When Secretariat won his Triple Crown in 1973, he was a horse of a new era. No horse had swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in 25 years, and his breathtaking run in the 1973 Belmont remains one of the most dominating performances in thoroughbred racing. Only four other horses even lined up against Secretariat that day, and none ever had a chance. In a vacuum, Secretariat ran one of the best races ever run. Put up against an inadequate field like the field that day, he won by 31 lengths. A reasonable analogue would be to transplant Kobe Bryant's 81-point game from January 2006 to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals.
That's what it took for Secretariat -- that tremendous machine, as CBS announcer Chic Anderson called him in a moment of poetic lucidity that somehow emerged during a frantic, historic run -- to break through as the first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century. Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown four years later with a steady, constant poise throughout the three races in 1977. Affirmed made it back-to-back Triple Crown champions when he won the Belmont by a nose in 1978.
And that was that. A few horses have come close -- two horses came really, really close -- but were it not for those three horses, we would look upon California Chrome's run Saturday in the Belmont Stakes as a chance to become the first to win horse racing's three biggest races since Citation did so 66 years ago.
Twenty years after Affirmed won his Belmont Stakes by a nose, Real Quiet had a chance to break the two-decade drought. He ran a clean race and saved his release until the top of the stretch, where he finally took a lead on the outside. He had stayed with the pace and taken his lead on the final turn. Inside the final three furlongs, he took a lead as large as 3 ½ or even four lengths. This was the year, and this was the horse.
A 3-year-old horse will never run a race like the Belmont Stakes until it gets to the Belmont Stakes, and even seasoned jockeys who know the drill and know their mount can't predict how the horse will react when forced to run a race nearly 17 percent longer than any previously run. Jockey Kent Desormeaux couldn't have gone to the stall before the race and had a conversation with Real Quiet about the unprecedented demand about to be burdened upon him; all the horse knows is practice runs and peppermints. Real Quiet lost in a photo finish that day because winning the Triple Crown is damn hard, and because the horse that finished second to him at the prior two races in the Triple Crown finally had enough room to catch up. It took a mile and a half, and to this day the Belmont Stakes has not had a closer finish. This is a fragile affair, and that's all it takes.
If Real Quiet wasn't the horse in 1998, it was surely going to be Smarty Jones six years later. The horse raced brilliantly as a 2-year-old, and then as a 3-year-old, and then in the Kentucky Derby where he won by nearly three lengths, and then when his triumphant Preakness Stakes victory of 11 ½ lengths was the best ever. Smarty Jones had the best horses in history in his pedigree; Secretariat was a great-great-grandfather, and two generations behind that are 1937 Triple Crown champion War Admiral and 1943 Triple Crown winner Count Fleet. It's distant, sure, but those names ring forever in horse racing.
Smarty Jones had his doubters -- his more immediate pedigree suggested he wouldn't be good at Triple Crown distances -- and those doubts lingered even beyond his dominant emergence to the precipice of the Triple Crown, because the Belmont Stakes is an unreasonable race even for a horse as exceedingly superior to his competition as Smarty Jones had proven he was. He was a rockstar for a month in 2004. He had never lost a race when he loaded the gate at Belmont on June 5, 2004, and he kept fast with the pace out of the gate and took his first lead somewhere around the half-mile mark. He had a mile yet to run.
When Smarty Jones burst forward a bit at the top of the stretch with still a half-mile to go, his splits were historic. With a quarter-mile to go -- where he would have crossed the finish line at the Kentucky Derby -- his split time of 2:00.52 would have won all but five Kentucky Derbies, but 36-1 long shot Birdstone was finally closing in on the outside, the kind of slow-burning pass that started almost a half-mile before that would only work in the Belmont.
Tom Durkin was on the call, and the legendary announcer who himself has been in search of calling a Triple Crown (and will call his final Belmont Stakes on Saturday before retiring) found the perfect words as Smarty Jones faded in the final seconds. Exclamation points are his:
Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000. But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today! The whip is out on Smarty Jones! It's been 26 years, it's just one furlong away! Birdstone is in (stutters) -- they're coming down to the finish! Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone! Birdstone surges past! Birdstone wins the Belmont Stakes. Smarty Jones was valiant but vanquished, finishing second. Royal Assault came on to be third. And so this Triple Crown remains vacated for 26 long years, and this magical Triple Crown trail of Smarty Jones comes to a disheartening end in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes.
Smarty Jones, whose career through nine races was one of the most distinguished in horse racing history, never really did anything wrong in his 10th race, losing by just a single length. He was historically good for 80 percent of the race, but by then he was already spent. Only Secretariat could have coasted for the final two furlongs and still won his Triple Crown, and Smarty Jones was not Secretariat.
Those last three Triple Crown champions -- Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed -- each won their legacy differently. Secretariat could not be bothered and set the record at all three races that still stand. Seattle Slew was steady, winning his three races as undramatically as any horse could win the sport's most dramatic races. Affirmed had Alydar, the horse that finished second at Churchill Downs and Pimlico before the two squared off one last time at Belmont in a thrilling finish which Affirmed won by a nose.
Belmont Stakes 2014
Belmont Stakes 2014
Real Quiet and Smarty Jones were both vanquished because of the Belmont Stake's nearly untenable demands. No living horse has ever accomplished the feat, and no active jockey has ever won a Triple Crown, either. Were California Chrome to win at Belmont on Saturday, he would instantly become one of the greatest horses of all time. His times in the Derby and Preakness weren't historically great, but he won both races without much regard from the rest of the field.
California Chrome is a great-great-grandson of Seattle Slew, and Seattle Slew's path to the pinnacle of horse racing seems to mirror, at least so far, the path to which California Chrome has won the first two jewels of the crown. He did not try to run away with either race, and in doing so, he ran away with both.
Real Quiet and Smarty Jones both proved how fragile a lead is against a pack of trailing horses with nothing to lose. If California Chrome were to launch a new era of horse racing Saturday, he'll reset the Triple Crown clock as Secretariat did 41 years ago. And as he makes that final turn coming into the stretch with any kind of lead, memories of Real Quiet and Smarty Jones being crestfallen within strides of immortality will flash in the periphery. The Belmont Stakes is a cruel arbiter of a horse's fate, but to earn an honor alongside Secretariat and War Admiral and Sir Barton and Seattle Slew and the seven other winners deserves a damn-near-impossible test. No matter what California Chrome does Saturday, he'll either be black-and-white lumped in one group or the other, and the pursuit of horse racing's Triple Crown won't be any less demanding the next time a horse gets this close. It's happened before, and it will happen again, and this race unlike any other will continue to judge a horse's legacy, seemingly at random and with no regard for anything else a horse will ever go through.