On June 9, 1973, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, becoming the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown.
“The Greatest Performance by a Racehorse in This Century”
In 1972, Secretariat won seven of nine starts as a 2-year-old to win the Horse of the Year award. His breeding rights were then sold for a then-world record of $6 million.
He won his first two starts as a 3-year-old but faltered in the Wood Memorial, his final race before the Kentucky Derby. Many experts wondered if he had distance limitations, as his pedigree would suggest.
“In fact, a modicum of suspense was needed to save the Derby from tedium,” wrote Time. “No one wants to bet against a horse that seems invincible, and invincible is exactly what Secretariat appeared to be before the Wood.”
Secretariat was a 3-2 favorite heading into the Derby; after a slow first quarter-mile, he ran each of the next four quarter-miles faster than the prior one, and exploded into the lead at the top of the stretch. He blew by his rival Sham, running the final quarter-mile in 23 1/5 seconds and finishing 2 1/2 lengths in front. He became the first horse to run the Derby in under two minutes, setting a track-record time of 1:59 2/5.
In the Preakness, Secretariat broke last but made an incredible last-to-first move on the first turn and cruised to a 2 1/2-length victory.
“If there are still any racegoers who are not convinced that Secretariat is the best 3-year-old in the land, one hardly knows where to search for them,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Whitney Tower. “And should they be found, June 9 will rout them all.”
Still, there were many observers who doubted Secretariat could win at the 1 1/2 mile distance of the Belmont Stakes. Were they ever wrong?
Just four other horses dared to challenge him in the Belmont, and only Sham posed a real threat. At the start, under instructions to run head-to-head with Secretariat, jockey Laffit Pincay rode Sham stride-for-stride through the fastest fractions in Belmont Stakes history. He couldn’t maintain the pace and began dropping back near the halfway point.
As Secretariat blazed into the far turn, track announcer Chick Anderson reacted in amazement. “Secretariat is widening now,” he said. “He is moving like a tremendous machine.”
Many seasoned observers didn’t believe he could continue running at the remarkable pace. Secretariat biographer William Nack told ESPN’s SportsCentury that he recalled thinking, “He’s going to totally collapse down the stretch. He can’t keep this up.”
As he entered the stretch with an 18-length lead, jockey Ron Turcotte famously looked back to his competitors in the distance, and then glanced to the side. According to Turcotte, he was not looking for other horses, but for the timer.
The timer showed that Secretariat had, at 1:59, run the fastest 1 1/4 mile ever at Belmont Park. In the final quarter mile, Secretariat dramatically widened his advantage to 31 lengths and stopped the clock at 2:24, destroying the old track and stakes record by more than 2 1/2 seconds.
Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford declared, “It was the greatest performance by a racehorse in this century. … The 105th Belmont Stakes will rank among sport’s most spectacular performances, right up there with Joe Louis' one-round knockout of Max Schmeling and the Olympic feats of Jessie Owens, Jean-Claude Killy and Mark Spitz.”
Golf legend Jack Nicklaus told CBS commentator Heywood Hale Broun that he cried while watching the race on television. Broun responded, “All of your life, in your game, you’ve been striving for perfection. At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.”
Watch the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
Watch ESPN’s SportsCentury documentary on Secretariat: Part one covers the Derby and Preakness, while part two covers the Belmont.
Background: Breeding Secretariat
Secretariat was the son of 1957 Preakness winner Bold Ruler, a prolific sire whose offspring are fast, but unsound. Breeder Christopher Chenery, operating under the theory that the key to breeding is to cancel out the flaws of the dam and sire, bred Bold Ruler with Somethingroyal, daughter of the durable Princequillo.
He entered into an agreement with Bold Ruler's owner, Ogden Phipps, to breed their horses twice, with a coin flip determining who got the first foal. Phipps won, and received a filly named The Bride, who never distinguished herself. The result of the second breeding was Secretariat, a horse with Bold Ruler’s speed and Princequillo’s durability.
Owner Penny Tweedy, Chenery’s daughter, could tell that Secretariat was special even as a foal. Upon seeing the red chestnut colt for the first time, she wrote in her notebook one word: “Wow.”
The findingDulcinea Web Guide to Horse Racing features links to racing history and news, plus information on betting and getting involved in racing. There are also separate guides for the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes.
Secretariat’s Retirement, Stud Career, and Death
Sources in this Story
- Time: Turns Time in Kentucky
- Sports Illustrated: It Was Murder
- Sports Illustrated: Flying High And Heading For Fame
- Sports Illustrated: History In The Making
- Arizona Republic: Powerful Secretariat proved to be one of a kind
- Time: The Wow Horse Races into History
- Sports Illustrated: Adieu, Adieu, Kind Friends …
- RobertSFox.com: Chasing the X-Factor
- The New York Times: Secretariat, Racing Legend And Fans’ Favorite, Is Dead
After the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat easily won the Arlington Invitational before suffering a shocking defeat in the Whitney Stakes to Onion, trained by “giant killer” trainer Allen Jerkens.
He then won the Marlboro Cup, defeating the best horses in the country in track record time. After another stunning defeat to Prove Out—again to a Jerkens-trained horse—in the Woodward Stakes, Secretariat closed out his career with powerful triumphs in the Man O' War Stakes and the Canadian International at Toronto's Woodbine Racecourse.
After his final race at Woodbine, Secretariat was sent to Clairborne Farm in Kentucky to stud. His early career as a stallion was considered disappointing, but he would produce several great horses.
He sired General Assembly, whose dramatic 15-length win in the 1979 Travers Stakes may have been the best race run by a 3-year-old colt since his father's Belmont. He also sired Lady's Secret, 1986 Horse of the Year, and Risen Star, 1988 Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner. Even more impressively, Secretariat's daughters produced a slew of graded stakes winners and influential stallions, including A.P. Indy, Storm Cat and Chief's Crown.
In September 1989, Secretariat contracted Laminitis, an inflammation of the hoof that is fatal for many horses. A month later, he was euthanized.
“It was a terrible day for all of us,” said Claiborne Farm president Seth Hancock. “We just couldn't stand to see him suffer. Maybe you could have tried some radical procedure to save him a while longer that would have had a 1 in 20 chance of working, but he's been too good to the world to go through any more pain.”
The Triple Crown Drought
In 1977, Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown and, a year later, Affirmed repeated the feat. In 1979, Spectacular Bid appeared ready to make it three straight Triple Crowns but lost in the Belmont. No horse has won the Triple Crown since.
Secretariat.com features accounts and video of all Secretariat’s races, as well as a copy of his past performances from the Daily Racing Form.