NEW YORK — Ron Turcotte peeked under his arm with about a quarter-mile to go in the Belmont Stakes. The other horses were mere dots behind him and Secretariat.
With the crowd roaring, the chestnut colt nicknamed Big Red hit the wire an astounding 31 lengths in front on June 9, 1973, at Belmont Park. The racing world had never seen anything like his performance before or since.
When Justify runs in the Belmont on Saturday, it will be 45 years to the day Secretariat ended a 25-year Triple Crown drought by sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
“He’ll be awfully hard to beat,” Turcotte told The Associated Press by phone from his home in Canada. “I feel he’s going to win the Triple Crown.”
Turcotte thought the same thing about Secretariat.
Sent off as the 1-10 favourite by the crowd of 69,138, Secretariat faced just four rivals in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest and most grueling of the three-race series.
“I was very, very confident,” Turcotte recalled. “I didn’t think he could get beat.”
Among Secretariat’s four rivals was Sham, who had finished second in both the Derby and Preakness.
Sham’s jockey, Laffit Pincay Jr., had been instructed by trainer Frank Martin to go after Secretariat from the start.
Secretariat went to the early lead along the rail and was soon challenged by Sham. The two were even through a half-mile at a fevered pace in what became a match race with the rest of the field about 10 lengths behind.
“Even if he stayed with me, I didn’t think any way in the world he could beat me because my horse was so good,” Turcotte said. “He had trained so hard for the race and the others hadn’t done much.”
Sham poked his head in front around the turn, but not for long.
On the backstretch, Pincay sensed something wasn’t right with his horse. Turcotte noticed, too.
“I was feeling like he was weak. I tapped him again and I had nothing,” Pincay said, initially thinking Sham was bleeding.
He checked and didn’t see any blood.
Approaching the quarter-pole, Pincay knew Sham was injured.
“He didn’t feel right to me, so that’s why I tried to save him,” Pincay told the AP. “I stopped him before the wire.”
Secretariat began distancing himself from his closest competition as Sham started to fade.
“Secretariat is widening now,” track announcer Chic Anderson intoned. “He is moving like a tremendous machine!”
Turcotte took his famous peek back to see how far behind the other horses were. The rest of the race he kept his eye on the timer in the infield.
“We kept breaking records through the stretch,” he said.
Secretariat ran the mile in 1:34 1/5. He reeled off 1 1/4 miles in 1:59, faster than his record time in the Derby.
He had long since ceased running against the other horses he was racing the clock and history.
Big Red completed the last quarter in a scant 25 seconds. He finished in 2:24, a record that still stands.
Sham finished last, and an angry Martin approached Pincay after the race asking why he didn’t let Sham run. Although Sham showed no outward signs of injury, Pincay told Martin the colt didn’t feel right. Martin walked away.
“I felt bad about it,” Pincay said. “I was sad the horse didn’t perform the way he had.”
The following Monday, Pincay’s phone rang in Southern California and Martin was on the line.
“He apologized and thanked me for saving his horse,” the jockey said.
Sham never raced again and died in 1993.
In addition to Secretariat, the 1970s produced two other Triple Crown winners: Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed the next year.
Secretariat became a pop culture phenomenon, appearing on the cover of Time and a U.S. stamp and was the subject of a 2010 Disney movie. His name recognition, even among those who don’t follow sports, remains strong 29 years after his death and he appears in the pedigree of many current racehorses.
His owner, Penny Chenery, died in September at 95. Bill Nack, the former Sports Illustrated writer who chronicled Big Red’s career, died in February at 77. Trainer Lucien Laurin died in 2000.
Now 76, Turcotte became a paraplegic after a riding accident in 1978. He plans to travel to Belmont Park as he has in recent years to witness another Triple Crown bid.
Pincay is 71 and retired for 15 years. He may join him there.
Having ridden the only horse that came close to Secretariat in the Triple Crown, Pincay still marvels at Big Red’s feat in the Belmont.
“Secretariat is a better horse than you’ll ever see,” he said. “I will go to my grave without seeing that again.”