The infamous photo by renowned track photographer Bob Coglianese. (courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese)
By Ryan Martin
ELMONT, N.Y. – On June 9, 1973, at Belmont Park, a crowd of 69,138 saw the epitome of athletic greatness on full display in the form of a well-built chestnut thoroughbred named Secretariat, who left his foes with broken hearts and those watching with mouths agape, winning the Belmont Stakes by an unprecedented 31 lengths.
Secretariat’s pinnacle moment provided him with a sweep of the Triple Crown, a feat that had not been accomplished in 25 years. What made his Triple Crown run so significant was that he found a different way to impress in each race.
After rallying to win the Kentucky Derby in a record time of 1:59 2/5 while completing each quarter of a mile faster than the previous one, Secretariat showed new dimensions in the Preakness Stakes, making an early move around the first turn en route to victory. In the Belmont Stakes, jockey Ron Turcotte allowed Secretariat to showcase his full potential in a prominent performance likely never to be replicated again.
Known affectionately as “Big Red” due to his chestnut coat, Secretariat’s Belmont win is regarded by many as the greatest performance a racehorse has ever displayed. It also is listed as No. 13 on Sports Illustrated’s 100 Greatest Moments in Sports History.
For Turcotte, the memory of being the passenger aboard Secretariat is one that has an irreplaceable place in his heart, even 50 years later.
“He was such a magnificent horse,” recollected Turcotte. “He was such a ham, and yet so capable of doing anything on the racetrack. We were good partners, and we never fought each other. He loved to play. He was lovable. It was love at first sight when I first saw him as a baby when he came in from the farm.”
Secretariat was owned and bred by Penny Chenery’s Meadow Stable and trained by Lucien Laurin, whose Turcotte-piloted Riva Ridge captured the prior year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Bred in Virginia, he was by influential sire Bold Ruler, and out of the Princequillo mare Somethingroyal.
Much of what made Secretariat and Turcotte a great combination was how they managed to be on the same page both on and off the racetrack. Turcotte and Secretariat even had their own way of greeting one another.
“Every morning when I walked down the shed row of Lucien’s barn, I would take his tongue and shake it like I was shaking someone’s hand and say, ‘Good morning,’” Turcotte said. “That’s how we would greet each other in the morning, he’d stick his tongue out and I’d shake it.”
Turcotte first got acquainted with Secretariat at Hialeah Park in Florida during the winter of 1972, where he made a good impression on the jockey before his racing career began.
“It was just a matter of taking our time with him,” Turcotte said. “When I got off the horse, [Laurin] asked me what I thought and I said, ‘Mr. Laurin, if we take our time, take it easy with him and give him the time that he needs, we’ll have fun next summer.’”
But they didn’t have to wait that long to start having fun with Big Red, whose 2-year-old campaign saw him earn Horse of the Year honors.
He began his 3-year-old year winning the Bay Shore and Gotham at Aqueduct Racetrack before suffering defeat to stablemate Angle Light and future familiar foe Sham when third in the Wood Memorial, which later would be attributed to an abscess in his mouth. The losing effort was seen as a vulnerability to the public eye heading into the Kentucky Derby, but that didn’t stop the betting public from making Secretariat the 3-2 favorite.
In the Derby, he broke last of 13 and picked off his competitors one by one to the outside down the backstretch before matching strides with Sham at the head of the lane. It only took light encouragement from Turcotte to get Secretariat in command and draw away to a 2 1/2-length victory over Sham. The record-setting win broke the previous record of 2:00 flat set by Northern Dancer .
Secretariat showed how diverse his gears really were in the Preakness. To the surprise of many, Turcotte made an early move in the first turn of the Preakness, but it wasn’t any deterrence to Big Red, who kept Sham at bay in the stretch under little urging.
“By making my move early, I could take control of the race and rate him the way I wanted to, and he won the Preakness very easily. I told Lucien after the race that I thought I could have won by a good 10 lengths or even more,” Turcotte said.
Turcotte said putting Secretariat on the front end in the Preakness was good preparation for what he would face three weeks later at Belmont Park.
“The race was just longer, and the turns are much bigger on that mile and a half track. It did help making that move around the first turn at Pimlico,” Turcotte said. “I was going to do what I did anyway. I won the Belmont the same way aboard Riva Ridge. I put him on the lead the same way and he galloped the rest of the race. I had my mind made up that I was putting him on the lead. That way, you can control the race better.”
While Secretariat’s accolades leading up to the Triple Crown put him in the spotlight of horse racing, his dominant efforts in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness gave him attention on a national scale. With appearances on the cover of Time Magazine, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, he became a pop culture phenomenon.
No horse had swept all three legs of the Triple Crown since Citation in 1948, but seven horses had won the Derby and Preakness en route to a Belmont Stakes loss. The drought made some racing fans wonder if a Triple Crown sweep was simply out of reach, but Secretariat winning the first two legs in such unorthodox fashion made believers out of most skeptics.
The stage was set for Secretariat’s date with destiny as Sham and three others lined up to try and deny Big Red the Triple Crown. The other competitors were previous Kentucky Derby contestants My Gallant [ninth] and Twice a Prince [12th] and newcomer Prvt. Smiles.
Secretariat broke from the inside and maintained position alongside Sham into the first turn as the two separated themselves from the rest of the field. Secretariat put his neck in front passing the chute, and his advantage only increased going down the backstretch. Secretariat would lengthen his margin immensely passing each pole as Pincay, Jr. asked Sham for more run.
Reaching the far turn, track announcer Chic Anderson famously exclaimed, “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” By the top of the stretch, Secretariat was, in Anderson’s words, “in a position that seems impossible to catch”.
“I kept hearing the hoofbeats from the others getting further and further back,” Turcotte said. “I could hear them fading away. He was just so relaxed the whole way that I knew he would run all day. He was a superhorse.”
Finally, Turcotte’s curiosity got the best of him.
“I only looked back once around the turn when the announcer said he was 22 lengths in front. I just wanted to see what 22 lengths in front looked like,” Turcotte recalled. “I had to look across the track and that’s when I saw the clock turn 1:59 [for 1 1/4 miles] which was faster than what he ran in the Kentucky Derby. The only reason I had turned a little bit was because I was watching the timer and what time it would stop. Every sixteenth of a mile, he was breaking track records all the way throughout the lane.”
Turcotte was neither coaxing Secretariat, nor gearing him down. Big Red ran evenly through the uncontested stretch drive and was met with a grandstand of applauding spectators. He stopped the clock in 2:24, not only breaking the record for 1 1/2 miles, but galloping out 1 5/8 miles in 2:37 3/5, which would have been a record for the distance.
While Turcotte relished allowing Secretariat to flaunt his natural abilities, he admitted to one minor regret.
“I wish I would have taken him back to the end of the grandstand and walked him in front of all the people to get a good look at him. But then, I don’t know if it would have been the right thing to do either, making him do more than he had already done,” Turcotte said. “What’s so amazing is when I pulled him up, he wasn’t breathing too hard. And when I took my saddle off of him, he wasn’t even wet. He didn’t even break a sweat after what he had just did. It was just amazing.”
Turcotte rode one more race before going back to the barn to celebrate with the rest of the connections, but a swarm of fans waiting by his car kept him another hour or two.
“They were all waiting to have their tickets signed. I signed at least one that was about $200, and I signed a few that were $100,” Turcotte said. “I’d hate to think how many I signed. If my cousin from Ottawa hadn’t pulled me out of there, I would have been signing tickets all night.
“Then, I stopped at the barn and had a little wine there,” Turcotte continued. “The first thing I did was look at the horse, made sure he was fine and talked to him a little bit. I went into the office, and they were all there celebrating. There were people telling their stories about the day and all that.”
Secretariat’s career concluded with two victories on grass. He broke another track record over Belmont’s turf course for 1 1/2 miles when capturing the Man o’ War in a final time of 2:24.40 before going out a winner in the Canadian International at Woodbine.
As strange as it may sound, Secretariat was a far better horse during his post-Triple Crown days, according to Turcotte.
“Secretariat really matured when I was getting him ready for the Man o’ War,” Turcotte recalled. “There was a big difference in him. I couldn’t imagine what kind of horse he would have been as a 4 or 5-year-old. There’s no telling.”
Secretariat retired to Claiborne Farm in Paris, Kentucky, which also was once the breeding grounds of his sire Bold Ruler. Turcotte said he would go visit Big Red every time he rode in Kentucky.
“I can tell you that, yes, he remembered me,” Turcotte said. “I know one thing, I whistled at him, and I think he recognized my voice. He came straight over to me and stuck his tongue out, just like old times.”
The Belmont Stakes headlines the three-day Belmont Stakes Racing Festival that features a total of 16 stakes events from Thursday, June 8 through Saturday, June 10. For additional information on the 2023 Belmont Stakes Racing Festival and details on hospitality offerings, ticket packages and pricing, visit BelmontStakes.com.