Forty-seven years ago today, the Preakness Stakes record was broken at Pimlico by a colt known affectionately by his handlers and fans as "Big Red." Secretariat's smashing victory would herald the start of a run of Triple Crown winners in horse racing throughout the 1970s. Secretariat would be followed by Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and then a near-miss in Spectacular Bid, who thrilled them at "Old Hilltop" on this date in 1979, but lost the Belmont Stakes three weeks later.
I've written about these races previously in this space, but you can understand why I'm revisiting them this week: The Preakness would have taken place last Saturday. Because of the pandemic, the race has been rescheduled for October, which throws the entire Triple Crown series out of whack.
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One of the great appeals of athletic events, aside from the competition itself, is that sports have the capacity to bring Americans together regardless of partisanship or other differences. Once upon a time, horse racing brought Americans together. The particular sport varies; at times in our country's history it's been baseball, basketball, boxing, hockey, horses, soccer, the Olympic Games.
As I mentioned above, this year's Preakness is now set for Oct. 3. On Oct. 24, 1877, Congress went out of session so members could take the train to Baltimore for a race between the country's three greatest thoroughbreds. It was won by a colt named Parole.
Six decades later, the entire country listened on the radio -- and 43,000 fans crowded into Pimlico's stands -- to watch a match race between Seabiscuit and War Admiral. Seabiscuit prevailed. For my money, the best racehorse ever at the Old Hilltop track was foaled on March 30, 1970, in Virginia, the son of 1957 Preakness winner Bold Ruler. He was named Secretariat and he was a pretty horse, muscular and large, with a bright chestnut coat. Nicknamed "Big Red" by his handlers, he was the betting favorite in his first race, competing on Independence Day 1972 against other 2-year-olds. He didn't win that day, but he rarely lost again and became the first 2-year-old in U.S. racing history to win Horse of the Year honors.
Secretariat won two tune-up races as a 3-year-old before finishing third in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, leading some wise guys to fret that the Kentucky Derby distance would be too great for Secretariat. They needn't have worried.
"Big Red" won the Derby in record-setting time, defeating his main rival, Sham, who ran second. Two weeks later in Baltimore, those two colts were paired up again. On the clubhouse turn, Secretariat was last. Suddenly, running in another gear, he swooped around the field, passed Sham in the stretch and won. The official track timekeeper erred, recording the winning time as 1 minute, 54 and two-fifths seconds. Very fast, but not a record. His error would be rectified in 2012 and the time adjusted to 1:53, which is a Preakness record. But those who were there that day never doubted.
"He looked," said Pimlico's general manager, Chick Lang, "like a Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens."
Within a month Secretariat would grace the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated. Said his owner, Penny Chenery: "This red horse with blue and white blinkers and silks seemed to epitomize an American hero."
We could use another one right about now.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.