On that June afternoon nearly 50 years ago, Dave Johnson was there to witness one of the most memorable moments in the history of horse racing. As the NYRA track announcer, he called Secretariat's win in the GI Belmont S., an event he, and anyone who was there that day, will never forget. To share his memories, Johnson joined the team for this week's TDN Writers' Room podcast presented by Keeneland. Johnson was this week's Green Group Guest of the Week.
He recalled that Secretariat came around at the perfect time, that the country was looking for a hero and a heroic story after the struggles of the late sixties and early seventies.
“There was Watergate and Vietnam, and this was before people scratched off lottery tickets and before sports books and casinos,” he said. “Racing was the great place to go and make a legal bet. And then along comes this great horse with a great crew. You had Lucien Laurin training and Ronnie Turcotte riding and Mrs. Tweedy was a great cheerleader. She just she captured the audience. When you'd see her on television rooting for a horse, you wanted her to win. So it was all of those things that came together with this magnificent animal. Secretariat just came at the right time and with the right people and at a time where the sport didn't have the problems it has now. People loved Secretariat and loved the story, and it was a hell of a story.”
In that era, announcers were not allowed to call the finish of a race because that was seen as a violation of the Wire Act of 1938, which was meant to discourage bookmaking. But he did his best to let his audience know that something special was taking place.
“I called Secretariat in front by 25 lengths at the sixteenth-pole,” he said. “I had never called a horse in a race other than a steeplechase race in front by that much. So I called him in front by 25 lengths at the sixteenth pole and then I shut the mic off at the 70-yard mark saying Secretariat wins the Triple Crown or something like that. I don't think NYRA has the call. But that's what I remember, how gigantic the margin of victory was. It seems like yesterday. It doesn't seem like 50 years ago.”
Johnson has called hundreds of major races, including a slew of Triple Crown events while working for ABC. But nothing, he said, will ever top the 1973 Belmont.
“It was the greatest spectacle in my lifetime of watching horse races,” Johnson said. “If you brought any horse in the world to the Belmont that afternoon at a mile-and-a-half, Secretariat would have beat them. It was it was just spectacular. It was the greatest moment for me in horse racing. I don't think you'll ever match it.”
Elsewhere on the podcast, which is also sponsored by Coolmore,https://lanesend.com/ the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association, Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders, 1/st Racing, WinStar Farm, XBTV, Lane's End and https://www.threechimneys.com/ West Point Thoroughbreds, the team of Bill Finley, Zoe Cadman and Randy Moss discussed the news surrounding the National Thoroughbred League, the new racing initiative that hopes to bring the team aspect that is at the core of other sports to racing. There was some skepticism that it will succeed and Moss pointed out just how expensive it will be purchase the 36 horses that will be needed to form the racing teams. But there was agreement that the league deserves a chance and they applauded its founders for trying something new and different that could bring new fans to the sport. The rash of fatalities at Churchill Downs took up much of the podcast. As is the case with just about everyone in the industry, the team doesn't see there being any magic bullets but was in agreement that the situation is a terrible problem for a sport holding on dearly to its social license to operate. And how will Rich Strike (Keen Ice) do now that he has been turned over to Bill Mott? The consensus was that Mott will have his work cut out for him but that if anybody can get last year's GI Kentucky Derby winner back to top form it is his new trainer.