BOOTLEG FILES 481: “The 1973 Belmont Stakes” (CBS telecast of a historic horse race).
LAST SEEN: The broadcast is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None, although clips from the race have turned up in documentaries.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: CBS does not re-release its historic sports broadcasts on DVD.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
Forty years ago, the eyes of the world were on a horse. Not just any old horse, but a thoroughbred that possessed strength and speed that one associates with machinery-driven power. The horse was Secretariat, and this remarkable equine was on the fast track to make history on June 9, 1973, at the 105th running of the Belmont Stakes at New York’s Belmont Park.
Prior to the Belmont Stakes, Secretariat had scored astonishing victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the first two events within horse racing’s Triple Crown tournament. No horse had won all three Triple Crown races since Citation in 1948; in the 25 years since that triumph, seven horses came close by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, only to lose momentum over the grueling 1.5 mile Belmont Stakes course.
CBS Sports had the television rights to the Triple Crown races, and the network devoted live coverage to the Belmont Stakes. In comparison to today’s overheated television sports coverage, the CBS broadcast of the Belmont Stakes was a fairly leisurely and almost nonchalant happening.
In some ways, this was a reflection of the TV sports culture of the early 1970s – the networks were not in the habit of ratcheting up the melodramatic aspects of a sporting event. Instead, they allowed the events to unfold naturally, with sportscaster commentary kept to a laid-back observatory nature. Also, Secretariat’s reign had a spooky been-there/done-that element: in the previous nine years, highly touted horses including Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Majestic Prince and Canonero II captured the racing world’s imagination in the first two Triple Races before failing spectacularly on the Belmont course. Secretariat had already shown that he was not invincible – his third-place finish in the Wood Memorial two weeks prior to the Kentucky Derby was a grim reminder of his highly fallible nature.
The network’s pre-race coverage was divided among four men. Jack Whitaker (dressed in a conservative sports jacket) and Woody Broun (wearing a multi-hued jacket that looked like it was borrowed from a production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”) kicked off the broadcast by speaking directly to the camera about the history of the Triple Crown and the problems that many horses faced in winning the Belmont Stakes. Race track announcer Chic Anderson showed up in front of a large chart that listed the five horses running in that race. Anderson’s chart was revealed to be positioned next to the scale in the jockey’s room, and Anderson literally grabbed each jockey stepping off the scale for comment on the race.
Broun was later joined by horse trainer-turned-sportscaster Frank Wright, and the duo prowled the track’s paddock area in search of trainers and owners with equines in the race. None of the interviews were particularly insightful – but, then again, this was an era before sports figures were aggressively schooled in media training. Secretariat’s owner, Penny Tweedy, briefly appeared on camera and offered a refreshing bit of honesty when she confided, “I’m scared to death.”
In reviewing the CBS broadcast of the event, it is astonishing at how this presentation initially comes across as being just another horse race. While Secretariat’s previous feats were properly acknowledged, the four broadcasters went about their work without once fixating over about the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. Whitaker also breezily pointed out that the race did not draw a record crowd turnout, furthering dampening expectations. Indeed, one could easily dismiss the pre-race coverage as being something of a pleasant but slightly boring broadcast.
But then came the race, and at that point things changed dramatically. The five-horse field broke and the race initially turned into a two-horse duel between Secretariat and Sham. One could easily imagine a grudge match, as Sham ran second to Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness – in any other year, Sham would have been heralded as the wonder horse of the day.
As the race progressed, Secretariat began to move away from Sham. And he kept moving. And moving. And moving. Announcer Chic Anderson lost his composure in describing this unprecedented development, with Secretariat roaring down the track at a pace that no other horse had ever displayed.
“He is moving like a tremendous machine!” Anderson screamed as the CBS camera struggle to document the monumental 1/16 mile gap between Secretariat and the other four horses that trailed him. At the finish line, Secretariat won by 31 lengths and covered the 1.5 mile course in a record 2:24, which was two seconds faster than the previous stakes record. Anderson commented, “There may not be another one like it in your lifetime” – and how right he was! Forty years later, these Belmont Stakes records are still standing.
The remainder of the broadcast included a rerun of the race, as well as the presentation of the Belmont Stakes trophy to Penny Tweedy and Secretariat’s trainer, Lucien Laurin. The presentation was unexpectedly funny, as a pair of camera-loving governors – New York’s Nelson Rockefeller and Virginia’s Linwood Holton (who was shoehorned in because Secretariat was a Virginia-bred thoroughbred) – excessively turned on their charm in this high-profile environment.
The footage of Secretariat’s magnificent race has turned up in a number of documentaries, but the full CBS Sports broadcast was only seen in its entirety on June 9, 1973. To date, the network has never made this full production available for public showing. However, a 16mm print of the broadcast, minus the commercials, is on YouTube in an unauthorized posting.
Horse racing fans would be interested in knowing that the CBS broadcasts of Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness victories are also on YouTube in unauthorized postings, as well as several of Secretariat’s other notable races. Four decades after his races were run, Secretariat continues to dominate the passion and imagination of racing enthusiasts. And thanks to bootleg video suppliers, the champion horse’s finest moments will be available for future generations to enjoy!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!