By Michael Lewis
I was at Belmont Park the day when Secretariat won his historic Triple Crown race in 1973, yet I don’t have a press box, ticket, horse racing program or even a bettor’s slip as a souvenir to prove that I was there.
All I have is a parking pass that allowed me into Belmont Park.
Now, this needs an explanation on what transpired 47 years ago today on June 9, 1973.
I was a college summer intern at Newsday (and I got paid for that) between my junior and senior years at Syracuse University. I was about three weeks into arguably the best summer of my then young life, working at the newspaper I grew up reading every day, six days week.
It was about that time that Newsday added a Sunday edition, forcing the paper to cover events on Saturday. That included Yankees and Mets games, and the Belmont Stakes.
It just so happened that a wonder horse named Secretariat was running his foes ragged that spring, first in the Kentucky Derby, next at the Preakness.
There had been no horse racing Triple Crown winner since Citation accomplished the feat in 1947, so Long Island was preparing for one of its biggest sporting stories in years, as was Newsday.
As an intern, I got an opportunity to cover a ton of eclectic stuff, from shark fishing tournaments, regattas, junior tennis players to an Over-50 track meet (besides once in a while getting some plum assignments, such as the Yankees, Mets and even Jets training camp). They even allowed me to pick the harness racing winners at Roosevelt Raceway when regular Tony Sisti went on vacation. On this particular Saturday, however, I wasn’t going to write or work on the desk.
I was going to be a vital link for our photographers. I was going to drive three photographers from the newspaper’s headquarters in Garden City, N.Y. (this was years prior to it moving to Melville, N.Y. and Suffolk County), to Belmont in Elmont, N.Y.
I dubbed myself the get-away driver.
Remember, this was well before the internet and email and digital photography was in the realm of science fiction or in the imagination of future inventors. The photographers had to return to the paper and develop their photos (yes, it was tough living in the stone age; perhaps someday I will relate how we made fire and lived in caves).
Instead of parking in the press lot, I had pass that allowed me to park inside the park near the stables, not too far from the track itself.
After dropping off the photographers, I positioned my car toward the exit.
When the race began, I listened to it on the car radio. It was one weird and surreal experience listening to how Secretariat ran away from the field on the radio and hearing the thousands of spectators cheering louder and louder only a couple of hundred yards away.
Big Red, as he was called, won by an astounding 31 lengths, leaving the others in his dust.
The photographers returned to the car and I drove them back to the paper in plenty of time to develop and have their pictures printed to help communicate this unforgettable history to the paper’s readers on this record-breaking day.
As for myself, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch the race I was so close to until the 11 p.m. newscast.
The Belmont Stakes is scheduled for Saturday, June 20. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the race has lost much luster this year because there will be no crowds and no Triple Crown up for grabs. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness were not run this spring.
Although I was so close, yet so far away from seeing this remarkable stallion make history, I would do it again. After all, how many people can say they were the get-away driver from Belmont Park on the day Secretariat made horse-racing history?