After a tumultuous week that was all about Air Quality Index, Saturday at Belmont Park was a day to celebrate the GOAT. Throw in history being made, another chapter in racing’s best story being written and idyllic weather, and it was a virtually perfect day on Hempstead Turnpike.
The main event was the 155th running of the Belmont Stakes, but the overarching theme of the day was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of perhaps the single most dominant performance in the history of American sport – Secretariat’s 31-length, Triple Crown-clinching win in the 1973 version of the Test of the Champion.
There were plenty of people in attendance Saturday who were there June 9, 1973, none more significant than Kate Tweedy, whose mother, Penny Chenery Tweedy, owned Secretariat.
“Well, I remember waking up that morning at mom’s house on Long Island and going, ‘Oh my God, we might win the Triple Crown today,’ which hadn’t been done (in 25 years) and really wasn’t on our radar,” said Tweedy, standing, appropriately, outside the Triple Crown Lounge on the second floor of Belmont’s clubhouse. “We knew Secretariat was good enough, but it’s a horse race. You never know. And so, the fact that we were right on the edge of it really felt surreal. And mom was just nervous as can be. We were all nervous as can be. By the time the day was over, I think I had shredded my program. We were so anxious. And then, of course, to watch how he did it. The whole day was like out of something you couldn’t even imagine.”
The program could be replaced, with NYRA giving out exacta replicas of the 1973 Belmont Stakes edition Saturday.
“We all thought he was going too fast,” said Tweedy – who was 20 at the time – a reasonable assumption after Big Red covered the first 6 furlongs of the 1 1/2-mile race in a scorching 1:09 4/5. “And it’s such a long race. And he was right out there. He never went to the lead that early. That was alarming. And the thing is, though, he looked like he was running easy, although it’s such a big track, you can’t really see. It was just like everybody’s jaws dropping. And then, of course, the only thing you can think about is something bad has to happen. So, we’re all going, ‘Ronnie, don’t fall off. Don’t fall off.’ ”
Jockey Ron Turcotte did indeed remain in the saddle for all 12 furlongs, which the Meadow Stable superstar covered in 2:24, a record that could very well still be in the books when they celebrate the 100th anniversary of the feat.
Tweedy, wearing a scarf matching Meadow Stables’ iconic blue and white checkered silks, was thrilled to represent her late mother Saturday and she had to love the sight of so many others wearing clothing and hats with the same motif. She drew the honor of announcing “Riders Up” in the paddock before the Belmont and she did it with the same verve and charisma her mother displayed throughout Secretariat’s career.
Brooklyn native Dr. Jeff Morer – as fanatical a Secretariat devotee as there is – showed Tweedy a letter he received from her mother almost 50 years ago, when he wrote to her inquiring about Meadow Stable putting yearlings up for sale. She was genuinely pleased to read it.
Jaime Herman was a senior at John Bowne High School in Queens in 1973. He and a friend made the short trip to Belmont to witness history.
“We had been going to the trotters and started going to the flats,” said Herman, who also got to share his memories of the day with Tweedy. “I definitely followed the big race days on TV. For a Triple Crown, and to see a great horse, it was a no-brainer. I think I played a $2 win bet that I never cashed.”
Herman recalled standing in a four-deep crowd on the third or fourth floor.
“I was able to sneak myself up to railing,” he said. “And the excitement was incredible. It was just amazing. I was probably a little bit beyond the finish line. The crowd was going bananas. I get goosebumps every time I think about it.”
When Secretariat turned for home and extended his lead with every stride, the 69,138 on hand made the Belmont grandstand shake.
“To be here for that race was really special, really great,” Herman said.
Penny Chenery was very much a trailblazer, so it was fitting that this year’s Belmont Stakes was won by Jena Antonucci, the first female trainer ever to win a Triple Crown race. The video of Antonucci rooting her horse home is an Instant Classic.
Arcangelo’s victory Saturday was one for the little guy … and the little gal. Seven of the nine horses in the Belmont were trained by a fabulous four of U.S. trainers – Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert, Brad Cox and Todd Pletcher, three of them Hall of Famers (Cox’ day will come), who have combined for 16 Eclipse Awards, 28 wins in Triple Crown races and more than 21,000 wins overall.
Entering Saturday, Antonucci had 161 career wins and two graded stakes, including Arcangelo’s win in the Peter Pan four weeks before the Belmont. Jon Ebbert paid $35,000 for the son of Arrogate at the Keeneland September sale in 2021.
“He is why you get up seven days a week,” said Antonucci, who admitted to a few sleepless nights in the lead-up to the Belmont, likely not expecting to wake up Sunday as a record-setting trailblazer.
If you want to know how important a race the Met Mile is, Godolphin’s Michael Banahan put it in context after the incomparable Cody’s Wish’s had won this year’s running with a breathtaking move on the far turn.
“Everyone wants to win the Derby,” Banahan said. “I’d rather win this race. There are a lot of nice races, the Derby, the Travers. You don’t get much better than winning this race.”
Kelly Dorman would agree. Walking from the Belmont paddock to the clubhouse before the race, the father of 17-year-old Cody, for whom Cody’s Wish is named, said, “I never thought I’d experience the rush I felt playing football, but this horse racing thing …”
Anyone with a pulse can feel the adrenaline the Cody’s Wish story offers. Cody and the horse share an inexplicable and unbreakable bond, and while Cody did not make the trip, he gave his dad a hand-written sign to bring to Cody’s Wish: “Win for me! I love you, Cody’s Wish. Love, Cody Dorman.” The sign was taped to the wall outside Stall 33 in Bill Mott’s barn on the Belmont backstretch and Cody’s Wish apparently can read as well as he can run.
Cody may not have made the trip, but Kelly brought the lucky bow tie that he wore for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the Churchill Downs Handicap on Kentucky Derby Day. In addition to any good luck the tie may have brought, it also served the purpose of giving Kelly something to grasp as his anxiety level rose with the race approaching.
As it turned out, there was nothing to worry about, even though Junior Alvarado didn’t have the best of trips from the rail. Once he was able to get his horse in the clear, the race was effectively over. Kelly Dorman fought back tears as he watched from behind the last row of box seats. It was another made-for-TV moment and the Fox TV cameras were rolling.
Next up for Cody’s Wish may be another iconic race, the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga Race Course August 6.
Trainer Bill Mott seems to be leaning in that direction and why wouldn’t he? If it doesn’t go well, he can always cut back and try to win the Dirt Mile again. But if he does handle the extra furlong of the Whitney with ease … there is another dirt race at the Breeders’ Cup that could be tempting. What a Classic finish that could be to a wonderful story.