ELMONT, N.Y. - A few days after the 1973 Belmont Stakes, Jack Nicklaus had a confession for a longtime horse racing reporter. Nicklaus had watched the race while sitting alone in his hotel room, and at the end, he had found himself crying and pounding his fists on the floor.
"Why me," he asked the reporter. "I'm not a racing fan."
"Jack," he said, "your whole life is a quest for perfection, and you saw it in the Belmont, and it moved you."
The quest for perfection. No horse has ever so thoroughly conquered that quest as Secretariat did in the final leg of the 1973 Triple Crown. The scorecard says he was racing against four other horses that day, but in reality, he was racing against history. He was racing against all the other Triple Crown winners, both before him and after him, and he was racing against his legacy and the seemingly impossible expectations stacked upon his chesnut shoulders.
Secretariat did more than win the Belmont. He staked his claim to being remembered as the greatest thoroughbred to ever run. After setting track records in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, he destroyed the Belmont record, running the mile and a half in the fastest time in American history. Along the way, he also set the fastest recored times for one mile and a mile and a quarter. Or, to put it in simpler terms, if the previous Belmont record holder, Gallant Man, had run in the 1973 race, he would have lost to Secretariat by 13 lenghts.
Secretariat's time in 1973 fell short of being a world record for the distance, most likely because he didn't have any competition. His jockey never whipped him, never asked him to push harder until the final few strides of the race. He won the race completely on his own, way too much horse for anybody to even consider dealing with.
Fans love dramatic finishes to any competition, but Secretariat's dominating victory ended up providing the perfect backdrop for the moment. Because he was so far ahead, and the CBS cameras were forced to zoom way out to show the second place horse, the fans in the grandstand can be seen for his entire run down the stretch. The fans can be seen standing and cheering and throwing paper, basically giving this amazing animal his very own victory lap.
That day, many fans, some say even a majority, who had bet on Secretariat simply kept their winning tickets rather than turn them in. His odds were so short that the winning tickets would pay practically nothing, certainly not enough to trump the physical memory of being there, of bearing witness to the day a race horse achieved victory in his quest for perfection.