It all began unfolding like some epochal scene of a drama turned suddenly surreal, with tricks being played by the lights and shadows of the late-afternoon sun, with the solitary silhouettes of the horse and rider floating out there, disembodied, toward the far turn. Through the rising, vaporous curtains of heat. Soundless, in the distance. All alone.
Secretariat had just rushed past the halfway mark of the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes in 1:09⅘ the fastest six-furlong split in the history of the race, and now he was humming through the fourth quarter in :24⅖ toward an opening mile in an unearthly 1:34[1/5]. There, in that eerily dappled gloaming, Secretariat began turning the oldest of all the Triple Crown races into his own tour de force, drawing off to lead a beaten Sham by two lengths...four...six. Rarely in sport has a game's most brilliant competitor risen at precisely the right juncture in history—at the perfect coordinates of place, occasion and time—and seized the day by delivering a performance so original, so stunning in its clarity, that it raised to a new level the standard by which all who followed would be measured. And Secretariat, plunging toward the far turn, was raising it right then.
It was 5:40 p.m. on June 9, 1973, and what had begun 38 months before had all quite suddenly come to this. On the night of March 29, 1970, the manager of The Meadow stud farm in Doswell, Va., Howard Gentry, hastily left a midnight game of pool in the basement of his home and headed in the darkness toward a solitary light that burned above the two-stall foaling barn in the corner of a field. Somethingroyal, one of the nation's preeminent broodmares, was about to give birth to her foal by Bold Ruler, America's prepotent sire. He was a good-sized foal, with hips so wide that Gentry feared he might have trouble clearing the breach. Nonetheless, at precisely 10 minutes past midnight, with Gentry and a companion tugging on the forelegs, the whole roasted chestnut finally appeared. Gentry stood back and declared, "There is a whopper!"
It was a propitious declaration. In the course of his 16-month racing career, Secretariat rose higher and faster and larger than any U.S. horse of modern times. By the end of his 1972 season, he had so dominated the nation's juveniles, winning nearly every major stakes race on the East Coast, that he was unanimously voted Horse of the Year. It was the first time a 2-year-old had ever been so honored. That winter, Secretariat became the most expensive animal in history when he was sold to a breeding syndicate for the then shocking sum of $6.08 million.
He had it all: impeccable bloodlines, a dazzling turn of foot and a physique so flawless that Charles Hatton, the aging dean of American turf writers, called him "the most perfect racehorse I have ever seen." Secretariat was the quintessential running machine, and he was never more keenly tuned than he was in 1973 for the greatest showcase of his sport, the Triple Crown. It had been 25 years since a horse had swept the three races—Citation, in 1948—and many had begun to wonder whether it would ever be done again.
So Secretariat's quest was all the more riveting. In the Kentucky Derby, after dropping back to last, he gradually picked up one horse after another, hooked Sham off the last turn and powered down the stretch to a still-record finish in 1:59[2/5]. In a feat unprecedented for a 10-furlong race, Secretariat ran each successive quarter faster than the preceding one. Two weeks later in the Preakness, after again trailing early, he suddenly charged through a blazing second quarter of :21 and change, then sailed home to beat Sham by 2½. The Pimlico teletimer had malfunctioned, obscuring the official final time, but two veteran Daily Racing Form clockers hand-timed Secretariat in 1:53⅖ giving him his second track record in two weeks. (The official time was eventually recorded as 1:54⅖ short of the record.)
It was as though, like a brilliant jazz musician, he was making the whole thing up as he went along, improvising something different for each race. All jockey Ron Turcotte had to do was hang on. He knew better than to interfere: Quiet, genius at work. With the country sunk in the Watergate abyss, Secretariat became the most diverting icon of the day, a $6 million equine Adonis with more presence than any horse in memory. And so it came about that the Belmont, on national TV, offered the ideal venue for the greatest performance in the history of the sport.
The colt came to it with more than the winds of history at his back. Secretariat was a prodigious eater—he was devouring 15 quarts of oats a day during his Triple Crown season—and he needed extremely hard, fast workouts to burn this off and keep him fit. He was a morning whirlwind. Working out eight days before the Belmont, he bounded a mile in a sensational 1:34[4/5] and galloped out nine furlongs in 1:48⅗ stakes-race time. Clockers were checking their watches with each other.
What was going on here? The definitive answer would not come until 16 years later, on the day Secretariat died, when Dr. Thomas Swerczek, a professor of veterinary science at the University of Kentucky, removed the animal's heart while performing the necropsy. Normal in all other ways, Secretariat's heart was about twice the size of the normal horse's pump and a third larger than any equine heart Swerczek had ever seen. "We were all shocked," he said.
No more so, though, than everyone who saw the Belmont. Sweeping into the far turn, leaving Sham behind. Secretariat widened his lead to seven lengths, then eight. Ten. Twelve. Fifteen. Twenty. He turned for home alone. In front by 22. Turcotte did not move. Twenty-four. Twenty-six. The oldest horsemen on the grounds were struck dumb. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Seventy yards from the wire, Turcotte glanced at the timer, saw 2:19...2:20. The record was 2:26[3/5]. He looked away, then did a double take. He started scrubbing. Twenty-nine lengths. Thirty. The colt took a final leap. Thirty-one. The timer froze: 2:24. Twenty-one years later, it is frozen there still.