- Chic Anderson's tombstone reads 'World's Greatest Thoroughbred Racing Announcer.' He earned that title on the day it mattered most, at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
At a few minutes past 5:30 on the afternoon of June 9, 1973, Charles (Chic) Anderson raised binoculars to his eyes and prepared to call the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes. He was 41 years old, married with five children, living an itinerant life that took him away from the family home in Evansville, Ind., for weeks at a time, but one which he clearly loved. He had been calling races since the late 1950s; in 1961 he became the regular caller at Churchill Downs and eight years later was hired by CBS to call the Triple Crown races on its telecasts. He was at the pinnacle of his career. Yet he couldn’t have known in that instant—because who does?—that words he spoke in the ensuing two-and-a-half minutes would outlive him by decades and help frame one of the seminal moments in sports history.
It was on that day at Belmont Park that Secretariat won the Belmont—and racing’s first Triple Crown in 25 years—by 31 lengths in a time of two minutes and 24 seconds, more than two seconds faster than any horse had run the race. The performance endures, both in the living memories of those who witnessed it, and in a second life on grainy video, receding through time but growing more mythic. Older fans weep in recollection; younger ones eschew the customary disdain for things old and distant. It remains the most significant moment in modern racing history, an event that reached beyond the racetrack and sank roots in the broader cultural landscape, even in a time of Vietnam and Watergate. It will come up this week, as Justify pursues a Triple Crown of his own, because it always comes up. It is the rare athletic feat that cannot become exaggerated over time, because it was impossibly large in its present, a giant chestnut colt thundering around the Belmont oval, never slowing, piercing a hole in the late spring air.
Alongside the big red horse, Anderson delivered a breathtaking race call, ad-libbing history on the fly, describing an ethereal performance that he could not have anticipated. Nearly a half-century later, Anderson’s call is as much a part of the memory as Secretariat’s race. Faced with a moment that was too large for words, Anderson found words just the same. It was as if he and the horse were dance partners, Secretariat leading, Anderson following in perfect rhythm. You know the most famous of his phrases from that day:
“…Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine …”
But that is just the part of Anderson’s Tour de Force that is most widely remembered. His entire call is remarkably in tune with the event unfolding in front of him, at first measured and then rising in cadence and urgency as Secretariat’s race became more astounding. “The horse ran beyond reasonable expectations that day, and Chic somehow caught up to that moment,” says Marshall Cassidy, who in the late 1970s would assist, and then succeed Anderson as the caller at New York’s Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga tracks. “His gut reaction, and his call were just perfect, and perfectly delivered.”
Tom Durkin, who called Triple Crown, Breeders’ Cup and other races for NBC for more than two decades, says, “Secretariat’s performance, Chic Anderson’s performance … Those are the two greatest, ever, in their fields. Secretariat was remarkable that day, and Chic was up to the task.”
There is no template for describing the heretofore unseen. Play-by-play announcers—of which race callers are foundational—are unwittingly thrust into providing an unrehearsed soundtrack to history, words and emotions that will be replayed endlessly. It is important get them right, yet the target is impossibly small. You know when the bullseye has been hit:
“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
“Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier …”
On the second Saturday in June of 1973, Chic Anderson was as nearly perfect as a man with a microphone could be. His call was poetry of sorts, a man both denying and processing the performance he was witnessing, expressing his wonder—and ours—while never losing sight of his fundamental assignment to inform. “He reveled in the fact that his call of that race was replayed and appreciated so much,” says Tom Hammond, the longtime NBC announcer who was one of Anderson’s closest friends. His appreciation did not get the life it deserved: Less than six years after calling Big Red’s Belmont, Anderson was dead of a heart attack at age 47.
He had been on the racetrack for most of his adult life. Anderson was born in 1931 in Evansville. According to obituaries published at the time of his death in 1979, he attended Wabash College for two years, then spent two years in the U.S. Navy and eventually received his degree from Indiana University. In the late 1950’s, Anderson got a job as sports director at an Evansville television station. He was a relatively tall man, over six feet, with sandy hair and an anchorman’s smile, perfect for the gig. He was not slender. He did not have the classic announcer’s baritone, but, says Durkin, “He had this pure, lyrical voice, very easy to listen to. And he could be dramatic without being loud.”
As part of his TV gig, Anderson began announcing races at the track now called Ellis Park, in Henderson, Kentucky, 10 miles over the border from Evansville. Race-calling was—and remains—a field for the few, esoteric and challenging work that attracted many of the best radio and television voices of the first half of the 20th century: Clem McCarthy (who called the second Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight and the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race in the same year, 1938), Ted Husing and Marty Glickman, among others. In 1961, Anderson was hired to call the races at Churchill Downs, including the Derby, and CBS signed him eight years later.
He had the caller’s gifts for quickly memorizing names and colors in the minutes before post time, and also for quickly forgetting his errors. “Chic was like the defensive back who immediately forgets about giving up a touchdown pass,” says Hammond. (There would later be a whopper of a mistake, for which Anderson would need this skill.) He was among the first generation of race callers who expanded the profession behind the straight recitation of race facts. “He was not a names-and-margins guy,” says Durkin. (In later years, Dave Johnson, Trevor Denman and Durkin would go much further with injecting drama and description into race calls, a practice that Larry Collmus has assumed on NBC’s present-day programs.)
Sometimes Anderson was really not a names-and-margins guy, in the extreme. “He would throw in a very casual race call on occasion,’’ says Cassidy, “But not too often.”
CBS hired him for his skill and his charisma, and also for his intimacy with the racetrack, a place where outsiders can learn, but they will always be outsiders. “Chic was a real racetrack guy,” says Bud Lamoreaux, a retired television sports producer who worked numerous CBS race telecasts with Anderson. “He was a homespun Indiana boy and people respected him on the backstretch.” On old videos of CBS shows, Anderson is more than just a race-caller; he also does interviews and features inside the race telecasts, a dual role rarely seen since.
But there is also this: Anderson was a towering personality, full of life and always in search of fun, and then more fun. “Chic was always happy,” says Hammond. That joy was often accompanied by prodigious amounts of rich food—which he loved to cook, as well as consume—and Kentucky bourbon or fine wine. “Chic liked to eat and drink, and he partied hard,’’ says Mike Battaglia, a longtime race caller who backed up Anderson at Churchill Downs and replaced him in 1977. Battaglia tells the story of a midweek day during Kentucky Derby week in 1975, when Anderson’s call of the first race at Churchill Downs just stopped, well before the finish. Shortly thereafter Battaglia was summoned to the press box, where officials had found Anderson passed out on the floor. “Nobody has ever come up with a reason for what happened to Chic that day,” says Battaglia, “whether he was hungover or sick or whatever. But I called two races, then Chic came back for the fourth and stepped right back in and everything was fine.”
One of Anderson’s best friends was Tom Gentry, a legendary Kentucky horseman and horse trader who was among the first to buy mares and sell their yearlings for millions. Gentry counted dozens of celebrities among his friends, but none were closer to him than Anderson. When Anderson was working the spring and fall meets at Keeneland Race Course outside Lexington, he would live in a house on Gentry’s property and cook lavish meals for Gentry, Hammond and many others. Cassidy recalled that in the late 1970s, Gentry came to New York to celebrate a successful yearling sale and took him, Anderson and several others out for a night of food and drink in Manhattan. “We visited numerous restaurants, and numerous bars,” says Cassidy. “And Chic was the star of the night.”
Anderson’s social skills helped him assimilate into the life of the traveling race caller. From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, his primary gig was at Churchill Downs, but racetracks operate only part of the year, so Anderson would pack up and work race meets in Arkansas, California, Florida, Nebraska and New Hampshire. The life suited him. “He was a pretty nomadic guy,” says Hammond. “Always away. I met his wife, but Chic had five children, and to be honest, I never met any of them.”
By the day of the 1973 Belmont, the pursuit of a Triple Crown had become nearly the Odyssey that it would become half a century later. There had been three Triple Crowns in the 30s and four more in the 1940s; it was a common occurrence, six times in 14 years from 1935-48. And then nothing. Seven times in the 24 years from 1949-72, a horse had won the Kentucky and Preakness, yet failed to win the Belmont Stakes. There was buzz then, as later, that it might never happen again. (It happened three times in six years in the 70s, but no one saw that coming.) Secretariat had won the Derby and Preakness impressively, including a startling move on the first turn at Pimlico. But he had done nothing to foretell what might happen on June 9.
Two things: First, Anderson called that Belmont only for CBS; track announcer Dave Johnson called the race for the live audience. If you were at Belmont Park that day, you heard Johnson, not Anderson. Second, there seems to be little certainty as to where Anderson would have stood while calling the race that defined his career. Johnson would have been in the announcer’s stand at the top of the Belmont grandstand. Cassidy suggests that Anderson was probably beneath that position, in the clubhouse, but admits that’s just an educated guess based on where other announcers had been. The upper-levels of the Belmont grandstand are a labyrinth of hallways and small offices overlooking the track. Anderson could have been in any of them, always certainly wearing the ivory suit in which he did jockey interviews right before the race.
Just five horses entered the Belmont, including only two—Secretariat and Sham—who had run both the Derby and Preakness. Secretariat was made the 1-10 favorite. The gates clanged open at 5:38 p.m.:
“Everybody is in line, and they’re off.”
Ten seconds into the race, Anderson called Secretariat for the first time:
“Secretariat away very well, and in good position on the rail … and in fact he’s now going up with the leaders.”
Forty seconds into the race, approaching the half-mile mark, Sham is leading on the outside, with Secretariat pinned on the rail. Anderson cues into the two rivals:
“Sham on the outside, Secretariat in second, and then a large gap.”
Ten seconds later, still clinical, letting the race unfold. There is no evidence of what lies ahead:
“Down the backstretch, it’s almost a match race now.”
Leaving the three-eighths pole and into the sweeping final turn, Secretariat dismisses Sham and opens daylight. There is a heightened sense of excitement that Anderson catches. This is the first inkling of magic from horse and man. His voice rises.
“On the turn, it’s Secretariat. It looks like he’s opening. The lead is increasing. It’s three, three-and-a-half.”
In the middle of the turn, Anderson seems to catch sight of the infield timer, showing that Secretariat ran the first half of the race, three-quarters of a mile, in 1:09 4/5 seconds, astoundingly fast.
“Secretariat is blazing along. (Here Anderson punches the word ‘blazing’ especially hard.) Three-quarters of a mile in One-oh-nine and four-fifths!”
Anderson had to know that 1:09 4/5 was impossibly fast. He held back for a beat. And then he went all in, climbing on Big Red’s back right alongside jockey Ron Turcotte. The horse was in the middle of the turn, a red speck in the distance on CBS’s long pan shot, Sham still visible, but receding.
“Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.”
This is the killer line, delivered with rising enthusiasm. Anderson took time to separate He from is, rather than smushing them into a conjunction. He punched the middle syllable of tre-MEN-dous and the last syllable of ma-CHINE. This was a bold line. Secretariat was going much too fast and might have blown up at any second, in which case tremendous machine would live on as a gaffe. Charlsie Cantey, who would later work alongside Anderson on CBS telecasts, was at Delaware Park with her husband, Joe, a trainer. “When Chic called the three-quarter time,” says Cantey, “I muttered to Joe, ‘Well, he can’t keep this up.’”
Tom Durkin says, “I can hear the words now, ‘He is moving like a tremendous machine.’ Such a rhythm to those words. You can say it over and over. But it absolutely could have gone south on him, if Secretariat had slowed. There was every reason to think it would go south on him. But Chic went all the way out on that limb.”
Anderson had thrown in with the moment. He was calling the race in wonder, conveying that he was as shocked as the rest of us, but always staying on the right side of the line that separates losing it from keeping it together. “I don’t know how he wasn’t overwhelmed by the moment,” says Collmus. “Just spectacular.”
“Secretariat by 12, Secretariat by 14 lengths on the turn. Sham is dropping back. It looks like they’ll catch him today, as My Gallant and Twice a Prince are coming up to him now.
But Secretariat is all alone! He’s out there almost a sixteenth of a mile away from the rest of the horses. (It wasn’t quite that far, but close enough.) Secretariat is in a position that seems impossible to catch. He’s into the stretch. Secretariat leads this field by 18 lengths and now, Twice a Prince has taken second and My Gallant has moved back to third. They’re in the stretch. Secretariat has taken a 22-length lead. He is going to be the Triple Crown winner. Here comes Secretariat to the wire. An unbelievable, an amazing performance. He hits the finish 25 lengths in front. It’s going to be Twice a Prince second, My Gallant third, Private Smiles fourth and Sham, who had it today, dropped back to fifth.”
Anderson’s voice never cracked. “Vocally, he kept it under control,” says Durkin. “He could not have been prepared for what he was seeing, and it would have been easy to just lose it. But that didn’t happen. It was perfect.”
He peaked at “tremendous machine,’’ and just sustained his emotion—and his professionalism—all the way to the line, even to the point of calling the second-through-fifth-place finishers. But, his role didn’t end there. CBS kept Anderson on a live microphone even as Secretariat galloped out. Anderson kept talking, writing the script to history in real time, never missing a beat.
First there was a reaction shot of owner Penny (Chenery) Tweedy celebrating in her box overlooking the homestretch. Followed by a shot of Secretariat, then the timer. Anderson kept putting every image in perspective, with 15 million people watching.
“Look at Mrs. Tweedy! She is having the time of her life. She and Lucien Laurin, who own this magnificent animal who today has run the most sensational Belmont Stakes in the history of the race. Secretariat has accomplished the unbelievable task of breaking the mile-and-a-half record by two and three-fifths seconds. That is a record that may stand forever. The time of this race: Two twenty-four. Almost unbelievable.”
Next CBS replayed the stretch run. Anderson stayed on air.
“At the head of the stretch, Secretariat had already destroyed this field, as you can see he’s almost a sixteenth of a length, a sixteenth of a mile and has he went through the stretch, Ron Turcotte, who never did anything but hand ride, never used the whip, made it almost embarrassing for the other horses. I suppose you can’t really be embarrassed by being beaten by the greatest horse of the last century.”
He thought about his final call of 25 lengths.
“…It’s such a problem to count lengths, I said 25, it could conceivably have been more.”
Indeed, it was 31, but Anderson was cool enough to recognize that he might have sold the victory short. His call and aftermath lasted four minutes, 16 seconds. But in that time, he was as good as any announcer has ever been, in a moment that was bigger than most will ever witness.
Two years later, on the first Saturday in May of 1975, Anderson was at his home track at Churchill Downs, calling the Kentucky Derby for both the live audience and for ABC, which had rights to that year’s Derby. Anderson mixed up two horses, calling the fast-closing winner, and favorite, Foolish Pleasure, by the name Prince Thou Art, until correcting himself just as Foolish Pleasure hit the wire. It was among the biggest miscues a race caller had made in the history of modern televised racing. In an interview a year later, Anderson said, “I was on nine network television shows, including A.M. America and To Tell the Truth. It hasn’t been bad at all. Of course I was disappointed that it happened in that situation. You hate to make a mistake, but if you let it destroy you, you’re going to be destroyed pretty often.”
Hammond said, “He was able to shake it off.” Two weeks later, he called the Preakness flawlessly.
In the years following both the ’73 Belmont and the ’75 Derby, Gentry would call Anderson and say, into the phone, “Hey, you got that call wrong. It was Foolish Pleasure.” Or, “He won by 31 lengths, not 25.” And then hang up. Anderson laughed at those calls. He was a good sport with thick skin. And good friends who knew he could handle the needle.
In 1977, Anderson moved his primary work from Churchill Downs to the New York circuit of Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. From there, in 1978, he called the thrilling Belmont in which Affirmed won the Triple Crown by a nose over his rival, Alydar. Anderson picked up the two-horse duel in the stretch.
“It is still Affirmed as they come to the quarter pole. He's holding on to a head lead. Alydar is outside of him and challenging that lead. The two are heads apart and Alydar's got a lead! Alydar put a head in front right in the middle of the stretch! It's Alydar and Affirmed battling back along the inside! We'll test these two to the wire! Affirmed under a left-hand whip! Alydar on the outside driving! Affirmed and Alydar heads apart. Affirmed's got a nose in front as they come on the wire!”
It was another brilliant call of an entirely different kind of race, a battle rather than a coronation.
But Anderson wasn’t happy in New York. Battaglia recalls talking to him after he left Churchill Downs. “He told me ‘Mike, I can’t believe I left. I miss Kentucky so much.’ He never liked New York.”
On March 24, 1979, Anderson died of a heart attack at his home in Commack, Long Island, 32 miles east of Belmont Park. Friends assume that a lifetime of dangerous habits had caught up to him. “Chic loved to eat and he loved to drink,” says Hammond. “He was overweight, and he was told many times to lose weight and watch what he ate, and to drink less. Maybe that was his downfall. But he lived a good life.”
Anderson was buried back in his native Evansville. The front of his gravestone lists the dates of his birth and death and the names of his wife and children. The back has an image of Churchill Downs carved into the rock and the inscription, in part:
THOROUGHBRED RACING ANNOUNCER
That he was, on the day it mattered most, at a racetrack in a big city far from his final resting place. On that day, he translated greatness into words, and those words endure.