Not since Citation turned the trick in 1948 had a thoroughbred been so heavily favored to win racing's Triple Crown. The wonder horse called Secretariat had won impressive victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Still, going into the $150,200 Belmont Stakes, the last and longest (1½ miles) of the three classics, the strapping chestnut colt was bucking the very formidable odds of history.
In the quarter-century since Citation's victory, six other three-year-olds had entered the grueling Belmont with a chance of copping the crown. All, however, faltered in the race for what became known as the "Cripple Crown."
Tim Tarn (1958) broke his right foreleg on the final turn, but still courageously managed to finish second. Carry Back (1961), Northern Dancer (1964) and Kauai King (1966) did not have the endurance to go the longer distance.
Majestic Prince (1969) and Canonero II (1971) were both ailing and should never have been entered in the race.
Thus, as Trainer Lucien Laurin saddled up Secretariat for last week's 105th running of the Belmont, his nervous statement that the horse was "very good, very quiet, very wonderful" seemed a kind of incantation to ward off the "Belmont jinx." Something worked. Secretariat not only defied historyhe rewrote it, in one of the most astonishing triumphs in horse-racing annals.
Two-Horse Race. Unlike Citation, who won the Belmont in a breeze over a middling field, Secretariat figured to face stiff competition from Sham, the gutsy bay colt who had finished second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
"It's still a two-horse race," said Laurin. "Our horse and Sham." So many horsemen agreed that only three other three-year-olds were entered in the race, making it the smallest Belmont field in 30 years. Johnny Campo, trainer of Twice a Prince, talked bravely of a major upset, making the familiar point that Bold Ruler, Secretariat's sire, was not known for producing horses of lasting stamina.
Campo and the 69,138 fans who packed Belmont Park last week saw Secretariat put that old question to rest once and forever. As expected, Secretariat and Sham staged an early head-to-head duel. Then, with his long, beautifully rhythmic strides, Secretariat began to pull away. First it was by one length, then five, then ten. Coming into the stretch, Jockey Ron Turcotte did not bother to go to the whip as Secretariat poured it on. When he crossed the finish line, he had won by an incredible 31 lengths, the largest winning margin in the history of the Belmont. As he was decked with a blanket of carnations, Secretariat seemed to nod in acknowledgment; after his mile-and-a-half run, he was not even lathered. More remarkable, his time of 2 min. 24 sec. flat clipped a full 2 3/5 sec. off the Belmont record.
"Wow! Wheel Hallelujah!" exclaimed Mrs. Helen (Penny) Tweedy, Secretariat's owner. After running her prize thoroughbred in perhaps two more races, she will retire Secretariat to stud no later than Nov. 15. Then the new Triple Crown winner will try to live up to the seemingly impossible slogan on the buttons worn by Mrs. Tweedy's entourage: BREED MORE SECRETARIATS.