The Secretariat Stretch

Secretariat won the Triple Crown on this day in 1973, the first horse to do so in a quarter century. Seattle Slew and Affirmed also accomplished the feat in the 1970s, but they were the last. Before he was scratched from the running of today’s Belmont Stakes, I’ll Have Another, having won the Kentucky Derby on May 5 and the Preakness on May 19, had a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in thirty-four years. But no win at Belmont, say most racing historians, could compete with Secretariat’s record-smashing, thirty-one-length victory, now ranked among the iconic moments in sports history. Following William Nack’s description in Secretariat, we pick up the race at the three-quarter turn:

He is running now as if in contempt of the clock. Those watching him are only beginning to fathom the magnitude of the effort. He is moving beyond the standard by which the running horse has been traditionally judged, not tiring, not leg weary, not backing up a stroke, dimensionless in scope, and all the time Turcotte asking nothing of him….

Aglide, he turns for home in full flight. He opens twenty-one lengths. He increases that to twenty-two. 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….

The teletimer flashes 1:59 for the mile and a quarter, two-fifths faster than his Derby, faster than the Belmont ten-furlong record by a full second. He is twenty-three lengths in front. He lengthens that to twenty-four. And then to twenty-five, the record victory margin held by Count Fleet since 1943….

Once again he picks up the tempo in the upper stretch, racing the eleventh furlong in 0:12.2, as fast as he has run the opening 220 yards of the race. That furlong gives him a mile and three-eighths in 2:11.2, three seconds faster than Man o’ War’s world record set in the Belmont Stakes fifty-three years before. Obliterating Count Fleet’s record, Secretariat opens twenty-six lengths. He widens that to twenty-seven and twenty-eight. He comes to the eighth pole in midstretch, and the whole of Belmont Park is roaring full-throatedly…. They’ve come to see a coronation, America’s ninth Triple Crown winner, but many are beginning to realize that they are witnessing the greatest single performance in the history of the sport….

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.