This iconic Neil Leifer image of Secretariat and jockey Ron Turcotte pounding their way to an astounding 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes still gives me goosebumps.
When Justify breaks out of the gate at the 150th Belmont Stakes this weekend, he’ll attempt to do something only three other horses have done since Secretariat annihilated his competition exactly 45 years ago – win the Triple Crown. But no horse will ever match the dominating performance by the three-year-old nicknamed Big Red, who that day literally left the Belmont field and his toughest competitor Sham in the dust en route to a time (2:24 flat) may never be eclipsed.
And although many photographers captured images of Secretariat during his amazing season, no one preserved the quintessential moment of that run like Neil Leifer.
If you are even the most casual of sports fans, you have absolutely seen at least one of Neil Leifer’s photographs. From Muhammad Ali to Vince Lombardi to Mickey Mantle, his images have frozen in time the greatest moments in sports history.
And thankfully along with it, he captured some of the greatest examples of sports branding in history. Which brings us back to his image of Secretariat at the Belmont Stakes. I’ve always felt that the bold blue and white chequered pattern silks (the uniforms worn by horse and rider) were an outstanding example of sports branding simplicity at its best. The royal blue and white patterns were a perfect contrast to the rippling auburn coat of the Triple Crown super horse.
The photo was taken at the exact moment when jockey Ron Turcotte did something jockeys rarely do. As Secretariat blazed down the stretch of the mile-and-a-half course, Turcotte turned around to look back at his competitors. Leifer’s freeze-frame image reveals the backward look in Ron Turcotte’s eyes that displays something between disbelief and shock (or was it knowing satisfaction?). That, in contrast to the nostril-flaring, spittle-flying, absolutely fierce concentration of the horse makes the photo one of the most compelling shots in sports history.
That day, not one, but two red-haired champions blew away their competition and gave us enduring images. Secretariat and Neil Leifer, thanks for the memories!