Life As We Know It: June 9, 2014

        Much was made over the weekend of yet another failure of the sport of kings to find a Triple Crown winner. California Chrome’s fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes means horse racing has not had a horse win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont since Affirmed did it in 1978.

        This time was supposed to be different. A sport which desperately needs a star had finally found one. But ever since Affirmed’s triumph, horses which won the Derby and the Preakness were beaten down by the punishing 1-½ mile run at Belmont – and by fresher horses held out of the earlier two races.

        Affirmed was a great horse, but whenever a new horse gets close to the Triple Crown these days and inevitably fails, I’m reminded of what made the 1973 Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, the greatest race horse of all time.

       A generation of Americans has grown up since that amazing stretch of six weeks in the spring of 1973 when Secretariat won thoroughbred racing’s biggest prize. Perhaps they now understand what all the fuss was about. No other horse ever ruled the Triple Crown like Secretariat did.

       The three-race marathon starts with the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. The Preakness follows two weeks later in Maryland, and the Belmont Stakes is run three weeks after that in New York, giving the horses a little extra time before the grueling finale. For 36 years now, horses have won the first two legs – the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness – only to figuratively die, down the stretch, at the Belmont.

       Secretariat simply outran the competition no matter the length of the race. And he gave Americans something to think about other than Vietnam and Watergate.

       Thoroughbred racing has produced many great champions – Citation, Count Fleet, Seabiscuit, Man o’ War among them. But only Secretariat, thanks in part to television and mass media, was a household name that transcended them all. After he won the Derby and the Preakness and was being prepped for the Belmont Stakes, he was simultaneously featured on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. He was truly a national celebrity.

       In his Kentucky Derby win, he ran the mile and a quarter in a tick under two minutes, a Churchill Downs track record that still stands. Astonishingly, his successive quarter-mile times were each faster than the one before it. In other words, he was still accelerating as he approached the finish line.

       But the Belmont set him apart and secured his place in racing history. Biding their time while the leaders burned themselves out, Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte began their move in the backstretch. The burst of acceleration almost defied the laws of physics and gravity. The lead grew to 10 lengths, then 15, then 20. Down the stretch, he was ahead of the field by a full sixteenth of a mile.

       The Belmont had become two races. The rest of the field was fighting for second, and Secretariat was racing the clock.

       The clock lost. Secretariat crossed the finish line an incredible 31 lengths ahead of the field in 2 minutes, 24 seconds flat, a world record. No horse before or since has run that fast on a dirt track for 1½ miles.

       The true measure of over-arching greatness in thoroughbred racing is winning all three Triple Crown races, and no horse in history did so while dominating more emphatically than the chestnut colt they called “Big Red.”