As the five horses were about to be loaded into the starting gate for the 1973 Belmont Stakes, a prominent turf writer and Pat Lynch, a renowned handicapper, stood high atop the track in the Belmont Park press box.
They were in agreement that Secretariat, a brilliant winner of both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, would add the Belmont to his collection, becoming the first Triple Crown champion since Citation 25 years before. But Lynch also believed that Secretariat had a chance to run the fastest Belmont ever. So a $50 bet was struck.
It seemed like a bad bet for Lynch, even though Secretariat had set a record in winning the Derby and probably had also run the fastest Preakness, only to be denied the record because of a malfunctioning timer at Pimlico.
The big red horse went off at odds of a dime on the dollar, the lowest price for a Belmont favorite since Count Fleet's Triple Crown sweep in 1943, but beating the clock was going to be much harder than outrunning his four opponents. The Belmont and North American record for 1 1/2 miles was 2:26 3/5, having been set by Gallant Man in 1957. No Belmont horse since had come closer than three-fifths of a second to Gallant Man's time.
When the 105th running of the Belmont was over, though, Lynch pocketed the easiest $50 he had ever made. Secretariat didn't just break Gallant Man's record, he obliterated it. The flashing lights on the tote board told part of the story: Secretariat had completed the course in 2:24. He had been the equivalent of 13 lengths better than Gallant Man, breaking his record by 2 3/5 seconds.
The other part of the story was Secretariat's margin of victory. The race was run late in the afternoon, and it seemed as though the second-place horse, Twice A Prince, might not reach the wire before nightfall. He was 31 lengths--almost the length of a football field--behind Secretariat.
That shattered another Belmont record--Count Fleet's 25-length victory four decades before. Before Count Fleet and Secretariat, the biggest winning Belmont margin was nine lengths.
There is a famous photo, taken from the ground at the inner rail, looking up the stretch as Ron Turcotte, Secretariat's jockey, peers over his left shoulder at the horses behind him. Because of the photographer's worm's-eye perspective, Secretariat looks as big as a New York skyscraper, and his demoralized rivals are as small as ants in the lower right corner of the picture.
"I wasn't wanting the record," Turcotte, now 51, said the other day. "I just wanted him to stay interested and avoid any distractions (the crowd at Belmont was 69,138). All I had to do was make sure that I didn't fall off. And you know, I almost did, when I turned around. But my curiosity got the best of me."
Secretariat had been voted horse of the year in 1972, when he was a 2-year-old. He had been syndicated as a stallion for $6.08 million, a record then, and the pressure on those around him was just as great as that price tag.
Lucien Laurin, the worrywart trainer, had had a dream the night before the Belmont. Laurin dreamed that Secretariat stumbled in the race and that Turcotte fell off. Retired now and living in Florida, Laurin, 81, recalled the dream and said, "I woke up sweating so bad the water was rolling off me."
They will all be here this weekend--Turcotte, Laurin and Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery--to sign autographs before Saturday's 125th running of the Belmont, and to reminisce about those five incredible weeks 20 years ago when their horse captivated the country. He was such a star that he made the covers of Time and Newsweek and became a client of the William Morris talent agency.
Since Secretariat, only two horses, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, have been able to win the Triple Crown, bringing the total to 11. There have been some fast Belmonts, but no one has come closer than two seconds to Secretariat's record.
And winning the race by 31 lengths? Since 1973, the biggest winning margin hasn't even been half that.
"We knew we were in a position to win the Belmont," Chenery said the other day. "But we didn't expect anything as phenomenal as what he gave us. He astounded me."
Turcotte had gone into the Belmont as cocksure as a jockey could be before a big race.
"I had a lot of horse left after we won the Derby," he said. "And he won the Preakness so easily that I didn't have to persevere with him through the stretch."
The night before the race, Turcotte even said to the the edgy Laurin, "If we get beat tomorrow, I'm going to hang up my tack."
Of the four horses running against Secretariat in the Belmont, the best was Sham, the Santa Anita Derby winner who had also out-finished Secretariat in the Wood Memorial, running second while Angle Light, another horse from Laurin's barn, had won the Aqueduct race. Ridden by Laffit Pincay, Sham finished second in the Derby and Preakness. He was 2 1/2 lengths behind Secretariat and eight lengths ahead of the third-place horse, Our Native, in each race.
Sham, who died earlier this year, was an unlucky horse, born in the wrong year. In any other generation, he, too, might have been a champion. In the Derby, Sham ran the second-fastest time in race history, even though he had been slammed against the side of the gate at the start.
"Because of Secretariat, we'll never know how good of a horse Sham was," Turcotte said.
In the Belmont, Sham tried to run with Secretariat early, and after half a mile was only a head off the lead. But then Secretariat began to pour it on, draining what courage remained in Pincay's gritty colt.
The first six furlongs were run in a bristling 1:09 4/5, still the fastest three-quarters of a mile in race history.
The second half of the race was still to be run, however, and when Laurin looked at the tote board and saw the six-furlong time, he wondered if Turcotte knew what he was doing.
"If I had had a shotgun, I think I would have blown him off the horse at that point," the trainer said.
But Secretariat, his long stride never shortening, his oversized heart pumping overtime, just kept running in a performance for the ages. At the mile pole, he was seven lengths ahead, in 1:34 1/5. The lead grew to 20 lengths with a quarter-mile to go, in 1:59, which was faster than his Derby.
Through the stretch, the track announcer, Chic Anderson, cried out: "He's moving like a tremendous machine!"
In his book, "Tumultuous Moment," Haywood Hale Broun recalled the finish: "(There was) the awesome physical perfection of the big chestnut 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."
At 19, suffering from an incurable hoof disease, Secretariat was euthanized on Oct. 4, 1989. Since 1978, when he went down in a spill at Belmont Park, Turcotte has been a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair. He was elected into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1979, five years after Secretariat.
In April, a few days before this year's Kentucky Derby, Turcotte put a memorial plaque on Secretariat's grave at Claiborne Farm in Paris, Ky. It read:
Big Red: To you, mighty Secretariat, who brought so much pleasure to the world and so much thrill and recognition to me. I know that as humans we let you down at times, but you, through sickness or health, always gave one-hundred percent and became a measuring stick for all horses. Our memories of you are as fresh today, twenty years later, as they were in 1973. You were one of God's most beautiful creatures. May He bless you always. Your partner jockey, Ron Turcotte