With a wide shot from the pan camera in midstretch during the running of the 1973 renewal, the distance between the mighty Secretariat and his five badly overmatched rivals--estimated at 22 lengths by the estimable race caller Chic Anderson, almost doesn’t do the moment justice.
In the end, the 31-length victory margin would do quite nicely, thank you, reflecting the accurate measure of a winner finishing up his race somewhere in Nassau County, while the rest of the field was beginning to exit the Queens off-ramp.
The audience didn’t react as raucously after seeing Seattle Slew, beneath Jean Cruguet, open his advantage soon after entering the Belmont straight. The applause after his victory was little more than respectful.
That might have been because Slew had long since extracted any dramatic tension from his Triple Crown moment, the end of his foregone conclusion, one that Rick Dutrow hopes will be repeated this Saturday, as he promised it will.
Perhaps if the videotape of the ‘77 Belmont had been picked up sooner, in mid-backstretch, the audience would have seen Slew putting away two premature challenges from rivals who tried to beat him right then and there. But he vanquished them, and held the late runners safe during a never-in-doubt stretch outcome.
Then came racing’s last Triple Crown winner, the one from 30 years ago, the one won by a horse with the curious name of Affirmed-Alydar. Because you can’t tell the story of one without the other. They brought out the best in each other, and Affirmed’s best was consistently inches better than his rival, arguably the greatest in the history of the sport.
When that team put on its equine Barnum and Bailey show at the finish of the ’78 running, the audience erupted, master of ceremonies Randy Moss putting the rivalry and that Triple Crown moment in perspective.
“There’s not a real racing fan,” Moss said, “who couldn’t tell you precisely where he was when those races were being run.”
“I thought I had him at the three-sixteenths pole… I was a neck in front” said Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez on the ride over into midtown from Belmont Park.
“I tried to tighten it up a little bit--I didn’t want to foul him,” added the rider later. “But then I saw him coming back--no--he’s going to beat me again.
“I watched the films of those races a bunch of times. Affirmed just hated to get beat.”
The 1970s, the sport’s last golden age, were heady times for thoroughbred racing in America. The great Spectacular Bid, a horse that belongs in the same conversation with the three Triple Crown champions, came along the very next season but not even he couldn‘t finish the deal.
Bid, so dominant at four that he would win the storied Woodward Stakes in a walkover, couldn’t enter the Triple Crown pantheon. Can Big Brown do what the mighty Bid couldn’t? Is he the foregone conclusion his trainer says he is?
“No doubt about it,” reaffirmed Dutrow.
The trainer’s confidence was back to unwavering--if indeed it ever faltered in light of recurring hoof issues--after Big Brown worked a perfect five furlongs a few hours earlier at Belmont Park. The trainer wanted something between :59 to 1:01.
Regular exercise rider Michelle Nevin split the difference almost perfectly before she reached for another handful of rein upon completion of the move, not allowing Big Brown to do more than his handlers wanted; enough, not too much.
It seems as if the Belmont, the race itself, has finally arrived after two weeks of scrutinizing Big Brown’s connections as if a couple of good fellas named Dutrow and Iavarone were being considered as potential presidential running mates.
From a media perspective, the luncheon was sparsely attended. Too bad for press members who only get to cover two seasonal events a year, whether they want to or not. They might have gained some appreciation of the quest here.
Interesting that Patrice Wolfson, owner/breeder of Affirmed with her late husband, Louis, had the same reaction to the burning question that Billy Turner had, as to whether Big Brown was equal to the challenge.
“Their horse has that little extra something,” Wolfson said. “You all saw it, the way he exploded down the stretch at Pimlico. I think it’s time.”
The rider of her horse’s rival agreed. “[Big Brown] already proved he’s the best, and the competition this year is not that strong,” Velasquez said. “If everything goes right, he’ll win.”
Said Dutrow: “The time he missed might actually have helped. He’ll be running for the third time in five weeks. He burned three heels in the Preakness. Time can only help. But he was pissed off; he wanted to go to the track.
“What I see right now is a perfect horse. I see a pretty picture. He’s better now than he was before the Derby.”