Pharoah Without Tears
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Here’s a question to put into perspective American Pharoah’s Triple Crown: Why when this beautifully set-up, smooth-running colt flashed across the finish line was the crowd merely cheering? Well, one might say, what in Blazes was the crowd supposed to do other than cheer? In respect of American Pharoah, we’d suggest, nothing. The nag had been a length or so in front from the clubhouse turn and deserved every second of the ovation that erupted at Belmont Park as, at the top of the stretch, he started his run for glory.
The roar and clapping, though, wasn’t what people remember from the Belmont in 1973, when Secretariat hurtled into the stretch. They remember what passes, in grandstand terms, for a silence. Oh, the crowd was clapping and cheering, for sure. But somewhere around the three quarter mark, something strange had started to come over the track, a sense that something impossible, mysterious, and inexplicable — and maybe even dangerous — was happening before their eyes.
This is widely attested to. Jerry Izenberg of the Newark Star Ledger, told one broadcast that he thought that the jockey, Ron Turcotte, was on top of a runaway animal. “I turned to the guy next to me,” Izenberg recalled, “and I said, ‘He’s lost the horse.’” Another racing scribe, William Nack, said that when he looked at the tele-timer and saw that Secretariat had run the first three quarters of a mile in 1:09:2, he started cursing the jockey. For he thought Turcotte had “gone insane” and was going to “kill the horse.”
Secretariat had been running neck and neck — a match race — with Sham. Our own theory is that if God was, as some insist, involved in the Belmont, He touched Secretariat when the horse was famously obscured from the grandstand by a large American flag that was fluttering in the far infield. Certainly when Secretariat emerged from behind the Old Glory, something had happened. Where the horse should have been starting to slow, he was accelerating. When he emerged from the far turn, he was twelve lengths in front.
In the movie version of the race, that’s when Sham’s owner declares what he’s seeing to be “impossible.” It’s also when the announcer, Chic Anderson, exclaimed that Secretariat was “moving like a tremendous machine.” Then he stops counting off Secretariat’s lead in horse-lengths and starts referring to a sixteenth of a mile. When he comes into the stretch, he is 18 lengths in front. He was 22 lengths in front when Chic Anderson blurted out, “he . . is . . going . . to . . be . . the . . triple . . crown . . winner.”
Which brings us back to the business about merely cheering. American Pharoah strikes us as a great technocrat. He took the lede by a length or so before the Clubhouse Turn and determined to stay a length or so in front for the whole race. The best we got out of the announcer as the pack sauntered up the backstretch was, “so it continues to be a moderate tempo.” American Pharoah passed the three-quarter mark at 1:13:2. On the far turn, the announcer mentioned that American Pharoah “continues to lead the way.”
For all the drama, it wouldn’t have been surprising had NBC cut to a commercial. The network gamely kept the cameras on to capture American Pharoah trotting past the finish line more than two seconds behind Secretariat’s immortal record. And yes the crowd — all 90,000 of them — was cheering American Pharoah. But that’s not what people remember about Secretariat. What they remember is that when Secretariat came down the stretch, people started weeping.
It’s widely attested to. Jack Whitaker of CBS described it. “I actually saw people crying,” he said. George Plimptom described a group “of co-eds” lining the rail and weeping as Secretariat careered past. Heywood Hale Broun quoted Jack Nicklaus as relating that as — alone in his own living room — he watched on television as Secretariat barreled down the stretch, the great golfer also began weeping. Broun told him, “Jack, don’t you understand. All of your life, in your game, you’ve been striving for perfection. At the end of the Belmont, you saw it.”
“You’re not supposed to win the Belmont by 31 lengths,” is the way Steve Crist of the Daily Racing Form once put it. In the three combined races of the Triple Crown, Secretariat’s margin over American Pharoah was something like 12 seconds — an eternity in horse racing. It’s not our intention here to rain on American Pharoah’s parade. He is such a beautiful horse, with one of the most graceful gallops. But it is important, including for the children, to understand why, for all the glory of American Pharoah’s moment, our eyes were dry.