During his historic trip down the Belmont Park homestretch in 1973, Ron Turcotte briefly took his eyes off the wire three times. He glanced behind to see the vast distance he had opened up on the other horses in the Belmont Stakes field. A peek toward the grandstand showed a disbelieving crowd, looking like a rough sea as people leapt to their feet.

It wasn't until the third look that Turcotte realized what Secretariat was about to do.

"When we came closer to the wire, I saw that we were going to shatter the record," the jockey said Tuesday. "I turned a little bit and saw the clock at 2:24. I believed it, because I saw it."

The numbers that size up the big red horse remain unfathomable to this day. A time of 2 minutes, 24 seconds for a mile and a half, a world record that still stands. A victory margin of 31 lengths in the Belmont. A winning time of 1:59 2/5 in the Kentucky Derby, still the fastest after 37 years. The first Triple Crown winner in a quarter-century.

But that's far too mechanical a way to recall the horse by which all others are measured. Most of the fans he made during his career -- including this one, who watched his Belmont victory on a tiny black-and-white TV set up in a barn -- remember the way he made them feel every time he stepped onto the track. Just looking at that massive chestnut, with the bearing of a sovereign, created that little shiver of anticipation you get when you feel history hovering in the air. Nothing seemed impossible for him. And when he delivered, you knew you had seen something you'd never forget.

This Friday, the movie "Secretariat" will open across a country where horse racing has faded into the sporting background. Turcotte, and others in the industry, hope the film will generate new interest in racing. While that seems far too much to ask, it will introduce Big Red to a fresh audience and renew his memory with millions of established fans -- a tribute he deserves 21 years after his death.

"In my opinion, we still haven't seen any horse that could do what Secretariat could do and do it as easy as he could," said Turcotte, who rode Secretariat in all but three of his 21 races. "Some people say I'm prejudiced. But he was as if God decided to make the perfect horse."

Turcotte's racing career ended only five years after Secretariat's, when he was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1978 riding accident. He and Penny Chenery, Secretariat's owner, have remained tireless keepers of the Big Red legend.

God's perfect horse has his own website (secretariat.com), a foundation that raises money for equine-related charities and even that modern symbol of sports immortality: a bobblehead. His story has been told in an ESPN documentary and several books. But despite many requests over the years, neither Turcotte nor Chenery had agreed to sell the rights for a studio film.

Disney got the deal done. As ardent fans have discovered in advance screenings, the movie is hardly a documentary. It was impossible to cast convincing lookalikes for one of the most magnificent racehorses in history, and plenty of facts were spun Disney-style to create dramatic tension or comedy.

But Chenery was more concerned with conveying what Secretariat meant to the people in his orbit. She wanted the story to become an inspirational family film, and much of it centers on how she took on the male-dominated racing establishment by running Meadow Farm after her father's death -- a chapter of the Secretariat saga that deserves a wider telling.

"Secretariat" has much in common with "Seabiscuit," the well-regarded 2003 movie about another celebrated horse. Racing groups rallied heavily behind that movie, hoping it could drum up publicity for a sport whose attendance has plummeted over the past 30 years. But "Seabiscuit," though popular, couldn't shoulder that burden.

America's equine stars likely will continue to play to much smaller audiences. There still is history being shaped by horses whose presence evokes Secretariat; Turcotte is a fan of Zenyatta, the charismatic mare who has won all 19 career races and charms crowds with her bowing and dancing.

Secretariat, though, will always stand alone. Here's a tip for those moviegoers who haven't seen the real thing: Go to YouTube and watch the video of his Belmont Stakes victory. Hear Chick Anderson cry, "He is moving like a tremendous machine!" See him pull away in that race like no horse before or since. And believe, as Turcotte did, in the perfect horse.

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com