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Justify joins the club, but Big Red stands alone

by J.W. Miller on 06/10/18

Let’s put Justify’s Triple Crown victory in perspective while we anxiously await the Saints mini-camp this week …

It was fitting that Justify won the Belmont Stakes and sealed his Triple Crown on the same date that the greatest thoroughbred racer of time all won his own. It was June 9, 1973 when Secretariat put a large exclamation mark on his Triple Crown when he won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in a track record 2:24. It is hard to imagine such a dominant performance, but let me say that it stands in my book as the greatest ass-kicking in sports since Georgia Tech’s football team beat Cumberland 222-0 a century ago. 

A more contemporary measure of Secretariat’s feat is to compare it to the one we watched Saturday. Justify impressively broke first out of the difficult No. 1 post position and never trailed for the next mile-and-a-half. Two or three horses tried to challenge the leader, but jockey Mike Smith kept him measured and in the lead until he crossed the finish line a length and three-quarters ahead of Gronkowski in the time of 2:28.18. 

So how does that compare with Secretariat’s runaway? You might think that Big Red just had a herd of range ponies to beat 45 years ago and none were qualified to be there. True, only four other horses went to the post that day, including the highly regarded Sham, ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. Sham had finished second to Secretariat by two-and-a-half lengths in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and appeared a worthy contender in the Belmont. Indeed, Sham latched onto the favorite out of the gate and stayed with him until the three-quarter pole when jockey Ron Turcotte shifted Secretariat into overdrive. 

Secretariat continued to widen the distance until the top of the stretch, an exhibition that track announcer Chic Anderson described by saying: “Secretariat is widening now. He is moving like a tremendous machine.” Down the stretch, Turcotte glanced at the track timer and knew he was on a record pace. When Big Red rolled across the finish line at 2:24, he had beaten the track record by more than two seconds. And how close would Justify have been to Secretariat on that day? Let’s do it one better and ask how close would any of the four Triple Crown winners since 1973 have been to Secretariat? 

Judging by the standard 5.5 lengths per second, here is your revised order of the fantasy finish: Secretariat wins at 2:24, which is still the record. Finishing second 14.6 lengths back at 2:26.65, would be American Pharoah, the 2015 winner. That is not a typo. That is fourteen point six lengths in the rear view mirror. A length behind Pharoah in third place at 2:26.8 would be Affirmed, the 1978 winner. Justify would have finished fourth in the fantasy field at 2:28.18, 23 lengths back. Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown winner, would come in fifth at 2:29.6, 31 lengths behind Secretariat. 

Comparison by statistics is often like trying to compare Babe Ruth to Barry Bonds or Michael Jordan to Kareem or Lebron as the greatest of all time in their sports. Our little exercise is not intended to take anything away from Justify or any of the recent Triple Crown winners. Comparison by statistics is debatable, but to me, it offers sufficient evidence to claim Secretariat’s performance in the 1973 Belmont stamps Big Red as the greatest Triple Crown winner of all time.  

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