As American Pharoah prepares for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the horse racing world again hopes for the sport's first Triple Crown since 1977. Since the first Triple Crown winner in 1919, there has never been this long a gap between instances of the feat. But horse racing has experienced a Triple Crown drought before, between 1948 and 1973, when seven horses won the Derby and the Preakness but none could capture the Belmont as well.
That crown-less stretch ended with Secretariat, whose victory at the 1973 Belmont has become one of the most famous races of all time.
Secretariat's triumph was no upset. The horse entered the Belmont a 1-10 favorite, having decisively won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. But he fell to fourth place early on, as rival Sham shot out to an early lead, then ran alongside Secretariat for a time. But as Sham slowed down (eventually finishing fifth), Secretariat seemed to gain steam.
Here's how SI's William Nack described what followed, in his 1990 retrospective on Secretariat.
Secretariat ran flat into legend, started running right out of the gate and never stopped, ran poor Sham into defeat around the first turn and down the backstretch and sprinted clear, opening two lengths, four, then five. He dashed to the three-quarter pole in 1:09⅘, the fastest six-furlong clocking in Belmont history. I dropped my head and cursed [jockey Ron] Turcotte: What is he thinking about? Has he lost his mind? The colt raced into the far turn, opening seven lengths past the half-mile pole. The timer flashed his astonishing mile mark: 1:34⅕!
I was seeing it but not believing it. Secretariat was still sprinting. The four horses behind him disappeared. He opened 10. Then 12. Halfway around the turn he was 14 in front ... 15 ... 16 ... 17. Belmont Park began to shake. The whole place was on its feet. Turning for home, Secretariat was 20 in front, having run the mile and a quarter in 1:59 flat, faster than his Derby time.
He came home alone. He opened his lead to 25 ... 26 ... 27 ... 28. As rhythmic as a rocking horse, he never missed a beat. I remember seeing Turcotte look over to the timer, and I looked over, too. It was blinking 2:19, 2:20. The record was 2:26⅗. Turcotte scrubbed on the colt, opening 30 lengths, finally 31. The clock flashed crazily: 2:22 ... 2:23. The place was one long, deafening roar. The colt seemed to dive for the finish, snipping it clean at 2:24.
Secretariat's 31-length victory and 2:24 winning time both remain course records 42 years later.
After Secretariat in 1973, Affirmed and Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977 and 1978, respectively, but the feat has not been accomplished since.
Watch the full historic 1973 Belmont here.
- Alex Putterman