It had been four years since the big red horse burned his way into the memories of American sports fans, his image becoming more indelible with each stride by which he pulled away in the 1973 Belmont Stakes.
As Seattle Slew approached his own Triple Crown destiny, there was no way for the ornery, greasy fast colt to supplant or surpass Secretariat in the hearts of racing fans.
But as trainer Billy Turner remembers it, he didn't have to. The contrast alone boosted Slew's stature. This new champion — dark-coated and undefeated — was not more famous than Secretariat, but he was more famous because of Secretariat.
“Slew benefited from Secretariat bringing back the Triple Crown as a major sporting event,” the 78-year-old Turner said. “It created a fan base you wouldn’t believe. You had the defenders of Secretariat and the fans of Seattle Slew, and they were avid fans.”
More than four decades later , another undefeated colt has arrived at Belmont Park facing comparisons to a recent, beloved Triple Crown winner.
Can Justify build on American Pharoah's 2015 run, when he became the first horse since 1978 to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont?
Turner, for one, isn’t sure. And his skepticism has little to do with Justify’s talent or his chances of becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner on Saturday evening.
“I don’t think we’re dealing with quite the same situation,” he said glumly. “The media and press coverage isn’t quite the same, so you don’t get the world crowding in the way it did with Slew and Secretariat back in the day.”
Turner hardly stands alone in perceiving diminished interest for Justify’s quest.
“It’s clearly not as big a story as Pharoah was,” said Alan Foreman, general counsel for the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association and an industry veteran. “I’m not sure why. It’s clear there’s an appetite for these big event days, and he’s a super horse. But there’s just not the same sizzle.”
This lack of buzz is hard to pin down. But this week alone, Justify's Triple Crown bid has generated fewer SportsCenter segments or Twitter debates than the NBA Finals or the NFL's ongoing national anthem mess.
Without the hook of a 37-year drought, he's treated as just another excellent horse in a sport that has faded with casual sports fans.
It’s not as if Justify lacks distinguishing elements. He has a chance to become just the second undefeated Triple Crown winner, after Seattle Slew. And he’s packed all of those wins into four months after he began his career later than most of his 3-year-old classmates.
He’s a chestnut like Secretariat and a mountain of muscle, the LeBron James to American Pharoah’s Michael Jordan.
He shares a superstar trainer, Bob Baffert, with the last Triple Crown winner. His jockey, Mike Smith, is one of the most-liked people in the sport and seeking a career capstone at age 52.
As for the feat itself, no one says winning three pressure-packed races in five weeks has gotten any easier.
“Maybe for some people, it’s been there, done that,” said NBC racing analyst Randy Moss. “But it’s still a historically tough task. For the most part, I think even the casual fan recognizes how difficult it is.”
Baffert said Justify is starting to build the kind of following that made American Pharoah’s 2015 season so important for the sport. Over the last few weeks, people have approached in the airport to wish him well at Belmont and to rave about Justify’s beauty.
The two champions are different, Baffert said, not so much in talent as in personality. American Pharoah had unusual patience for the gawkers who wanted to get close to him. Justify tolerates such interactions for “about four seconds and that’s it.”
“He bit me when I was walking him around,” Baffert joked after Justify arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday.
But he’s confident that if the Derby and Preakness champion handles his business on the track, proper acclaim will follow.
“[As a sports fan] you want to see the Golden State Warriors, you want to see Steph Curry ... you want to see the superstars,” Baffert said, drawing one of the topical comparisons he loves.
There’s some evidence to back his words. Television ratings for the Preakness were up from 2017, albeit down from American Pharoah’s victory in 2015. Online ticket brokers such as Vivid Seats report that prices have spiked 145 percent for reserved seats at the Belmont, more significant than the 132-percent increase in 2015.
New York racing officials cap Belmont attendance at 90,000, so they anticipate a sellout.
For dedicated racing fans, Justify might suffer compared to American Pharoah on pure competitive grounds.
American Pharoah came to Belmont Park off a stunning Preakness performance in which he’d burst from a driving rain storm to leave the rest of the field stumbling in his wake. He looked like a champion on the rise and was listed as a 3-5 favorite in the morning line at Belmont.
Three years later, Justify held on to win the Preakness with three other contenders nipping at his heels. The performance was arguably the worst of his five-race career and fed questions about his stamina. He mitigated some of those doubts by flying around the track at Churchill Downs in his first post-Preakness workout, but his 4-5 status in the morning line suggests he’s not quite the overwhelming favorite American Pharoah was.
Even if Justify does win in spectacular fashion and push himself to a greater level of prominence, it’s unclear what another Triple Crown winner might mean to a sport fighting an uphill battle for mainstream attention.
Baffert said the greatest impact he’s seen from American Pharoah’s victory is at thoroughbred sales, where the average prices, if not the volume of purchases, have increased.
“Prices have gone up, everybody wants quality,” he said. “You’re getting money from the Middle East, you’re getting it from Europe, China. I think it’s really boosted the business at the top level. Everybody wants to play at that top level.”
But those who do business in the industry every day say there’s little hope of recapturing the days of Secretariat, when a horse could appear on the cover of Time Magazine and rank as arguably the top sports star in the country.
“It’s almost impossible to compare the ‘70s to what we have now,” Foreman said. “A lot of media doesn’t cover racing the way they did.”
Like Seattle Slew’s trainer Turner, Steve Cauthen knows exactly how it feels to pursue a Triple Crown in the footsteps of great champions. As a boy wonder jockey, he rode Affirmed the year after Seattle Slew and five years after Secretariat.
Whatever narratives the wider world wanted to spin about the context, Cauthen didn’t much care.
“It didn’t change anything,” he said. “I didn’t get any credit for winning the Triple Crown on Seattle Slew or Secretariat.”
But he does laugh about the talk that sprouted in the wake of Affirmed’s Triple Crown, people saying the achievement had somehow become mundane. Surely, some will say the same thing in 2018 if Justify follows American Pharoah to glory.
“After about 37 years,” Cauthen said, “it started to get funny.”