It was just about what everybody expected. Penny Tweedy and her trainer, Lucien Laurin, brought the great horse to the Midwest, keeping their promise to let the people watch him run, and he performed as he should have. Perhaps there were a few moments of worry—but largely for the overly superstitious. Secretariat was trying for his 13th win, and Arlington Park, in the northwest area of Chicago, is known as the ""Graveyard of Favorites." It was there that four famed horses coming off victories in some or all of the Triple Crown races—Twenty Grand, Johnstown, Whirlaway and Iron Liege—were upset.
Secretariat's start in last week's $125,000 Invitational was poor; a stutter-step as he came out of the gate put him off last behind his three opponents—My Gallant, Our Native and Blue Chip Dan. But before the horses even turned up the backstretch, Jockey Ron Turcotte had moved Secretariat into the lead. By the half-mile pole the l-to-20 favorite had settled into that absolutely steady motion of a racehorse in high gear, smooth and clean, and behind him the competition began hobby-horsing, like boats bouncing in a wake, and he came home nine lengths in front of a weary My Gallant. His time was 1:47, just one-fifth of a second off the track record for the mile and an eighth. With a better start, a horse to press him and less bow to his turns, Secretariat might have posted a time that would have stood for a century.
The largest Arlington crowd in three decades—41,223—was on hand for the exhibition, and there was constant applause from the moment the horse appeared on the track. There were many young people on hand, including college girls with bare midriffs and painful-looking sunburns, and in the infield, opened for the first time in memory, bands played, a large group had a beer keg set on a wheelchair, and as Secretariat turned into the stretch the infield crowd roared him home and hundreds of arms shot up in the power salute.
Once again, racing has a people's horse. Man o' War was the first of these. As one of the obituaries said of him when he died 25 years ago: "He touched the imagination of men, and they saw different things in him. But one thing they will all remember, that he brought an exaltation into their hearts."
Since then the idols of racing fans often have been thoroughbreds who seemed to have emerged from nowhere...like Stymie of the '40s, the claimer from nonillustrious parents (his 10 closest relatives won a total of $1,615), whose habit was to study the crowds on his way to the starting gate, and whose eventual winnings totaled almost a million dollars; or little Carry Back, the product of two nondescripts named Saggy and Joppy, and yet his stretch runs left racing men heady; or Silky Sullivan, with an equivalent background, the flash-in-the-pan Western horse who came out of the starting gate as if answering a doorbell at two a.m., and who introduced the split screen to television race viewing because his stretch drives started from so far back (31� lengths to win in the Santa Anita Derby) that a special camera was used to keep an eye on him; and more recently Canonero II, the big copper colt who was sold for $1,200 as a yearling and was brought from Venezuela by three men who couldn't speak English and shouted "viva!" into anything that looked like a microphone as their horse won two legs of the Triple Crown before going lame and failing in the third.
Who were some of the others? Tom Fool, whom Marianne Moore wrote poetry about. Native Dancer, the first equine television star, whose light gray stood out on the screens as he mugged for the cameras, rearing in the winner's circle. An intelligent, playful animal, the country knew him as "The Dancer," and through the 19 years he has been retired to stud he has continued to receive fan letters, especially on Valentine's Day ("Native Dancer, I love you"). And Kelso, the plain, smallish gelding who was Horse-of-the-Year for five straight campaigns (1960-1964), running in the handicaps with the weights piled on him until at the end he must have felt he was pulling a garden roller out of the starting gate.
Sometimes it was a physical characteristic that caught the public's eye and extended the horse's popularity—the odd deformed left forefoot of Assault that got him nicknamed "The Club-Footed Comet," or the simple visual delight of Whirlaway's long tail that reached below his fetlocks and streamed far behind him when he ran.
But what about this newest name on the list—why this enormous affection and adulation for Secretariat? Not the oldest hand at Belmont could recall such a welter of noise as came out of the stands when he won the Triple Crown—a particular phenomenon since a frenzy of that sort is usually produced by a close race, a pack of horses coming down the stretch with everyone yelling for his favorite. But at Belmont, Secretariat was miles in front—and yet there was ear-splitting bedlam. The tumult seemed to buoy Secretariat along, speeding him toward the finish like the crest of a wave carries the surfer, and he had his extraordinary record, knocking 2[3/5] seconds off the time for the mile and a half.
Such was the exhilaration at Belmont that even the jockeys on the losing horses were caught up in it. They joked and carried on after the race, intoxicated by what had happened, as if they were pleased, even though vanquished, to have been identified with Secretariat's historic triumph.
Perhaps it can be said that one of the reasons for these outbursts of affection is that Secretariat has provided a necessary tonic at a time when so much of sport, beginning with the horror of the Olympics, has seemed caught up in the complex throes of power plays, and personality thrusts, and venality, and hints of scandal and fraud—all of it a reflection of the national scene where heroic qualities seem at a minimum. In a sporting event where the public so often looks for the metaphor of simple, uncomplicated excellence, the big red horse has come along and provided it, and made the air seem a little cleaner and nicer to breathe. Perhaps that is why so many young people have turned up to see him run. He is uncorruptible, and strong, and beautiful (the girls' mouths drop open slightly when they see him from the rail), and he eats enormously, and yawns a lot, and he is wholesome, and above all he is unbelievably good, not only in performance but also in demeanor. He has perhaps done three things in his life which he would regret. In the Champagne Stakes he bumped Stop the Music in the shoulder during the stretch run and was dropped from first place; when he was a 2-year-old he accidentally stepped on a kitten in his stall and did it in; in this year's Wood Memorial he ran a sloppy race, his mind on something else, possibly that kitten, and he finished third.