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Secretariat made me a fan back in 1973

I’m not a regular follower of sports, but 50 years ago this month I became a rabid horse-racing fan for at least a season.

Perhaps you did, too.

It was the spring of 1973 when a thoroughbred superstar named Secretariat blazed into the headlines.

He’d go on to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes that year — setting records in all three that still stand — and capturing the first Triple Crown of horse racing in 25 years.

My brothers and I grew up in a house with a horse-crazy mother, which had to be the reason we were watching.

I was 11 that summer, and I remember knowing Secretariat’s name before those races began that year. He had already created quite the buzz by being syndicated earlier in the season for $6.08 million, more money than I could imagine.

Never one to back a favorite, however (and he was a big favorite going in), I put my 11-year-old intellect to use and selected a horse named Sham to root for in the Kentucky Derby.

Even though Secretariat beat Sham by 2 ½ lengths in that first race, I stayed loyal and lined up on the couch to root for Sham in the Preakness Stakes two weeks later.

In less than two minutes — one minute and 53 seconds, if you want to be technical — Secretariat shot past the field to capture the blanket of black-eyed Susans, and I went from being Sham’s head cheerleader to being a starry-eyed Secretariat fangirl.

I was not alone.

Secretariat made the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated in the days that followed. By the time he was easing into the starting gate for the Belmont Stakes on June 9, millions of us were swept up in Secretariat-fever.

My brother Stewart remembers that our family was at a branding on the Saturday morning of the last race. He said that after the calves were branded and the crew gathered for lunch, the table conversation was all Secretariat.

The party broke up in time for everyone to get home by post time.

We all have those unforgettable moments that are branded into our memories.

Although I’ve watched the replay of the 1973 Belmont Stakes dozens of times, watching the race that day remains one of those moments for me.

I’ve never seen a race like it before or since — nor anything that even comes close.

I remember all of us gathered by the television in the living room and watching, first in dismay as Secretariat and Sham tore away from rest of the field in a pace that we knew could not be sustained … and then in disbelief as Secretariat opened up and left Sham and all of the others far, far behind.

Our mother — the queen of the worst-case-scenario — was certain that he was doomed. It was hard to believe she wasn’t right. No horse could do what he did. At least none ever had.

He won that race by a breathtaking 31 lengths (about the length of a football field), smashed the world record for that distance, and he made it look easy.

I did what any smitten 11-year-old girl would do.

I wrote a fan letter and mailed it to his owner, Penny Tweedy.

Somewhere in my house, I still have the signed photo of Secretariat that showed up in a brown manila envelope in my mailbox a few weeks later. (I was only a tiny bit disappointed that it was signed by Tweedy and not hoof-stamped by Secretariat.)

I framed it and kept it on my bedroom wall for a number of years.

Thanks to the internet, Secretariat’s races are always only a few keystrokes away. I watch them almost every spring.

This year I watched with a special poignancy, remembering a big red horse who stole my 11-year-old heart … and who can still make me tear up 50 years later.

Betty Williamson is still looking for her Secretariat photo. Reach her at:

[email protected]