Sunday, June 9, 2013

Making It Look Ridiculously Easy

"It was Secretariat's 17th visit to the winner's circle and the only time he ever got there without working for it."

Red Smith

Winning the Belmont Stakes wasn't supposed to seem this easy.

They call it "the test of champions," and, at 1½ miles, that's exactly what it is.

Nevertheless, 40 years ago today, Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes in the most dominating way imaginable — by more than 30 lengths.

I know that not everyone who reads this is a horse racing enthusiast so let me define the term length for you. A length refers to the distance from a horse's nose to the tip of its tail — roughly 8 feet.

Therefore, a horse that wins a race by 30 lengths — this isn't an exact measurement, of course, merely an approximation — wins by about 240 feet — or eight–tenths of the length of a football field.

On the day of the race, a viewer could start counting — "One Mississippi, two Mississippi ..." — when Secretariat crossed the finish line and get to about "six Mississippi" before any other horse crossed it.

That's domination.

Of course, most of the major horse owners decided not to compete in the 1973 Belmont. Aside from Secretariat and his primary rival in that year's Triple Crown races, Sham, there were only three other horses entered in the race. Most owners conceded that the Belmont would be, essentially, a match race between Secretariat and Sham.

Ironically, though, Sham did not finish second to Secretariat that day. In fact, he finished last.

You might not have thought so the way the first half of the race went. Secretariat, who typically started in the back of the pack, uncharacteristically broke well and surged along the rail to take an early lead with Sham in hot pursuit on the outside, and, for the first half of the Belmont, the two ran virtually stride for stride with the other horses trailing farther and farther behind.

Then on the backstretch Secretariat began to pull away from Sham. As the horses made the turn, race caller Chic Anderson memorably said, "[Secretariat] is moving like a tremendous machine!" How could anyone forget that?

Actually, I have two specific memories of that weekend.

There is the memory of the actual race, of course. It was run, as the Triple Crown races always are, on a Saturday afternoon. I was a young boy. Summer vacation had just begun, and my family was visiting my grandmothers in Dallas. I remember being in my maternal grandmother's living room watching her TV and being amazed at Secretariat's performance.

I had seen several horse races on TV by that time — and I have seen quite a few in person since — and I have never seen another horse leave all the other horses in the dust like that. Never.

And Anderson's call has the iconic staying power of Al Michaels' exclamation, "Do you believe in miracles?" at the conclusion of the Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1980. Every time I have heard it in the last 40 years, it has taken me back to that sunny June afternoon.

The other memory is of the following day. My family took my father's mother out for lunch at a cafeteria she liked a lot. This cafeteria had portraits of the presidents lining the wall. It was known locally for those portraits as much as it was known for any of its dishes, and it was one of my favorite places to go because, well, I've had an interest in presidents since I was little.

(I can't explain it. My mother might be able to say when this fascination began, but she's been dead for nearly 20 years, and there's no point in asking my father because he was frequently absent in my early childhood — later childhood, too, for that matter, but that's another story.)

Anyway, whenever we visited Dallas, we always managed to visit this cafeteria — sometimes with Grandmother, sometimes not. It was the Highland Park Cafeteria. I'm not honestly certain that I ever knew that when I was a child. To me, it was the place with the pictures of the presidents.

Ordinarily, as I recall, the people who stood in line at the cafeteria commented on the presidential portraits that lined the wall. The portraits of the more recent presidents always prompted people to say things like "I was [insert age/marital status/place of residence/employed by/other relevant observation here] when he became president."

On that Sunday, however, everyone was talking about Secretariat.

On one level, that is understandable. Secretariat was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.

But that was also the summer of the Senate Watergate Committee. Allegations had been made regarding the conduct of the sitting president — who had just been re–elected about seven months earlier in one of the most lopsided elections in history.

But no one was talking about that in a cafeteria line with portraits of the presidents on the wall.

Everyone was talking about a racehorse.

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