Remembering Secretariat and my first Belmont Stakes
by Bob Heyden
On Belmont weekend I’m taking a look back at my first Belmont Stakes with the incomparable Secretariat.
It was 1973 and I was 16.
I was already a standardbred fan for two years.
I watched the Derby and Preakness and, pretty much like everyone else, was caught up in the Secretariat craze.
OTB was two years in — in New York that is — just a short way from my house in River Vale, NJ, or a 30-minute bus trip to the Port Authority. I made my first thoroughbred bet there on Secretariat at $5 in the Derby, minus the takeout, $4.60.
This was 39 months before The Meadowlands opened.
Watergate was in year two, but I didn’t know John Dean from Dean Chance, at least then anyway.
Willie Mays was in his final year and the Mets had some leftover magic from the miracle year of 1969.
The Yankees were my team. If you asked me, I knew it.
But, Secretariat stole the show. His 279-foot win is still without parallel.
I never ever would have guessed any of the following:
1. I would become friends with Braulio Baeza. He was second with Twice A Prince to “Big Red.” He is the only jockey to win the Belmont Stakes over three different surfaces: Belmont in 1961, Aqueduct in 1963 and on the new Belmont surface in 1969, as it was being redone from 1963-1967. Baeza is a quiet, distinguished and proud man. There’s something just so cool about the fact that he is judging the 2023 Belmont from high above the stands as a NYRA steward.
2. Dave Johnson is the announcer most associated with Secretariat. I had no idea I would work alongside him from 1984 on.
3. I almost met Willie Mays and I did become best
friends with Gene Michael. Willie Mays was at The
Meadowlands in the mid-1990s, and I turned the corner coming back from the downstairs gym and saw Mays and two fellas waiting for my elevator. Fantastic! Nobody else was there. I come over, the elevator comes down, and I am looking so forward to getting on it with Mays. Then I heard, ‘Next elevator, please.’ The voice came from somewhere behind me. It was his bodyguards.
4. Gene Michael I met in 1978. He was the New York Yankees’ shortstop on Belmont Day 1973. One of the most intelligent and unassuming people you could ever know. Michael was more than happy to do my 2013 induction speech at Goshen.
5. Who would have guessed that Secretariat did not
make that week’s Sports Illustrated cover? Too late you
ask? No, it was the very first story with great pictures.
Who was on that cover? George Foreman. He must have just won a big fight, right? No, he hadn’t fought in six months and wouldn’t until the fall. In what has to be the single biggest newspaper/magazine gaffe/oversight of the 20th century. Don’t even go there and tell me Secretariat had been on the cover recently. I’ll reply with two words: Jeremy Lin. In 2012, Lin was on the SI cover for consecutive weeks. When I asked George Foreman about this, he didn’t understand it either.
ANNIVERSARY YEARS IN 2023
1893 — 130 years ago, the Kentucky Futurity kicked off what would be 501 Triple Crown races held to this day. Of course, it was actually 33 years until the Hambletonian debuted, so the Kentucky Futurity had the field all to itself for a while there. Oro Wilkes won the first edition in five heats.
1933 — 90 years ago, Ben White won the first of his then-record four Hambletonians with Mary Reynolds.
1943 — 80 years ago, the very first Horse of the Year, Victory Song, was born. He would win HOY in 1947 at age 4. Volo Song, Worthy Boy and Phonograph go 1-2-3 in the Yonkers Hambletonian. Volomite sired finishers 1, 2, 3, and 5.
1953 — 70 years ago, the purse on the Hambletonian was $117,117.98. It was the first six-figure purse in the sport’s history. Harry Harvey guided Helicopter to victory for Del Miller. She was the first foal by Hoot Mon sold at public auction for $1,150.
1973 — 50 years ago, Sir Dalrae swept the first U.S. Pacing Championship. He would go on to HOY honors. Lucien Fontaine won his lone Triple Crown race that year at Roosevelt with Valiant Bret in the Messenger.
1983 — 40 years ago, the first million-dollar trot went to Duenna in the Hambletonian. The richest ever race in New York went to Cat Manzi and Trutone Lobell in the $666,800 Lawrence B. Sheppard. The first million-dollar race for females only was held. It was the $1,062,000 Sweetheart at The Meadowlands. The winner was Shannon Fancy with Ron Waples. He would win the $1,251,000 Meadowlands Pace with Ralph Hanover just four days later, making him the only driver ever to do this. Three years after Peter Haughton’s passing, two Peter Haughton Memorials — one of each gait — went for a record pot. Roosevelt offered $559,800 and pacer Apache Circle wins it for Eldon Harner and the trotting companion event at The Meadowlands went to Why Not and Mickey McNichol for $875,000.
1993 — 30 years ago, Ron Pierce won his first million-dollar race with American Winner in the Hambletonian over eventual Trotter of the Year Pine Chip.
2003 — 20 Years ago, Camelot Hall a maiden at the time, won the Metro for $830,798. It was the richest pot ever won by a maiden. Kikikatie won her first 14 races. As a broodmare she was even better. Her four sons — Time To Roll, Tellitlikeitis, Rockin Image and Rockin Amadeus — are all distinguished sires with a sub 1:50 race mark.
2013 — 10 years ago, on Oct. 5, Shebestingin wins in 1:47 at the Red Mile. That mile is still the gold standard for 3YOFP. Foiled Again won his lone Breeders Crown at Pocono. Foiled is the all-time money leader with $7.6 million. August 2023 marks 11 years since he wrested the money title from Gallo Blue Chip, who also held it for 11 Years (2001-2012).