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‘A Tremendous Machine’

Remembering Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes 40 years ago.

4:15 PM, Jun 8, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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‘A Tremendous Machine’

Post time for today’s running of the Belmont Stakes, the 145th running of the 1½ mile-long Grade 1 stakes race and final leg of the triple crown, is 6:36 p.m. With the Kentucky Derby won by Orb, the morning-line favorite in today’s race at 3-1, and Oxbow, going off this morning at 5-1, winning the Preakness, we’ll have to wait at least another year for a horse to make a run at the Triple Crown. No horse has won it since Affirmed took the crown in 1978, but several fine thoroughbreds have had a shot at it, winning in Louisville and Baltimore, only to falter in New York. Among others, in successive years in the late 90s, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic all left Belmont with their hopes of entering the thoroughbred pantheon dashed. I was there in Queens to cheer them on, as I cheered for my grandfather’s horse, the 1976 Belmont winner, Bold Forbes, as well as Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont. Tomorrow, June 9, marks the fortieth anniversary of one the greatest moments in the history of sports.

Unpacking boxes after moving into a new home, I found a souvenir of the race, one of three winning $2 tickets that my father had bought for me and my two brothers. Had he cashed it in, it would’ve paid only $2.20 since as the heavy favorite Secretariat had gone off at 1-10. Bettors left thousands uncollected that afternoon, just to hold on to winning tickets as mementoes of Big Red’s triumph. Winning by 31 lengths, he ran the 1½ mile course in 2:24, still a Belmont and world record.

You can watch the race here, with Secretariat and Sham, who finished 2½ lengths behind Big Red in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, running the fastest half-mile in Belmont history. In the backstretch Sham starts to falter. His spirit broken, Secretariat’s great rival will eventually finish last and never race again. With no horse near him now, Secretariat has the crowd in awe and horsemen shaking their heads. His fractions are unearthly and no one knows how long he can keep this up without weakening. Maybe, some think, jockey Ron Turcotte has lost his mind. But Turcotte never goes to the whip once during the race. Secretariat’s trainer Lucien Laurin, writes William Nack in his great biography Secretariat, “remains quiet, still looking solemnly at the racetrack, across the hedge and the lakes and the lawns to the far turn, where Turcotte rocks on across the back of Secretariat, listens to the beat of Secretariat’s hooves on the racetrack and the sound of the 70,000 people screaming.”

At 1:34 1/5, Secretariat runs the fastest mile ever in the Belmont. There’s still a half mile left, and his lead over the rest of the pack is growing—eight lengths, ten lengths. “Secretariat is blazing along,” says track announcer Chick Anderson. “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving,” Anderson famously says, “like a tremendous machine.”

At nine furlongs, Secretariat ties the world record. “He opens twenty-one lengths,” writes Nack. “He is running easily. Nor is the form deteriorating. There remains the pendulumlike stride of the forelegs and the drive of the hindlegs, the pumping of the shoulders and the neck, the rise and dip of the head. He makes sense of all the mystical pageant rites of blood through which he has evolved as distillate, a climactic act in a triumph of the breed, one horse combining all the noblest qualities of his species and his ancestry.”

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