As he came to the Belmont Stakes in June 1973 with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter of a century, Secretariat led the news headlines in North America. The Big Red Horse made the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated – something that hadn’t happened before, or since.
In his book “The Most Glorious Crown,” author Marvin Drager rounded up several clips from the millions of words printed about the Big Red Horse. Some writers, perhaps more used to human newsmakers, struggled a bit to define what was so phenomenal about Secretariat.
“He has a neck like a buffalo, a back as broad as a sofa,” Time magazine reported. But Newsweek sports columnist Pete Axthelm, who never saw a racetrack he did not wish to attend, glided across the typing turf.
“Secretariat generates a crackling tension and excitement wherever he goes,” Axthelm wrote. “Even in the kind of gray weather that shrouds lesser animals in anonymity, Secretariat’s muscular build identifies him immediately; his glowing reddish coat is a banner of health and rippling power. Magnificent enough at rest … when he accelerates … he produces a breathtaking explosion that leaves novices and hardened horsemen alike convinced that, for one of those moments that seldom occur in any sport, they have witnessed genuine greatness.”
While Axthelm was waxing poetic, pithy New York Post columnist Larry Merchant (now better known as HBO’s sharp-tongued boxing analyst) clicked off his words in Broadway staccato:
“Secretariat,” said Merchant, “is the kind of Big Horse that makes grown men weep, even when they are flint-hearted bettors, even when he goes off at 1-10. He is the apparently unflawed hunk of beauty and beast they search for doggedly in the racing charts every day, and never seemed to find. His supporters rhapsodize over him as though he is a four-legged Nureyev, extolling virtues of his musculature, his grace, his urine specimens.” If he were to lose the Belmont, Merchant warned, “the country may turn sullen and mutinous.”
The media explosion over Secretariat set an interesting benchmark in the coverage of horse racing. While the sport has never since enjoyed quite the fervor and anticipation in the press as it enjoyed in Secretariat’s run up to the 1973 Triple Crown, the nation’s media DID learn in that year how to turn out The Big Story about a horse racing hero. We’ve seen that in several springs of the new millennium, most recently with the modestly bred colt California Chrome as he makes a run for glory in the Triple Crown.
In no way whatsoever are the stories of Secretariat and California Chrome alike. They are horses from opposite sides of the railroad track. But if one was Equine Royalty, and the other is Equine Everyman, that’s just part of the story that makes headlines.