Mindy Newell: Superhorse!
So no Triple Crown this year. The favorite, California Chrome, finished in a tie for fourth place with Wicked Strong, 1¾ lengths* behind the winner, Commissioner (as in Gordon, for all us comic geeks). There has not been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, which makes it a 32-year drought for horse racing’s supreme trophy. Affirmed was a great horse, as was his predecessor Seattle Slew (1977), but for me the ultimate thoroughbred of all time, the uber–pferd,is Secretariat.
It is hard to put into words just what I, and the rest of America, saw on June 9, 1973. Simply put, it took everyone’s breath away.
I was parked in front of the television set in our living room, and as the horses were being led into the starting gate, I heard my father’s car pulling into the garage. He rushed into the house, said, “Did I miss it?” and just at that moment the bell rang and the race was on. Secretariat and Sham broke out at a suicidal pace, a half-mile in 46 and 1/5 seconds.
And then it happened.
The colt’s momentum increased with every stride. Every beat of his hoofs took him faster and faster and faster and faster. He hit the mile and a quarter (the length of the Kentucky Derby) at a faster pace than with which he won that race (1:59) and just kept going, kept increasing speed. My father and I stopped yelling and urging; he rose out of his chair, I got up off of the floor. We were both quiet, just standing there, watching, neither one of us believing what we were seeing. For my dad (he said later) it was like watching a P-51 Mustang push the envelope and tear it to shreds. For me—to give you comic geeks a sense of the awe and wonder I was feeling—it was like actually seeing Superman streak across the sky, leaving an Aurora Borealis of red and blue and violet in his wake.
“Secretariat is alone. He is moving like a tremendous machine!” track announcer Chick Anderson yelled. “He’s going to be the Triple Crown winner. Unbelievable! An amazing performance. He’s 25 lengths in front!”
And Secretariat wasn’t slowing down. He was speeding up…and it looked as if he wasn’t even trying, as if he hadn’t even scratched the surface of what he could do. Ron Turcotte, his jockey, was a stone statue astride the stallion. He gave the horse his head, let him fly.
He was beautiful; he was everything imaginably majestic about a horse. I had a vision while standing there in my living room on that Saturday afternoon of 1973; I saw Secretariat, not on a racetrack, but running free across the grasslands of 19th century America, his chestnut mane streaming out behind him, his copper coat shining golden-red in the sun, leaving cowboys, chasing this wild stallion, eager to lasso and tame this magnificent animal, in the dust.
Simply put, Secretariat took my breath away.
Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes that day by 31 lengths.**
He was a super horse who galloped out of the imagination and into real life.
A true superhorse.
* A length in horse racing is the measure of a horse from nose to tail, approximately 8 feet. One horse equals one length.
**31 lengths are equal to 248 feet (75 meters). So if you’re having trouble picturing just how far that is, think of a 24-story building lying on its side. That’s how far ahead Secretariat was ahead of the rest of the field.