by Greg Melikov - 02/08/2006
The quintessential race of the Triple Crown happened on June 9, 1973. That Belmont Stakes is etched in the memory of most thoroughbred racing fans, including mine, since it's replayed many times on TV as the Kentucky Derby approaches.
It was Secretariat's finest hour. The 3-year-old with the bright, reddish-blond coat roared to an amazing 31-length victory for 1 ½ miles in record time to complete the Triple Crown.
As Secretariat lengthened his lead along the backstretch, TV announcer Chick Anderson stepped up his description: "He is moving like a tremendous machine!"
The official margin of victory wasn't determined right away. The Daily Racing Form chart caller studied films, and probably very wide-angle photos, to come up with the 31 lengths.
No winner of the Kentucky Derby or Preakness ever left the field that far back. In fact, Secretariat defeated Sham by 2 ½ lengths at Churchill Downs. The largest margin in 131 derbies was eight lengths, shared by Triple Crown winners Whirlaway, '41, and Assault, '46, as well as Old Rosebud, '14, and Johnstown, '39.
But there have been nine derbies in which the winner and runner-up were separated by a nose. During the 19th Century, four horses eked out victories: Spokane, 1989; Azra, '92; Ben Brush, '96; and Plaudit, '98.
There were five such close derbies in the 20th Century: Ala-a-Dale, 1933; Brokers Tip, '33; Iron Liege, '57; Tomy Lee, '59; and Grindstone, '96.
I especially remember the '57 and '96 races. The finish of the 122nd Derby was so close many people thought Cavonnier had edged Grindstone. Here are the interesting chart caller's observations:
"GRINDSTONE commenced to rally approaching the end of the backstretch, worked his way between horses along the inside around the far turn, angled out five wide entering the stretch and finished strongly to wear down CAVONNIER in the final stride while drifting out.
"The latter moved within easy striking distance between horses entering the backstretch, came out five wide to make a run on the far turn, was struck across the face by the whip of (fourth-place finisher) HALO SUNSHINE's rider nearing the stretch and, after gaining a clear advantage leaving the furlong grounds, just failed to last."
I fondly recall the '57 Derby because Calumet Farm's main colt Gen. Duke came up lame after winning the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby in 1:46 4/5 - still the stakes record.
Iron Liege, third in Gulfstream Park's premier race, took Gen. Duke's place. Bill Hartack got the mount while Bill Shoemaker rode Gallant Man.
The 83rd Derby gets my vote as the most exciting. Here are the chart caller's observations:
"Start good. Won driving; second and third the same. IRON LIEGE, away alertly, saved ground while racing nearest FEDERAL HILL to the mile, took command during the drive and, responding to strong handling, held GALLANT MAN safe but won with little left.
"GALLANT MAN, in hand and saving ground to the last three-eighths mile, moved up determinedly in the early stretch, reached the lead between calls and was going stoutly when his rider misjudged the finish and he could not overtake IRON LIEGE when back on stride."