Racing fans of all ages are probably familiar with the sight of Secretariat rocketing through the stretch of the 1973 Belmont Stakes, wrapping up a Triple Crown sweep with a lopsided 31-length victory.
It was a scene showing Big Red of Meadow Stable, with no other horse in the same area code, motoring toward the finish line with an army of frenzied fans waving, jumping up and down, and screaming about the majestic sight they were observing.
Yet Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr. had a much different view of a moment that has been frozen in time.
“I saw his tail the whole way,” he said.
Cordero was one of four jockeys who played supporting roles in one of horse racing’s greatest spectacles. He, along with Laffit Pincay Jr., Braulio Baeza, and Dan Gargan, who died in 1975, rode the four horses who tried in vain to run with Secretariat 50 years ago in the Belmont and are footnotes on a day at Belmont Park when no one was a worthy challenger for the overwhelming favorite.
“I never saw a performance like that before and I probably won’t see one again,” said Pincay, who rode Sham, the 5-1 second choice who was viewed as the main rival for the dual classic winner but suffered a career-ending leg injury and finished last by a little more than 45 lengths. “Secretariat was something special. He was the best.”
The stage was set for Secretariat’s historic romp a month earlier when the reigning Horse of the Year rebounded from a shocking third-place finish in the Wood Memorial Stakes and won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in what would be ultimately recognized as track-record times.
Pincay came into the Triple Crown believing he could defeat Secretariat with Sigmund Sommer’s Sham, who finished second in the Wood and won the Santa Anita Derby.
“In Kentucky I thought we could beat Secretariat,” Pincay said. “Bold Rulers had a reputation for not going a mile and a quarter and Sham beat him in the Wood Memorial. So, I thought my chances against him were really, really good.”
Secretariat’s 2 ½-length victory over runner-up Sham in the run for the roses ended those thoughts.
Two weeks later, in the Preakness, Secretariat made a bold, last-to-first move on the first turn and still managed to beat Sham by 2 1/2 lengths once again.
“In the Preakness, he ran a race in which he had an excuse if he lost, but he didn’t,” Pincay said.
That led to the Belmont Stakes and a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. The Virginia-bred, owned by Penny Chenery, trained by Lucien Laurin, and ridden by Ron Turcotte had become America’s most popular sports hero over the course of the previous five weeks and his 1-10 odds reflected how fans felt he would be unbeatable in the Belmont.
Even Pincay knew the odds were stacked against him and Sham.
“You always hope you could win, but I knew my chances were slim,” Pincay said.
With a small field of five, Pincay wanted to see what happened at the break before deciding where to place Sham in the early stages. But the instructions he received from Hall of Fame trainer Frank Martin were to run with Secretariat from the moment the gates opened.
“I wanted to see what would develop, but Frank Martin told me to go with him. ‘Whatever he does, you go with him. Don’t let him get away.’ I followed instructions and you saw what happened,” the Hall of Fame rider said.
And that’s how the race unfolded with Secretariat leading by a head over Sham through a quarter-mile in :23 3/5 and a half-mile in a faster :46 1/5.
“Things looked good on the backside. At the 5/8ths I still had horse,” Pincay said.
Ten lengths behind them, Cordero was third with 12-1 third choice My Gallant, running alongside Baeza and Twice a Prince and hoping the pace would catch up with both front-runners.
Those hopes faded approaching the mile marker when Secretariat began moving like “a tremendous machine” and opened a seven-length lead over Sham as the teletimer flashed 1:34 1/5.
“I thought Secretariat was going too fast but I knew he only had to beat one horse and that was Sham,” Cordero said. “So, when he took care of Sham early I knew we were in trouble. I knew he was going fast but sometimes when a horse gets no pressure you would not believe what they can do. He carried his speed all the way around for the mile and a half. There was no one to run with him.”
Meanwhile, Pincay knew something was amiss with Sham, who could no longer keep pace with “the machine.” After a mile-and-a-quarter, Secretariat was ahead by 20 lengths and Sham was about to be passed by Twice a Prince and My Gallant.
“I asked my horse and he could not keep up with Secretariat. I didn’t know if it was a problem with his leg or was he was feeling the effect of the last two races, which were hard races. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was,” Pincay said. “When I pulled him up Frank asked me ‘Why didn’t you let him run the last part?’ I told him something was definitely wrong. He’s not showing it, but he’s not right. My concern was just pulling him up and getting him back safe.
“Frank called Monday and he apologized. He told me ‘Thank you for saving my horse.’ He knew the horse could never run again.”
Meanwhile, Baeza and Cordero were bantering back and forth a long way behind Secretariat. Baeza said Cordero shouted over that he should let him finish second. Baeza’s reply cannot be printed in a family publication.
As the field continued to the finish line, Secretariat finished 31 lengths ahead to the joy of more than 69,000 frenzied fans at Belmont while Twice a Prince edged My Gallant for second by a half-length and Pvt. Smiles took fourth by a little less than a length over Sham.
“I didn’t like it,” Baeza recalled about the feeling of finishing so far behind Secretariat.
As for Pincay, he wondered what might have happened if Sham had been born a year or two later.
“Any other year I would have had the Triple Crown winner because trying to beat Secretariat affected Sham,” Pincay said.
For Cordero, what he saw on that June afternoon remains fresh in his mind, even after the passing of 50 years.
“It’s been a long, long time, but it seems like it happened yesterday. He put on some big performance. He did something no one ever did before. He was impressive, even if he didn’t beat anybody,” said Cordero, who voiced pride over riding Herbull, the winner in Secretariat’s July 4, 1972 career debut. “I thought he was the best horse going in and Sham was a great horse but he was born in the wrong year.”
So were the other three horses in an edition of the Belmont Stakes that will be remembered for Secretariat and Secretariat alone.