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Dave Johnson recalls the day Secretariat rocked the horse racing world

Jockey Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat looks behind for

Jockey Ron Turcotte aboard Secretariat looks behind for the other horses on his way to a 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes on June 9, 1973. Credit: Newsday/Joe Dombroski

Like all track announcers at Belmont Park, Dave Johnson could barely hear the tens of thousands of fans outside his sealed perch high above the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

But he felt them.

"I was a little shaken in the booth; it was a tremor,” he said. “I could actually sort of feel the stands move a little bit, believe it or not. So that was as strange as hearing a hundred thousand people yell and scream.”

They were screaming that day for Secretariat, the horse that won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to secure the first thoroughbred racing Triple Crown in 25 years.

And Johnson still was relatively new in an association with Belmont that covered decades, into the mid-2000s, as a track announcer and/or network TV and radio race announcer.

These days, at 79, he keeps his hand in the sport with a weekly show he co-hosts on SiriusXM Satellite Radio, “Down the Stretch,” at 10 a.m. on Saturdays.

But he also remains an avid fan — and bettor — on his own time, following the sport closely from the Manhattan apartment he has lived in for 48 years.

“I just love the game,” said the man most famous among casual fans for popularizing the phrase, “and down the stretch they come!”

It is that long history with the sport, and Belmont, that gives him a unique perspective on Saturday’s unusual Belmont Stakes.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will be run two weeks later than is customary and several months before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, which is unprecedented.

It will cover 1 1/8 miles, not 1 1/2. And there will be no fans to watch in person.

“It’s weird,” Johnson said. “There could be a Triple Crown winner, but there will always be the asterisk.”

Still, he said, he would consider any horse who sweeps the races to be a legitimate addition to the list.

“Oh, sure, I’m OK with that,” he said. “If anybody wins these three races, they are a Triple Crown winner.”

The shorter distance will be easier on the horses but not necessarily the jockeys, Johnson said. That is because they still must deal with the quirks of the big track and its wide turns.

“Many jockeys coming in from out of town who are not used to riding at Belmont Park, they get lost, believe it or not,” he said. “I’ve seen it firsthand since I called the races for many years out there.

“It takes a jockey who knows when to move the horse around those big, wide, sweeping turns. I’ve seen jockeys in big races and the first race on a Wednesday afternoon get lost, and lose the race because they moved too quickly.”

Larry Collmus will be on the call for NBC, working not from the traditional secluded booth high above the course that is now occupied by track announcer John Imbriale, but rather from a closer spot on the third floor.

Normally that would be at the center of crowd energy and noise. This year, not so much.

Collmus said on Tuesday that the absence of fans would affect the vibe for him more before the race than during it, when he is too focused to notice such things.

Johnson agreed.

“I got into the track, into the racing,” he said. “I didn’t need the crowd. I’m such a fan myself of the game that I was into the races every time that I called a race there.”

But there was that day in 1973. For what he called his favorite Belmont Stakes of all, the vibrations from the fans mattered more than their voices.

“Secretariat’s Belmont was unbelievable,” Johnson said. “My God, I called that he was in front by 25 lengths at the 16th pole. I’d never called a horse that far in front.

“I almost feel like they could have brought any racehorse to him in the Belmont that day at a mile-and-a-half, and he would have beaten them. He was that good.”

Any horse of that time, or ever?

“Ever, ever — any horse,” he said. “Alexander the Great could have brought one in.”

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