Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Tom Walton

No horse dominated the competition like 'Big Red'

A NEW movie opened nationally over the weekend that probably won't enthrall the critics. The film is called Secretariat, and the challenge to the moviemakers was obvious: How do you dramatize the story of a horse that was so good he took the drama out of the story?

But the movie at least sparks the renewed interest of millions of Americans in a racehorse that came to be regarded in his time as the world's greatest athlete.

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 Triple Crown. They now get to understand what all the fuss was about. No other horse ever dominated the Triple Crown as Secretariat did.

I'm not a horse-racing fan. But like millions of other Americans, I get caught up in the three-race marathon that is the Triple Crown, starting with the Kentucky Derby in Louisville the first Saturday in May.

The Preakness Stakes 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.

The Belmont, at a mile and a half, is the longest test of the Triple Crown races. Over the years, horses have won one or both of the first two legs - the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness - only to figuratively die down the stretch at the Belmont.

Some horses are good at a mile and a quarter; others are better suited for distance. 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 magazines. He was truly a national celebrity.

How great was he? In his Kentucky Derby win, he ran the mile and a quarter in 1 minute, 59.4 seconds, 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 competition 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 1 1/2 miles.

So momentous was the occasion that few of the 5,600 winning tickets for Secretariat were cashed. Most bettors saw no point in surrendering a piece of history to claim 20 cents in winnings on a $2 bet.

I remember resenting the Triple Crown achievements of two other great horses, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. Coming so soon after Secretariat's performance for the ages, their Triple Crowns - in my mind, at least - unfairly diminished the great champion's feat of 1973. After all, Secretariat had been the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

As it turns out, it doesn't matter. No horse has managed to do it since Affirmed, underscoring the difficulty and rarity of the accomplishment.

After his remarkable run as a 3-year-old, Secretariat continued to run well but also suffered defeats. So exalted was he that his few failures prompted one observer at the time to express surprise that Secretariat was "only human."

Even though a syndication deal prevented Secretariat from racing past age 3, he went out in style. He won his last race against older horses - at a mile and five-eighths, the longest race of his career and only his second on grass.

He ran to compete and he competed to win. When Secretariat died in 1989 at the age of 19, a necropsy determined that his heart weighed 22 pounds, about 2 1/2 times the size of the heart of an average horse.

Was Secretariat the greatest of all time? I say yes, though Man o' War, who won the Preakness and the Belmont in 1920 after being held out of the Kentucky Derby, deserves consideration.

But 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."

Thomas Walton is retired editor and vice president of The Blade. His column appears every other Monday.

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