Triple Crown winner, the immortal Count Fleet. Old-timers used to tell me Count Fleet was one of the two or three greatest horses that ever raced in America. Count Fleet was 33 years old when I drove out to see him, and he looked that old when the groom brought him out to show him to me. His back was swayed, his coat a shag of long hairs, and his eyes weak and watery.

The Count was the last surviving member of that elite group of horses who had won the Triple Crown. The other seven were gone: Sir Barton (the first to win it, in 1919) died in 1937. Gallant Fox (1930) succumbed in 1954. Omaha (1935) and War Admiral (1937) both died in 1959. Whirlaway (1941) left us in 1953, dying of a heart attack on his way to a breeding shed in France. Citation (1948) keeled over in 1970, and Assault (1946) died in 1971. That left Count Fleet.

His groom reached over and patted the Count on the neck. "There has always been a living Triple Crown winner," the groom said. "Ever since Sir Barton won. You could always go visit one, like you're visiting this horse today."

The groom asked me if I knew Secretariat's people. "I saw the horse and his groom, Ed Sweat, just this morning," I told him.

"Next time you see him, you tell him that there has always been a Triple Crown winner alive and he better win it this year or that string will be broken," he said. "I don't think this old horse is gonna make it to the end of the year."

Next morning, I told Ed Sweat that story of Count Fleet. He whistled softly. "That horse is still alive?" Eddie said. "Don't you worry. We got it covered."

Secretariat won the Derby, of course, on his way to the Triple. Count Fleet died seven months later, on Dec. 3, 1973. Since then, Secretariat has died, but Seattle Slew and Affirmed are still alive, Slew at 25, Affirmed at 24. They could go at any time. History is speaking to you.

Lewis grinned and turned to Baffert. "What do you say, Bob? Can he do it?"

Baffert nodded. "He'll be ready," he said.

Baffert was right ... almost. The two grays came charging toward the wire as one, with Free House on the outside, a half-length back. A true herd animal, very sociable, Silver Charm liked running with horses, and tended to wait on horses if he got too far ahead, as he had waited for Free House in the Preakness. "He must think Free House is a cuz or something," Baffert said. He waited again in the Belmont. With Free House next to him, he failed to see Touch Gold, to the right of Free House, bounding the fastest of all down the middle of the track. He ran right by them both. Seeing him go by, the Charm dug in again. He was gaining in the end but he fell short, losing by half a length.

* * *

All the failed Triple Crown contenders have excuses, of course -- from jockeys moving too soon to horses failing to see a looming foe to those who simply got beat by a better horse that day -- but what happened in the end, at the final call, is they all got tired and failed to cover the ground as fast as the winners. The Belmont is a quarter-mile farther than the Kentucky Derby, and those last two furlongs have proved, time and again, to be the killers that spare no one but the strongest and most gifted. No one saw this more vividly than jockey Gary Stevens in '98, the year he rode Victory Gallop and chased the Baffert-trained Real Quiet through those last 440 yards.

Real Quiet was going to win the Triple Crown. He turned for home in front by a half and opened his lead to four lengths with 220 yards to go. Victory Gallop was nearly eight behind him on the bend and Stevens did not think he had a chance. "I thought he had an insurmountable lead," Stevens said. And then, as they flashed past that eighth pole, Stevens saw Real Quiet start to melt along the wick of that long homestretch.

"All of a sudden, he looked like a drunk person up in front of me trying to stagger home after last call," Stevens said. "I said to myself, 'I got him!'"

Victory Gallop sliced the lead to three lengths ... then two ... then one. Now he was a neck away, a head ... finally, in the last jump, he pushed his chocolate nose across the wire to win it by the sweat beads on his nostril.

It was the damnedest, hairiest finish I'd ever witnessed in the Belmont, certainly the wildest with that Crown on the line, and I sensed then that Real Quiet might be the last, best hope to win the Crown and keep that streak of living winners alive. And so it came to be. Except for Smarty's fateful swoon, nothing that followed even came close to Real Quiet's desperate lunge for the wire.

Affirmed died on Jan. 12, 2001; Seattle Slew on May 7, 2002, three days after War Emblem won the Kentucky Derby.

In a way, as poignant as it was for me, the breaking of that string of living Triple Crown winners emerged as a telling symbol of the way the thoroughbred horse -- and racing itself -- has changed in the decades since I came to the game in 1955. It became a symbol pointing to the way horses once were -- a sturdier and sounder animal, born with both speed and endurance -- and how they and the game had changed in the intervening years.

That Golden Age of the '70s is no more. The American Thoroughbred, once the apotheosis of the whole breed, has been weakened and compromised by the use of a raft of medications, particularly the dehydrating diuretic Lasix; by a new generation of fearful, vain, timid horse trainers who are afraid to run their 2-year-olds -- precisely the age when they must exercise and run, with their bones modeling and needing to grow strong and dense -- in fact, afraid to run anything for fear of losing and diminishing that all-important selling point, their "winning percentage"; and by commercial breeders who pile speed on speed in pedigrees, soundness be damned, knowing full well that speed sells over and above all other qualities -- over stamina, over soundness, over conformation, uber alles. And fast horses, pounding the ground harder, are more susceptible to injury than free-floating distance horses, a fact that has led to more breakdowns here than ever.

Everything is for sale. In consequence, that once-great American thoroughbred gene pool -- the blue lagoon that produced Swaps and Nashua, Damascus and Dr. Fager, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, Forego and Secretariat -- has been so badly depleted that American pedigrees are increasingly bereft of those classic lines that produced Triple Crown winners. The true distance horse, the true mile-and-a-half horse, is becoming a rare bird in the aviary of American racing.

Is there any wonder there's not been a Triple Crown winner in 36 years?

Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio ...?

This Saturday, California Chrome, the winner of this year's Derby and Preakness, will be right there on the top of the stretch at Belmont Park -- a tough, game youngster with a heart full of desire but a sprinter's pedigree. The day I visited Count Fleet in '73, the groom asked me to hold the aging horse while he walked around the back of him. He cut off a swatch of Count Fleet's tail and handed it to me.

"Here's a souvenir for you," he said.

Count Fleet won the Belmont by 25 lengths, the longest margin of victory until Secretariat broke it by six.

I'll be there, clutching a strand of Count Fleet's tail for luck as California Chrome turns for home. He will need every fiber of his being to win it, and perhaps a hair from the mighty Count can pull him home.

William Nack was a senior writer at Sports Illustrated for nearly 25 years and covered stories in a variety of sports and on a range of subjects. He is the author of three books, including "Ruffian: A Racetrack Romance," "My Turf: Horses, Boxers, Blood-Money and the Sporting Life" and "Secretariat: The Making of a Champion."