Jockeys relive their Triple Crowns with Secretariat, Affirmed

And they're off . . . from left,

And they're off . . . from left, Sham, Twice a Prince, My Gallant, Pvt. Smiles, and Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. (June 9, 1973) (Credit: AP)

In the ride of Ron Turcotte's life, he was a passenger on perfection. Steve Cauthen's defining moment in the saddle was an exhausting battle.

Both Hall of Famers got there first in the Belmont Stakes to sweep the two most memorable Triple Crowns of all time. In 1973, Turcotte accompanied Secretariat as Big Red zoomed into an unknown zone for a 31-length runaway. Five years later, Cauthen and Affirmed were fully extended to hold off Alydar and Jorge Velasquez by a head.

Five weeks after Affirmed's Belmont, Turcotte was paralyzed from the waist down in a spill at Belmont. He never walked again. The next spring, Cauthen moved to England and became the only rider ever to win the Kentucky Derby and its model, the Epsom Derby.

Turcotte, 70, and Cauthen, 52, reminisced about their long-ago glory days Wednesday on a conference call. Next Saturday, I'll Have Another will try to become the first Triple Crown winner since the Seventies, a fabulous decade for thoroughbred racing.

Turcotte said he entered the Belmont with no worries. "I was so confident,'' he said. "The way he trained that week, I didn't think there was a horse in the world that could beat him.''

As Secretariat rocketed through 6 furlongs in 1:09 4/5, many feared he would burn himself out, but not Turcotte. He knew they were long gone, and soon was so far ahead that he could listen to race caller Dave Johnson.

"When you're alone like that, the only clickety-clack you hear is from your horse,'' Turcotte said. "When I came around the turn, I heard the announcer say I was 15 lengths in front, then 20. My curiosity got the best of me and I took a peek back. I think that's when [trainer] Lucien Laurin said, 'Oh my God, Ron's going to fall off.' All I could see were people in the stands jumping up and down.''

In the 1978 Belmont, the 18-year-old Cauthen faced a serious threat in Alydar, who in any other year might have swept the classics instead of finishing second in all three. Unlike Turcotte, he wasn't sure Affirmed was in top shape and could get the distance.

"It had been a long year up to that point,'' Cauthen said. "A mile and a half is unknown territory, and Affirmed's pedigree didn't absolutely say he was a mile-and-a-half horse. I don't think that was his best distance.''

Secretariat's stretch run was an otherworldly coronation; Affirmed's was head-to-head combat. Cauthen didn't have to glance back to check on the competition. He could hear him snorting. "At the top of the stretch I knew we had to dig deep,'' he said, "because Alydar was breathing down our neck.''

"The Rivals'' had dueled since entering the backstretch, with Affirmed leading. A few strides after the challenger briefly stuck his nose in front in midstretch, race caller Chic Anderson said, "We'll test these two to the wire.'' For the first time ever, Cauthen whipped Affirmed lefthanded, and the exhausted colt responded along the rail, inching away to hang on.

"Luckily, Affirmed was the kind of horse that loved a fight,'' he said. "He had the heart to do it. It was a thrilling way to win the Triple Crown.''

It's been 34 years, and Cauthen and Turcotte said they're rooting for I'll Have Another to end the drought.

Cauthen said the colt reminds him of Affirmed. "What I like is he really has a lot of try in him,'' he said. "He's not afraid of a battle. I think that as much as anything is the best thing he has going for him.''

advertisement | advertise on newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday