Like A Tremendous Machine

With our all-information-all-the-time instant-judgement society, there is a habit if constantly branding events and performances as The Best <insert something> Ever, or Worst <insert something> Ever. We’re always making Top 10 lists and Top 100 lists for movies, and songs, and tv episodes, and athletes, and so on… I think that can often make for spirited discussion, well, at least until the trolls get involved.

I was thinking along these lines this past week and realized that this weekend is the 40th anniversary of what I think of as the single, greatest athletic performance that I have ever witnessed: Secretariat’s win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

Maybe that seems like an odd choice for someone that watched Hank Aaron, The Miracle on Ice, Kirk Gibson, and a host of other jaw-dropping performances. Even though I was a little tyke at the time, I can still remember watching it on my knees in front of my parents’ tv.

Since the dawn of the YouTube era, I watch it now, probably a couple of times a year and I am still amazed. And I still get choked up. Every. Time. I know many of you that visit here probably weren’t alive in 1973 and may barely recognize the name of the horse or the event. Whether you do or don’t remember, take a moment and watch the race:

That day, Secretariat set the record for a mile and half on dirt that still stands today. Around the half-way point, he starts to pull away from Sham and that’s it. He just keeps pulling away. And to me, the thing that is most fascinating is wondering what his motivation could have been. He won by an absurd 31 lengths, nearly the length of a football field. No one was near him. He was so far ahead, but he never seemed to ease up. I like to think he was running for the sake of it.

There's nobody there, Ron

There’s nobody there, Ron

So, with the Belmont this weekend, I salute Big Red — the best athletic performance I ever saw. I suppose that in the coming years something wondrous could happen to displace it, but whoever that might be has an awful lot of ground to make up.

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16 thoughts on “Like A Tremendous Machine

  1. Same here. He just was so much better than all the other horses it was like he was a different species. Since no other horse before or since has been nearly that good — despite how inbred Thoroughbreds are, and despite him being at stud for so long — he must have been some rare mutant horsie.

    • Lurker — we go to the races every year and were very excited to see Zenyatta race a couple of years ago. I think the passage of time has made me appreciate what happened that year more and more.

      He was supposed to have had a huge heart (abnormally large) and it’s interesting that he wasn’t a very successful sire. One of kind, literally.

  2. That is one of the most magnificent things I have ever seen, also. I remember bursting into tears at the end of the race, from the pure wonder of that horse. It still brings tears to my eyes to see it.

  3. I remember reading that his heart was quite a bit bigger than most horses. Also, the distance between strides at a full gallop was huge. I wish I could remember the numbers. At the horse park in Kentucky there are hoofprints in concrete showing the huge difference between Secretariat and Man O’ War’s stride lengths and the lengths of average horses. Fascinating.

    • Yes — I’d heard that his heart was abnormally large and we both noticed how much larger he seemed than Sham in this footage. Didn’t seem fair. :)

  4. I know many of you that visit here probably weren’t alive in 1973 and may barely recognize the name of the horse or the event.

    Ahem. A number of your readers, perhaps, but I’ll bet many of us were not only alive but old enough to know what a historic moment that was. ;-)

    I love horses in general, but Secretariat was truly a one of a kind animal, an athlete as much as Michael Phelps or Jesse Owens. Sadly, his progeny—there must be dozens out there—haven’t shown their sire’s form, though I can spot Secretariat’s parentage in the bright chestnut coat and long, cat-like back. Like human athletes, I think horses in competitive events have to have a certain mindset, a love for what they do and a natural competitiveness. Secretariat had that: you see that in the second half, when he seems to realize he has one more guy to shake before he can run home. I was so excited, I couldn’t even scream at that moment—and me a teenaged girl!

    • HG — hah! Yes, my perspective has been gained I think by appreciating it more and more over time. In many ways, I can remember the races for Seattle Slew and Affirmed (and Alydar) more because I was a little bit older. Of course, then it seemed like winning the Triple Crown was something that happened fairly often.

      I think it’s really interesting that Secretariat isn’t considered a great sire. I guess whatever caused that great heart never transferred.

  5. To me, that pic of Ron Turcotte looking back, wondering where everybody is, just has to be one of the two greatest sports photos ever (the other being a wasted-away Babe Ruth using his bat as a cane, doffing his cap once more to Yankee Stadium). I’m like you: I watch the 73 Belmont a few times a year, and I tear-up as well. “Moving like a tremendous machine.” ESPN had a 30 minute feature about that race, and they interviewed Turcotte. He says he hardly used the whip at all, and just let Big Red run for the sheer joy of it. I also love that he and Sham were way out in front of the others, and Sham didn’t even show. He was so exhausted from his first half that he faded back to fifth. Secretariat kept on running. I wonder what his time would have been if he’d gone around again. He might have broken the sound barrier.

    • Tom — it’s really amazing. And something that has gained luster for me over time as I appreciate it more and more. I will have to track down the 30-For-30 about that race. Maybe I can stream it this weekend before the race on Saturday.

  6. I saw it but don’t remember! My family are big horse racing fans, my mammy owned racing horses and they did go to the Kentucky Derby (no winners or no famous/big winners). I just don’t remember but it’s fun knowing I was a rugrat looking at it ;p

    I get choked up when I see the reels of people tearing down the Berlin Wall. I was a young adult but I sat there — transfixed — I watched every second of television news at the time because it was SO FREAKING HUGE to see this major symbol of the Cold War coming down. Amazing. I don’t boohoo but my upper lip gets kinda sweaty and my eyes sting.

    • Lily — yes, that’s one of the most memorable news events (as opposed to athletic performances) that I remember from the 80s. There was a German girl that worked in the lab down the hall from me and she couldn’t believe it when we said we heard about it on the radio. Not until she saw it live on TV — and then she just started sobbing.

      • While I do love basketball and FIFA, I can’t share say that they affect me – you wouldn’t believe that if you watched me at a match!

  7. I wish that race had been 1 3/4, just to see how far ahead he’d have gone.

    I remember watching this with my mom and us being amazed. And how even though they kept zooming out, you couldn’t get Big Red and the other horses on the old square screen back then.

    I mostly have a terrible, terrible memory of my life, but I have a flashbulb picture of watching this race, in the den with the sea-foam green shag carpet and the RCA TV.

    Just showed this to Mr. LT, who hadn’t seen it. He wasn’t into horsies, plus he lived in a place that didn’t get this channel on TV. He was grinning and LOL at the end too.

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