It has been 36 years since racing's last Triple Crown winner, but for those involved with horses who have triumphed, the memories don't fade.
As a prelude to California Chrome's attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, The Baltimore Sun caught up with jockeys, trainers and owners from the three most recent champions: Secretariat who, in 1973, smashed track records at all three venues and was named Man of the Year by Sport Magazine; Seattle Slew, the only horse to sweep the Triple Crown without a loss to his mane; and Affirmed, who led America on a white-knuckled joy ride against Alydar who, in each race, inched closer to the champ.
The question: What's your single favorite flashback of that Triple Crown year?
Ron Turcotte, jockey, Secretariat (1973):
Forget the Belmont, which Big Red won by a whopping 31 lengths. It was Pimlico where Secretariat carved his legend that magical spring, said Turcotte, the Hall of Fame rider
"It was my unconventional ride in the Preakness, when I went around everybody on the first turn and caught them with their pants down" that put his horse on the fast track to stardom, Turcotte said. "It was a brilliant move, but if I'd gotten beat I would have had to hang up my tack and I would have never heard the end of it.
"I was going to ride Secretariat similar to the Derby — he always gave me that big kick at the end — but as we hit the first turn at Pimlico, I looked up and everyone was wrapped up on their horses and slowing down. I was, like, number three and ready to drop inside to save ground. But I saw everyone backing up to wait for me. I thought, 'The heck with this,' and decided to move him out.
"Once outside, he started galloping and went past every horse. If we hadn't done that, the way the race was shaping up, I'd have gotten boxed in. Those are the decisions you have to make, and quick."
Penny Chenery, owner, Secretariat
Though 92, Chenery recalls full well the postscript to Secretariat's sweet season — and how it nearly turned sour.
"After the Triple Crown, he lost the Whitney Stakes in Saratoga because of a low-grade fever," she said. "We wanted to scratch him but thought he could win on class alone. It was a mistake; you can only ask so much of a horse.
"The Marlboro Cup was next, in late August, and we were under the gun because now Secretariat had been beaten and we didn't know if he'd be healthy in time for the race. So we scheduled an unannounced workout to see if he was fit. We went out to Saratoga at 6:30 on a terribly rainy morning because we needed some privacy. Well, Secretariat blew three furlongs in something astonishing, like 32-seconds plus."
Simultaneously, Chenery said, she and trainer Lucien Laurin looked at each other and said, "He's back!"
Big Red won the Marlboro Cup, but that soggy workout "was the turning point," she said — and an instant she has long cherished.
"It was a private moment when I really felt he was my horse and that he didn't belong to the public, which had fallen in love with him quite quickly," Chenery said. "There weren't many moments like that with Secretariat."
Jim Hill, co-owner, Seattle Slew (1977)
Hill was antsy as the Belmont Stakes approached, and why not? His horse — purchased on the cheap as a yearling for $17,500 — was racing on uncharted turf. Should Seattle Slew win the Triple Crown, he'd become the first undefeated champion to do so.
"The whole Triple Crown, from start to finish, was pretty surreal," Hill recalled. But after Slew went the first half-mile in 48 seconds and change, I knew he'd have to fall down not to win."
Then, 20 yards to paydirt, jockey Jean Cruguet made a pre-emptive celebratory move. Cruguet hiked himself up and raised his whip in victory. The owner was aghast.
"I can still see [Cruguet] standing up before he hit the finish line," Hill said. "I thought, 'What are you doing?' And I started praying, 'Don't fall off."
Billy Turner, trainer, Seattle Slew
All that spring, the mantra kept repeating in Turner's mind: If we don't win the Triple Crown, then I haven't done my job.
That accomplished, Slew's trainer burst into tears.
"After the Belmont, once I'd handled the media and gone back to the barn to check on Slew and everyone else had drifted away, I went into the feed room by myself — and broke down and cried," Turner said. "For just a few minutes. Then I came out and went back to work.
"It was a feeling of total relief, realizing that I'd actually pulled it off. When you're seeking absolute perfection, you leave no stone unturned. I mean, you go out on a limb in the Triple Crown, and so many little things can go wrong — and did — but we still won."
Turner's only loss that day was his trademark Irish cap.
"Before the race, I'd told the guy who ran the press box that if we won, he could have my cap. Afterward, he grabbed it off of my head and auctioned it off. Karen Taylor [one of Slew's owners] bought it for $400."
Steve Cauthen, jockey, Affirmed (1978)
One and one-half lengths. A neck. A nose. Those were the margins of victory, in order, by Affirmed when he won the Triple Crown. Second, in each race, was Alydar. For Cauthen, a Hall of Famer, what stands out is "the final furlong at the Belmont in what was one of the greatest races of all time.
"Affirmed and Alydar had been hooked up in a struggle, playing cat and mouse, and the last half-mile was a dead-serious battle royale — a knockdown, drag-out fight," Cauthen said. "I knew I could count on my horse to give his all, but it seemed like a long, drawn-out battle. We had to dig deep and keep digging and digging. We couldn't afford to make a single mistake and, thankfully, we didn't.
"There's no better way to win the Triple Crown than how Affirmed did it. It was a great rivalry and the other horse showed up every time. You know how, in a lot of Super Bowls, the build-up is fantastic but the result is anti-climatic? The Belmont followed through.
"Afterward, I was relieved and proud of myself and my horse. I was even proud of Alydar for having pushed us as hard as he did. I leaned over, patted Affirmed and said, 'Thanks — it's over. You did it.'
"It doesn't get any better than that."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun