Secretariat’s Magic Makes Hardened Horse Players Weep


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 14, 1973, Vol. XVIII, No. 24

A horse for all seasons
by Joe Flaherty

A group of us, accompanied by the baggage of New York blase, gathered early at Penn Station Saturday for an odyssey to Belmont Park.

The onus lay with the horse to convince us he was The Horse. His victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, impressive as they were, were executed out of town and, well, out of town is out of town. Many a delectable bite has proved sour in the Big Apple. After all, this was the Belmont Stakes at a mile-and-a-half, and as any professional punter will tell you, the get of Bold Ruler don’t go a mile-and-a-half. But maybe our skepticism had something to do with the heat or our mode of travel. The Long Island Rail Road doesn’t conjure pilgrimages to Lourdes.

There was the writer-critic puffing his cigar — nothing less than the stigmata would woo him. And the retired sea captain turned poet who the night before had sailed the uncharted seas of martinis, now looking for a Bloody Mary to ring the rescuing buoy bell in his brain; his vision of life a catastrophic constant earning him the rating of the Beckett of the barnacles. And the authoress of cookbooks who thought Secretariat’s probably odds of one-to-five was a fine ratio for a recipe but an obscene folly for a deuce. Add an artist — the novice of the group; the colors of the silks would probably dictate her choice. I had witnessed every kind of plunger, so why not a palette punter? A trio were left.

One true believer who had spotted the colt’s greatness early in his career an had backed him with her cash and her heart every time he went to post. She had spent a sleepless night — not from dread but in anticipation, and perhaps this made her the toughest to take. Abominable optimism is a handicapping burden to those of sagging shoulders. As for me, I was cursed for the most monomaniacal reasons (the only ones that really matter) to root for Sham. Fittingly, the group was rounded out by a shrink. A native of Roumania, he had realized as a boy that his country had two exports: soccer and psychiatry. Existentially, he knew that as a circle the head is more fun to kick around than the ball and thus chose sorcery over soccer. Handicapping his companions, he pronounced: “We have the intellect, but I don’t’ know about the heart.”

But if truth had it, the heart was there, even though cautiously hidden. Like most who attended, we realized that if Secretariat was destiny’s tot we were to be handmaidens to history. No mean stunt in the sprint of life. If the horse was to be emblazoned in history, would not all in attendance by accompanying asterisks? We’re a fragile weave who opt for immortality no matter how obscurely achieved. The Horse was going for the first Triple Crown in a quarter century. Indeed, had I not talked about Bobby Thomson’s home run in 1951 as if I was one who had attended the multiplication of the loaves and fishes? One felt he heard the multitude at Belmont conjuring up the tale to tell to grandchildren not yet begat. And if the parentheses of my life were to be a home run and hoofbeats, it was more than I had bargained for at the beginning.

It was all there early. The preceding races on the card were bet with impatience. Damnable newsreels and selected shorts to be endured before the main attraction. His time came at 5.30 when he took the track with Ron Turcotte up. As is his wont, he was alert, turning his head to check the crowd. Race caller Dave Johnson has a saying about such awareness in certain race horses: “They know why they’re out there, thy know what it’s all about.” He had yet to begin his warm-up, and those mythical leather-souled New York horse players were giving him a standing ovation. The entire stands seemed to unfold like a deck of cards being fanned. This was no rote accolade, such as the kids from Huntington and Babylon give the Mets regardless of performance, or the hip chant of “dee-Fense” chanted to the Knicks at the Garden (hip in the sense that only the esoteric can spot defense, offense is a ball going through a net, the preserve of bumpkins). No, this was a tough crowd who normally clap for mutuel prices, not animals. Only once before in memory had this happened: when the ancient Kelso outgunned the younger Gun Bow through the stretch at a mile-and-a-quarter.

It was not 5.38, and history entered the starting gate. For six furlongs it had the semblance of a horse race. The valiant Sham, who in the Derby and Preakness had given the chestnut a test of respectability (two and a half lengths behind on both occasions), went in tandem with him. Sham’s strategy was like Floyd Patterson’s in the second Liston fight: he had to embrace his destruction early from fear he would shy from it. Sham’s fate was no kinder than Patterson’s, his heart and spirit were broken.

But unlike Liston, Secretariat’s performance was without malevolence. It was much more deadly. He destroys competition by the sheer joy he takes in his work. by the mile he had seven, after one-and-a-quarter 20, and when he turned for home he had 28 lengths on his nearest rival. He was now doing the implausible, racing against himself and the clock, or as runner Jim Ryun once said, against eternity. At the wire he was a 31-length winner, breaking Gallant Man’s record by an incredible 13 lengths. Great horses break records by two or three lengths, super horses by perhaps five or six, so what can be said of him? ONly that if the Lord comes in a chariot Secretariat will get the nod to handle the heavenly bit.

His magic was such that hardened horse players wept, and tip-hungry bartenders stopped serving sauce and watched the race on television. One bettor had wagered a $50 ticket on him in all three races of the Triple Crown and had cashed none, saving them for posterity. An Englishman with a brigadier mustache, cashing a large bet, pledged 60 bucks to an Irish charity. It was a day when the form players didn’t act according to form.

Horse racing history was ravaged, the memories of old times mutilated. Pick a horse from the past, use his clocking, and you find a barrier was broken. Triple Crown winner Count Fleet, who won this race by 25 lengths, would have been beaten by 21 lengths. The last Triple Crown winner, Citation, by the same distance. And if one could have gotten a stop watch on Pegasus, the odds here are that it would be wise to have bet him in the place hole.

Such equine exalt has never been seen on an American race track. No horse in memory could carry his speed at such a constant pace over such a stretch of ground. His sire, Bold Ruler, charged out of the gate like a drummer hearing a dinner bell in a boarding house. Buckpasser came from behind like Dagwood Bumstead shagging a bus. But this one will pass this way only once. And there is sadness here.

Since he was syndicated for more than $6 million, he is due to retire to stud at the end of the year by the shareholders’ mandate. It is a tragedy for racing, so in need of a superstar, that this must be. But it would be a grand gesture, one classy last fling, if his owner, Mrs. Penny Tweedy, would send him to France to race in the Arc de Triomphe. To have a champion on both sides of the Atlantic would be a rhapsodic reverie to bequeath his fans. Our American in Paris.

We returned from our day contemplative. Talk was at a minimum. But it wasn’t the heat endured or the gin consumed but those futuristic forays in the mind with young whippersnappers who someday will commit the sacrilege of comparison. The grandchildren were being mentally jiggled on the knee, and one felt the opening line for all would be the same: “I was out there the day Secretariat…” The only question was whether we wool ever get that damn mile-and-a-half.

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