Chasing the Triple Crown

As Sham drifted back to last, Secretariat kept pouring it on, opening 25 lengths at the eighth pole and 28 lengths by the time he was 100 yards from the wire. Here Turcotte glanced to his left, saw the Teletimer blinking its frantic message: 2:19 ... 2:20. In disbelief, Turcotte did a double take ... 2:21! Gallant Man's daunting mark was 2:26 3/5s. For the first time that day, Turcotte asked the colt to run, pushing on him with his hands, scrubbing on his neck: 2:22! The crowd grew deafening. Twenty yards from the wire he was 30 in front. Turcotte pushed again: 2:23 ...

Eighty thousand people leaned forward. The colt swept past the wire 31 lengths in front. The electric timer froze, and thousands gasped: 2:24 seconds flat! A new Belmont record by almost three seconds, and a new world record on the dirt.

Secretariat's victory, widely perceived as the finest performance ever by a thoroughbred, crowned what became the Golden Age of racing in America -- the inimitable decade of the 1970s, a span that witnessed two more Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978, and nearly a fourth in 1979, when Spectacular Bid, looking like a shoo-in to sweep the Triple, was sent chasing cheap speed by his inexperienced rider, Ron Franklin. At the top of the lane, he was in front by three lengths, but wilted like a Derby rose to finish third.

This was the decade that saw the rise and fall of Ruffian, the most brilliant female racehorse I have ever seen; the dominating presence of Forego, America's four-time Horse of the Year; and the Affirmed-Alydar rivalry, the most compelling in Triple Crown history, with Alydar finishing second in all three and losing the last, the Belmont, by the final thrust of Affirmed's head.

I began covering thoroughbred racing for Long Island's Newsday in the spring of '72. Tossing off the Bid's loss as an anomaly, I figured that three Triple Crown winners per decade was the new norm, that the Golden Age had come and would not end, that what we were witnessing was the full flowering of the modern American thoroughbred -- a phenomenon that grew out of American breeders aggressively fishing the richer gene pools of Europe before and after World War II. Six European stallions imported to America from 1920 to the late 1940s -- Sunreigh, St. Germans, Sir Gallahad III, Blenheim II, Bull Dog and Nasrullah -- all purchased by Americans to infuse new blood into old domestic lines, led to a whole new set of genetic recipes that produced nine of the last 10 Triple Crown winners and a bevy of other champions, from Ruffian to Forego to Foolish Pleasure.

Not incidentally, this year's Triple Crown contender, California Chrome, has a sire line that traces back to Nasrullah through Seattle Slew and Bold Ruler, Nasrullah's most prepotent son. Nasrullah, in particular, complemented American mares so well that he created the finest blend of unrelated flavors since ham first met eggs.

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Thirty-five years have passed since that era ended, since Spectacular Bid lost the Belmont, and I look back today -- after all the failures that were to follow -- and see how bloody spoiled we all became by witnessing so many stars, so many indubitable giants of the turf, rise to such heights in so short a period of time.

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