Writer’s Forum

“I Remember…”

Our newest installment of the Writers Forum features the reflections of writer and racing fan Cynthia Holt as she remembers Secretariat’s 1973 Triple Crown and how it captured her heart and the attention of America.


By Cynthia Holt


I remember…

In the spring of 1973, a quarter century had passed since Citation’s flight to the finish in the 80th running of the Belmont Stakes. Legions of baby boomers such as myself had caught the racing bug through the fevered passion of our war veteran fathers, and had been living vicariously through hand-down stories of the great horses and glory days of the past. Countless afternoons in the company of our dads at racetracks across the land had yielded priceless memories to our storehouses of remembrance, but we were still hungering for a Triple Crown champion to call our own. We had come of age during the rip-and-tear of the raucous ’60s, when heroes died young, their promise unfulfilled. We were waiting with open hearts for that one shining horse which would have the stamina to carry the weight of our dreams the full distance. And a country steeped in discord was waiting with open arms to welcome a new standard-bearer, pure and noble, better than the best of ourselves. For eight years, the dogs of war had nipped unceasingly at our heels. It had been a bitter winter of discontent for a generation who had thrived on the belief that endless summer was its birthright. A clandestine operation in a prominent D.C. hotel threatened to capsize the Ship of State, and a sea of unsavory revelations surrounding the President engulfed the nation. This was our world in 1973, when the biting winds of March were gentled by April’s sweet breezes and hope loomed large in the form of a charismatic horse, burning red, as if he were a spark sprung from the torch of a god.

The Secretariat bandwagon had standing room only when it left its winter headquarters at Hialeah and traveled north to begin the run-up to the Triple Crown. With his outstanding win in the Bay Shore Stakes followed by the Gotham in which he tied the track records for a mile, smooth sailing into the Derby seemed assured. Then the unthinkable happened. Secretariat lost the Wood Memorial in an inexplicably dull performance. There was disappointment bordering on dismay and some desertion in the ranks, with heated debate centered upon the “Bold Rulers cannot get a distance” theory. But fervent followers of the red horse held fast, not willing to believe that there were hooves of clay peeking from beneath the royal robes.

Those who kept the faith and refused to believe that Secretariat’s brilliance as a two-year-old was built upon a faulty foundation were richly rewarded with the colt’s stellar performance in the Kentucky Derby. With the intensity of a sonic boom, Secretariat rocked the racing world by breaking the track record at Churchill Downs for 1-1/4-miles, becoming the first horse in Derby history to best the two-minute mark with a winning time of 1:59-2/5. Perhaps even more astounding was the fact that he had posted progressively faster quarter fractions of 25-1/5, 24, 23-4/5, 23-2/5, and 23. Horses aren’t supposed to be able to do that, but this wasn’t just a horse. This was Secretariat.

The Secretariat roadshow rolled into Baltimore under a rapidly rising head of steam. Old Hilltop was ready to host what was then the most heavily attended Preakness Stakes in history, and a boisterous infield was prepared to make its presence felt. It was the biggest love-in since Woodstock, and Secretariat was the star of the show. He would not disappoint. Those who were still in control of their faculties by post-time witnessed one of those breath-taking moments which leave one wondering if the eye/mind connection is in working order. Trailing the pack as they approached the first turn, a subtle message from Turcotte to Secretariat was interpreted as launch time. The Meadow Stable colt responded with a full-throttle lunge, sweeping past the field with gargantuan strides, flying from last to first with the swiftness of an avenging angel. It was a dazzling display of equine locomotion so mesmerizing that it left even the most cynical of trash talkers gobsmacked. Secretariat’s unprecedented run was so visually stunning that it would become signatory to his legend, spoken of in awe whenever freakish feats are discussed by racing aficionados. Due to a malfunction of the electronic timer, it would be 39 years before the Maryland Racing Commission would officially recognize Secretariat’s time of 1:53, which broke the Pimlico track record for 1-3/16 miles.

The stage had been set for the grandest of all grand finales. Belmont Racetrack, home of the third jewel of the Triple Crown and now the seat of high drama, lay in wait. Pandemonium had broken in the press, and Secretariat mania reigned supreme. His blinkered visage peered from the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated, the first time an athlete had ever been accorded such an honor. For those who had never known a Triple Crown winner, it was a time of arching hope tempered by the bitter pill of experience which had been forcibly fed four years before, when we had watched the Majestic Prince dream dissolve in the dust.

The second Saturday in June dawned hot and muggy. It was the first day of the year to reach the 90-plus degree mark. The conditions were oppressive, and I worried about the effect on Secretariat as he tackled the marathon distance of 1-1/2 miles in the most demanding of the Triple Crown races. In anticipation of heavy demand, the Long Island Railway had added extra cars to its Penn Station-Belmont run, and I was determined to be on one of the first trains. But there was no beating the crowd that day. Word was out, and I was soon seated cheek-by-jowl with other race-goers in a sauna on wheels, all stoked with the hope that by day’s end, we would be breathing the rarified air known only to those who have witnessed a Triple Crown winner. Secretariat’s universal appeal was strikingly apparent. He cut a wide swath through every demographic and his name was heard constantly in the din throughout the 13-mile transit.

We were off and running when the train disgorged its ebullient load at Belmont, with the most physically fit sprinting to the gates and spilling on to the grounds, seeking a shady oasis among the sheltering trees. The seats were sold-out, and I soon discovered that every bench had been staked. The Belmont was the eighth race on the card. Too jittery to concentrate on the earlier races, I bided my time while waiting in the interminably long line at a snack bar, then watching the human carnival while perched on the edge of a planter. The hour preceding Secretariat’s race was a clinic in anxiety management. There were jam-packed bodies everywhere. In defiance of the fire laws, people were standing on the stairways and in the aisles, anywhere they could to catch a glimpse of the horse upon which the country’s attention had been riveted for the past five weeks. I found a patch of a few spare inches and stood my ground, determined to hold the spot until the race was over or I was bodily removed.

I had never seen Secretariat in the flesh. Every photo, film clip, or broadcast had been in black-and-white. When he stepped on to the track, it was as if I had been looking through a stained glass window on a cloudy day, only to have it lit by the sudden appearance of a brilliant sun. I saw his coat, catching the rays and shining like burnished copper in the late afternoon light, the crisp white and bright blue of his checkered colors, and the number 2 standing in stark relief against the black saddlecloth. His neck was bowed and he was walking with a demeanor so regal in its calmness, my mind could not grasp the fullness of his magnificence. From the moment of his appearance through the end of the race and beyond, the ear-numbing noise from the crowd was continuous and unrelenting. They cheered, shouted, and clapped, the reverberation from the excitement so high, the air itself seemed to sing. Secretariat was a model of deportment throughout the playing of the traditional “Sidewalks of New York,” the announcer’s introductions, and the uproarious reception from the crowd. His composure was so contained, that it was only in the warm-up that one caught a glimpse of the immense power of his underlying musculature. The noise level rose several decibels as the horses approached the starting gate. As Secretariat was led with perfect decorum into his stall, I wondered what I might offer the Almighty in the way of a last-minute bargain to insure a win. The answer was not forthcoming. It was up to the big red horse now. One-and-a-half miles stood between him and victory in the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes. He carried 126 pounds and 25 years of hope.

It was 5:38 P.M., Eastern Standard Time. Sixty-seven thousand, six hundred and five souls were about to experience an exhibition so transcendent, one can recall only snippets from the mind’s memory, as if retaining the whole is beyond a mere mortal’s capacity. Secretariat may have been as finite as the rest of us, but this was impossible to believe on that torrid afternoon in June, when heat haze touched the scene in a surreal tone and the tumult from the masses resounded like distant thunder in the halls of Valhalla. Announcer Chic Anderson’s voice, remarkable in its restraint, rolled over the crowd: “And we’re ready to go for this tremendous Belmont Stakes. Everybody’s in-line. And they’re off!” A tidal wave of sound washed over the grandstand, flooding our senses with sublime anticipation. Many felt that Turcotte’s strategy would be to stalk the field to the far turn, then cut Secretariat loose for an all-out run to the wire. But this was a day sanctified by the racing gods, and they had other ideas. Secretariat found the rail and advanced quickly, motoring past two rivals until he was eyeball-to-eyeball with Sham as they headed into the first turn. There was a disquieted rumble from the crowd. We were all gripped by the same heart-fracturing fear and questions: had Turcotte moved too soon? Secretariat and Sham raced in tandem around the turn, when Sham gained the lead, first by a head, then a neck, then almost a half-length in front. Would Sham finally have his day? If Secretariat engaged in a prolonged battle, would the punishing Belmont stretch sap his last ounce of strength? It was an angst-ridden several moments as we watched the duel, transfixed. At mid-point on the backstretch, a resurgent cheer arose as Secretariat’s neck inched past Sham’s, then his mighty chest and massive hindquarters, now methodically propelling him forward with more and more powerful strides. As if the life’s breath had been sucked from him, Sham staggered in his wake. He had given all he had.

It seemed as if there were two Belmont Stakes that day. The first ended when Secretariat, having disarmed his foes with devastating grace, became a victorious warrior facing an empty battlefield. The second began when he encountered the most formidable opponent he would ever meet. It was Secretariat challenging himself, running with sheer elation and irradiating the track, a genetically perfect storm showering that sacred sweep of stretch with such glory, his name would be linked to racing’s immortals. As he approached the final turn, the distance from his vanquished competitors lengthening with each rhythmic stride, the crowd responded with a fervor reserved for those who recognize that they are present at that rarest of alignments, when greatness gives birth to legend. Chic Anderson was giving the call of his career, perfectly tailoring commentary to action. His classic line, “Secretariat is widening now, he is moving like a tremendous machine,” would be stamped upon the national psyche in perpetuity.

Secretariat was leading by 14 lengths on the turn, moving with a mission which blistered the track, giving no ground to those records which had gone before. As he entered the homestretch, his lead increasing to 18, then 22, then 25 lengths, the crowd abandoned itself to a munificent display of appreciation for a performance they knew was one of the most astounding by any racehorse on any racetrack ever. Fueled by his titanic heart, the red horse flew down the stretch with splendid synergy, at times seemingly airborne, a wingless Pegasus. Euphoria ran rampant. The structural integrity of the stands was severely tested by the stomping of thousands of feet, which sent seismic shocks shooting through the venerable old plant. Normally reserved humans hugged strangers, stoics wept, poets and atheists alike struggled for expression. Avowed fans and novices thanked the sky that they had been blessed to have witnessed a horse that, for one moment in time, became the embodiment of as much beauty as one could ever hope to see in this world. With the stragglers now the better part of a football field behind as Secretariat approached the finish line, Ron Turcotte turned to steal a glance at history and at the teletimer, a gesture which has become an integral part of Belmont lore. Secretariat had run the fastest Belmont on record, shattering the old mark by an incredible 2-3/5 seconds, and he had broken the world record for 1-1/2 miles. His winning margin was a mind-boggling 31 lengths. But it was not just a matter of time and distance. For two minutes and 24 seconds on June 9, 1973, Secretariat was the culmination of the best of his breed and the consummate expression of the highest part of ourselves. He was everything that his Maker and nature had intended. The world was not perfect that day. But he was. More than forty years later, the flame of that memory endures. This one shining horse and his incandescent legacy continues to inspire us and illuminate our lives.

I remember…!

A Bostonian by birth, Cynthia Holt was raised primarily in Los Angeles, and inherited a life-long love of horse-racing through the enthusiasm of her late father. She attended Immaculate Heart College in the late 1960s and graduated with a B.A. in Theatre Arts which lead to New York and several years’ active involvement on the stage. She has been employed by Santa Anita Racetrack for the past 10 years in various capacities.


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