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Even after 40 years, nobody beats Secretariat

By MIke Downey, Special to CNN
updated 10:29 AM EDT, Fri May 3, 2013
Secretariat approaches the finish line to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths.
Secretariat approaches the finish line to win the 1973 Belmont Stakes by a record 31 lengths.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • It's been 40 years since Secretariat won the Triple Crown
  • No horse has won the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978
  • Despite lack of "superhorses," interest in Kentucky Derby is still high
  • Race will be run Saturday

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

(CNN) -- Desperately seeking Secretariat.

We could use a new you. A superhorse to make our hearts pound the way your hooves did. A four-legged stud to give us a break from cheating golfers, dog-torturing football quarterbacks and doped-up bike racers and baseball sluggers.

Kentucky Derby day is upon us again. It has been 40 years since you, Big Red -- hey, no one who knew you called you Secretariat -- took the Derby, then the Preakness, then the Belmont Stakes (by a ludicrous 31 lengths) for what we like to call horse racing's Triple Crown.

Incredibly, in all three races -- I repeat, ALL THREE -- Secretariat still owns the fastest time. After he died in 1989, they discovered Big Red's heart to be more than twice the normal size. This handsome chestnut was half colt, half Ferrari ... a mean, russet running machine.

Watch Secretariat's historic Belmont race

A horse is a horse? Of course, of course, yet not a one has won a Triple Crown since 1978, when Affirmed did it. And no steed in lo these 40 years has had anything close to Secretariat's popularity, pizzazz and -- OK, I gotta do it -- animal magnetism.

Saturday afternoon, it's time for yet another wild mid-Eastern roundup. An equine chorus line of toddler-seeking-tiara 3-year-olds will be saddled up in Louisville for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, a horse race so old, the first one was run 10 years after the Kentucky-bred Abe Lincoln got assassinated.

Place your bets.

Verrazano? Goldencents? Orb? Oxbow? Overanalyze? Itsmyluckyday, maybe?

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They'll be at the post, barring late scratches, with quite a few others for the Run for the Roses, so it's definitely going to be somebody's lucky day.

Is there a Secretariat in the bunch? A magnificent nag who will make tongues wag in the months ahead? A horse that can give the sport of thoroughbred racing a badly needed golden goose? A way to change the sports-fan conversation from the usual MLB, NBA, NCAA, NHL, PGA, NASCAR blah blah blah?

I sure do hope so.

But don't hold your breath.

Bleacher Report: Kentucky Derby coverage

Consider the track record of the Kentucky Derby's past nine winners:

• I'll Have Another (2012), Hurt, scratched from Belmont, has not run another race.

• Animal Kingdom (2011), Hurt after Belmont, did not run again in 2011.

Super Saver (2010), never won again, retired in October 2010.

Mine That Bird (2009), never won again, retired in November 2010.

Big Brown (2008), retired in October '08.

Street Sense (2007), retired in October '07.

Barbaro (2006), Hurt in Preakness, never ran another race.

Giacomo (2005), won one more race, retired in '06.

Smarty Jones (2004), lost in Belmont, never ran again.

Kings for a day, for a fortnight, for a few weeks. Then no more. Each cashed a ticket in the I Won The Derby lottery, but that's about it.

In, out.

What we're looking for is a horse that can run and keep running, let us go see him do his thing. (And I don't mean pet him in a pasture after he's put out to stud.)

We want a horse for the ages, a winged Pegasus to become the subject of myths.

Secretariat went to the post only a few months more after donning his Triple Crown, but at least crowds did get to come out and see him race at Arlington Park, at Saratoga, at Belmont again, even in Toronto before he was free to go sire baby Secretariats. (Whoa, Big Red!)

Seabiscuit didn't run in a Kentucky Derby, but he definitely had the kind of super-popularity I mean. For his match race with War Admiral in 1933, they say 40,000 came to the track while 40 million tuned in on the radio. Now there's an A-list star.

We nearly had another in Smarty Jones a few years back. I was on Long Island when his run in the 2004 Belmont drew an astounding crowd of 120,139, which they say to this day is the largest crowd ever to attend a New York sporting event of any kind.

Smarty was a party. He was undefeated. But he got caught from behind that day at the wire and then hung up his horseshoes for good. That swift little colt could have become 10 times the size of Taylor Swift, and I don't mean on a scale. He could have been a cover model for American Bridle, had a hundred thousand followers at any track in America and a million on Twitter.

We were a little giddy over I'll Have Another a year ago, after he won the Derby and Preakness, but his humans withdrew him from the Belmont at the last minute. I'll Have Another never had another. He'd had enough. Check, please.

Horse racing ain't what it used to be.

So many great tracks of old, gone. Bay Meadows, Bowie, Garden State, Hialeah, Longacres, Narragansett, so many more, open no more. Attendance at our surviving tracks is way down, coast-to-coast. Lines at the $2 windows aren't usually too long.

On the other hand ...

"People can now sit on their couch and watch -- and bet -- on races, eliminating the need to go to the track or even to a wagering facility," said Bob Mieszerski, long one of America's top turf writers and handicappers who is now director of publicity at California's Hollywood Park. "I still believe the on-track experience is special, but in this day and age of traffic and high gas prices, I understand why people don't want to make the trek to the track."

Churchill Downs will have its usual huge throng Saturday, with TV ratings to match.

So wouldn't it be swell if a superhorse could ride to racing's rescue?

"A superhorse may spark interest for awhile," Mieszerski respectfully disagreed, "but I have never agreed with those who believe a Triple Crown winner is going to be some magic elixir for whatever ails racing. The Kentucky Derby is a spectacle, and a lot of people who couldn't care less about racing will show up just to say that they were there. The same goes for TV.''

Probably, Bob.

I still feel a superhorse could pack 'em in at the track, from Aqueduct to Santa Anita, from Thistledown to Oaklawn, from Gulfstream to Del Mar, if we were given a chance to jump in our cars and go see the animal everybody's talking about, the Next Secretariat.

Two bucks on Orb for me, please. I feel lucky.

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