Horse Racing
Belmont Stakes looking to connect its history to a modern vision
Horse Racing

Belmont Stakes looking to connect its history to a modern vision

Updated Jun. 8, 2023 5:26 p.m. ET

Walk through the gates of Belmont Park this Saturday and the souvenir program that gets pressed into your hand might seem a little different.

For a start, there’ll be a big old advertisement for Marlboro cigarettes on the back, the kind of thing that hasn’t been spotted on printed sporting paraphernalia for a long time.

The paper will look yellowed, the font is old school, and finally, there, in the list of runners for the Belmont Stakes (7:05 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) — the third leg of the Triple Crown — sits the name Secretariat, the legendary horse's mere mention still enough to make any sports history aficionado stop for a double take.


[2023 Belmont Stakes: Horses, post time, TV schedule, how to watch]

All this is a drawn-out way of saying that Belmont organizers have reproduced an exact replica of the 1973 race program for the 2023 event, on account of it being the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest feats the sport of horse racing has ever seen. 

But it is more than just a cool peek into the past or a slick marketing ploy. 

Sports teams, events and organizations plot creative ways of generating interest and feel-good vibes all the time, but rarely is the balance more delicate, and critical, than on America’s horse racing tracks during the height of the season. 

This is a sport that leans heavily into its past, because racing’s glory days reside in yesteryear, a time when it stood proudly alongside boxing and baseball and the most prominent activities on the national radar. 

And it’s even more so right now, because we all like anniversaries, and Secretariat’s surge in the summer of 1973 marked a time when the sport of kings was a true American obsession. It was at Belmont where the horse affectionately dubbed "Big Red" completed the Triple Crown with a spectacular victory, winning by a barely comprehensible 31 lengths. 

Yet there is also a need, as with any sport and especially those outside of the major team disciplines, to embrace modernity and innovation. Hence, the tightrope Belmont is walking.  

"We’ve got to be about both," Kevin Quinn, VP of sales and hospitality for the New York Racing Association, told me via telephone this week. "We have a time-honored part to our audience who love the history and also a newer crowd who are here for the experience. But the Secretariat theme actually fits in well with both." 

Early indications are that while the younger audience might have been initially attracted by the scheduled Diplo concert, the beer fest and the food trucks, the historic theme is also playing well. 

This year, the Belmont honors Secretariat’s color scheme, with blue and white touches dotted across the course, and a statue of the famed racer on display. Even some of the tablecloths in the main restaurant have been switched to blue and white checkers.  

For many, the Belmont is an unmissable staple of the calendar, and the hope is that the clouds of smoke that covered New York this week as a result of Canadian wildfires will dissipate well before the big race. 

The journey to be undertaken is 1.5 miles and stands out because its elongated distance is regarded as the true test of a champion. 

Kentucky Derby winner Mage will be missing, bypassing the race after its bid for the Triple Crown fell short with a third-place finish in the Preakness. National Treasure proved too strong at Pimlico, but all eyes here will be on Forte, the favorite, who was scratched from the Derby and the Preakness on account of a bruised foot.

There will, therefore, be no addition this year to the 13-strong list of Triple Crown champions. Belmont has a unique energy to it on the rare occasions when that prospect is on the cards, and never more so than in Secretariat’s time. 

Things were different then. Horse racing was heading toward the end of its long period as one of the nation’s primary sporting interests, but the mass fervor was still there if the occasion was right. 

Secretariat was a giant horse built to run, and the Belmont was his crowning glory. His fame was off the charts, for in the 1970s it was still possible for a racehorse to be just as much of a celebrity as a football or basketball player, as long as it captured the public imagination in the right way. Secretariat was on magazine covers, was the talk of the nation, adored and revered in equal measure.

"We have been looking to channel into the excitement from back then," Quinn said. "To remind people what a special occasion it was 50 years ago and to show the kind of unique excitement this sport generates." 

The historical revelry is all part of the show, but more than that, too. Secretariat’s memory is part of the fabric of this event, as a sporting icon whose memory won't dim, because the organizers keep leaning into the nostalgia, and the racegoers don’t want them to stop. 

Soak it up, in whichever way you prefer. Enjoying the past, or living in the now. Through your screens or at the track itself. 

Speaking of which, if you’re heading to Belmont Park, and you get hold of one of those vintage 1973 programs, save one for me. 

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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