A Tremendous Machine: Secretariat in the Belmont

Secretariat wins the 1973 Belmont Stakes in an iconic performance.
Secretariat wins the 1973 Belmont Stakes in an iconic performance. (Courtesy Bob Coglianese/Secretariat.com)

There were three Triple Crowns in the 1930s. There were four more in the 1940s. It was still a big deal, but it wasn’t rare. It was one of those things that racing fans didn’t get every year but they did expect from time to time to see – a 3-year-old horse so much the better of his peers that he wins the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. But after 1948, for the next 24 years they wouldn’t see another one. Seven different times during that quarter-century a horse won the first two legs. But each horse was unable to make it across the finish line at "Big Sandy" first. When Secretariat came to Belmont in 1973 with two wins under his belt, some folks knew not to get their hopes up. But others believed that this horse was the one. So many, in fact, that you had to bet a dollar to win a dime.

Of all of Secretariat’s memorable Triple Crown finishes, the Belmont is as much the best as Big Red was that day, when he finished 31 lengths - nearly the length of a football field - in front of his rivals. The dramatic distance between Secretariat and the rest of the field underscores how magical the race was to watch. But even more so is how Secretariat gradually opened up that lead. Announcer Chic Anderson’s call of the race captured it perfectly. “On the turn, it’s Secretariat. It looks like he’s opening. The lead is increasing. It’s three, three-and-a-half.” At a mile he was seven lengths ahead. With a quarter mile to go he was 20 lengths ahead. He seemed to glide forward effortlessly and the other horses appeared frozen in time.

“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.”

The words are now immortal, and their poetry gave appropriate gravity to the historic moment. 24 years fans had waited to see a horse like Secretariat. So long many thought one may never come along again. And now that one had, for it to be one so dramatic, so awesome, so – well – tremendous as Secretariat was not something to take for granted. Chic Anderson’s description has found a permanent place in our culture because it was one of those rare moments where sports feels poetic, artistic, transcendent.

Another CBS sportscaster of the era, Heywood Hale Broun, wrote about his own experience witnessing Secretariat’s Triple Crown and, with the luxury of having more room to write and expound than Chic Anderson had in the moments before Secretariat crossed the wire, put it like this: “(There was) the awesome physical perfection of the horse tearing down the stretch, the race incontrovertibly won, the jockey sitting still. … The horse was running simply out of the fierce joy, the tumultuous merriment, if you will, of feeling his own physical balance and power.”

Where else but horse racing can a tremendous machine feel such tumultuous merriment? Where else but horse racing can both spectator and athlete, animal and man, feel such fierce joy?

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