Chasing the Triple Crown

California Chrome

It hangs in a corner of memory like one of those old English racing scenes whose paint has begun to crack -- an heirloom of the mind now seen in fading colors, with that sunlit horse and rider in the center of it, plunging through the lights and shadows of the late June afternoon. Through the gauzy vapors of heat that hung like veils on the rows of trees along the backstretch fence. Beyond the flags fluttering above the infield lake. Through the ancient gates of history -- to a place where no race horse had ever been or may ever pass again.

Two silhouettes, in solitary flight.

Of all the memories that Secretariat left behind, strewn for me along a road that ran from Saratoga to Louisville, from Baltimore to New York, none remains more vivid than the sight of that gracefully moving horse as he swept toward the far turn in the '73 Belmont Stakes. For it was there -- as he pulled away from Sham and widened his lead at once to two lengths then quickly to three ... four ... five ... six ... seven -- the scene grew surreal, almost mystical, with the colt galloping as if from the pages of a storybook, a creature out of myth. Instinctively, I glanced at the infield Teletimer and saw the story gathering in that ominous cloud of numbers hovering in the air: three quarters of a mile in 1:09 4/5s seconds, the fastest three-quarter mile split in Belmont history, and the mile in a blistering 1:34 1/5! This mile clocking was faster, by almost a full second, than the swiftest older racehorse on the grounds, Tentam, had needed to win the fabled Metropolitan Mile at Belmont a week earlier. And Secretariat still had 880 yards to run.

The colt was racing to become the ninth Triple Crown winner in history, the first since Citation swept the 1¼-mile Kentucky Derby, the 1 3/16-mile Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1948, and the instant I saw those splits -- the horse was sprinting through the Belmont's mile and a half -- I figured right there that all was lost. Figured that he'd be consumed by the fires of his own sizzling pace, that he'd thrown himself on the flaming pyre just like his own father, Bold Ruler, had done in 1957, when he set a fiery pace in Gallant Man's record-breaking Belmont, only to grow so weary in the final eighth that he staggered home third, beaten by 12 lengths. Now I could see it all happening again, like father, like son, and I dropped my head and cursed his jockey, Ron Turcotte:

You idiot! What do you think you're doing? You're going tooooo damn fast!

What happened next defied all known precedents in the annals of American racing, blurring all reason as it repainted history -- a 50-second blur in time that left the sport with a new standard against which all other performances might be measured. Secretariat never dropped a beat as he raced around that turn, widening his lead to 10 lengths ... 12 ... 14 ... 18 ... now 20 as he rushed past the quarter pole in 1:59 flat, faster than his record-smashing Kentucky Derby run five weeks before.

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