When Citation won the last of eight Triple Crowns 25 years ago, he did what was fully expected of him at odds of 1 to 5. Inasmuch as three other colts—Whirlaway, Count Fleet and Assault—had done the same thing during the seven previous years, the feat itself, although spectacular, was considered neither astonishing nor incredible.
Citation and his predecessors achieved their success because they met the strict requirements of a classic horse: one who can maintain peak form for five or six arduous weeks (a period that includes shipping to Louisville, then to Baltimore and finally to Belmont Park), can run his very best on any kind of track (Pimlico's slop undid Riva Ridge last year) and who is, both in pedigree and in fact, not beyond himself at a mile and a half. Also, unless he is so far superior to his opposition that nothing fazes him, the Triple Crown winner must have some racing luck, which includes not getting hurt during the running of the Belmont itself.
Since 1948 six colts before Secretariat achieved the Derby-Preakness double but failed in the Belmont. Of the six, three turned out not to be 12-furlong horses; two others (Majestic Prince and Canonero II) were unsound and should never have started; the best of the lot, Tim Tarn (1958), would have won except for a near-fatal injury to his right foreleg on the stretch turn. His courage in finishing second to Cavan on three good legs has become legendary.
Those who thought Carry Back (1961) and Kauai King (1966) could win the Belmont were wishful thinkers. Both were very good horses but just not up to the distance. In between their losses (Carry Back was seventh to Sherluck, Kauai King fourth to Amberoid) came a more legitimate threat, Northern Dancer (1964). Although Owner E.P. Taylor was convinced of the Dancer's stamina after his easy Preakness victory, Trainer Horatio Luro told those who listened that he would be surprised if the little colt could win at a mile and a half. Northern Dancer finished third, six lengths behind Quadrangle. If Trainer John Longden had leveled with Owner Frank McMahon and told him before the 1969 Belmont what he so willingly told the racing press after the race, a hurting Majestic Prince would never have started. Going backward in form, he was badly beaten by the fit and ready Arts and Letters. And two years later an almost panicky, patriotically motivated crew of Venezuelans bowed to the pressures around them and sent an injured and sick Canonero II out to a certain Belmont defeat (he was fourth to Pass Catcher)—a tearjerker in which New York bettors alone needlessly lost more than $1 million.
In this week's 105th Belmont, Secretariat has the best chance at a Triple since Tim Tarn. If he wins he will be called another super horse. If he loses, as he did with such inexplicable and casual indifference in the Wood Memorial in April, this will hardly be written off as "just another race," but it will again emphasize how difficult the Triple Crown is to acquire. There are still some doubters who question Secretariat's mile-and-a-half capabilities, but they are far outnumbered by those who say that here is a magnificent animal who, when he wishes, humbles his fields. Trainer Lucien Laurin and Jockey Ron Turcotte notwithstanding, this son of Bold Ruler dictates his own running style—coming from behind, or taking an early lead and keeping it. However the big horse chooses to dish it out this Saturday, the public expects him to get the job done. I couldn't agree more.