Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Ronnie and "Big Red"

“It was like the Lord was holding the reins, ..Secretariat was one of His creatures and maybe whispered to him a “Go” and that horse really went. It was really an almost supernatural experience...it really was”
PAT LYNCH, NY Racing Association, on the 1973 Belmont Stakes

There are precious few times in our life when we witness perfection or experience it ourselves.

But, that is precisely what happened on this day, thirty-six years ago, when Secretariat and a New Brunswick-born jockey took a ride into eternity.

June 9, 1973 dawned bright and clear, perfect weather for horse racing.

A capacity crowd of 67,605 was buzzing with excitement by the time the horses were at the post.

Secretariat was attempting to become the first horse in 25 years to capture the prestigious Triple Crown, considered the greatest accomplishment in Thoroughbred racing. As Secretariat prepared for the Belmont Stakes, his image was splashed on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. "Big Red" was a global celebrity.

And as Dick Enberg narrates in this retrospective, he more than lived up to the hype.

Ron Turcotte was one of twelve children raised on a farm near Drummond, New Brunswick. As a boy, Ronnie loved to sneak off and race the family work horses, but never imagined it was possible to make a living on the back of a horse. When he was 14, Ronnie quit school to work as a lumberjack and applied his school of hard knocks lessons in riding 3,032 winners in his Hall of Fame career. He was North America's leading stakes-winning jockey in 1972 and 1973. He became the first jockey to win back-to-back Kentucky Derbys since Jimmy Winkfield in 1902 and is the only jockey to ever have won five of the six consecutive Triple Crown races.

ESPN has listed Secretariat 35th of the 100 greatest athletes of the 20th century, the highest of three non-humans on the list (the other two were also racehorses: Man o' War at 84th and Citation at 97th ). In 2005, Secretariat appeared on ESPN's list of "Greatest Sports Performances", with his run at the Belmont ranking second behind Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Secretariat had a stamp commissioned by the U.S. Postal Service in 1999 and his statue looms at the Belmont paddock to this day.

In thoroughbred racing, only one extraordinary horse and rider, perhaps a couple of times per century, can outrun, outmaneuver, outstrategize the rest of the pack. Entire generations are born, grow up—and some die—without ever seeing a Triple Crown Champion. No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.

And there has never been a total package in the sport of kings that compares to Ronnie and "Big Red".

"One-hundred years from now, no one will remember who played tight end for the 1973 Miami Dolphins. But they will know the legend of Secretariat—because a true Thoroughbred Champion, while being saddled, bridled and reigned in—is not confined to time and space; marketing fads or 21st Century human impatience"
MARION ALTIERI, Daily Racing News


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