Man o' War lost the only race of his career in the Sanford Stakes at Saratoga in 1919. Eleven years later, Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox came a cropper to long shot Jim Dandy in the Travels. That sort of thing could not happen again, said the 30,119 hero-worshipers who congregated to see Secretariat in last week's running of the Whitney Stakes. But it did. Going off at 1-to-10 odds before the largest crowd ever to watch racing at New York's upstate spa, Secretariat labored along the inside of a fast but dull strip and finished the mile and an eighth a length behind a fine horse named Onion, who belongs to stockbroker Jack Dreyfus (absent for the occasion). A 5-to-1 second choice, Onion led every step of the way.
Almost as confounding to the established order was the fact that Secretariat's stablemate Riva Ridge, another frenetic favorite, had finished second in a midweek grass race to a 56-to-1 shot named Wichita Oil. The embarrassment was keen for Owner Penny Tweedy, Trainer Lucien Laurin and Jockey Ron Turcotte, but sharper than a serpent's tooth for a whole new world of commercialized racing.
The Marlboro cigarette people have sunk $200,000 in prize money and their hopes for a promotional windfall into a special match race between Secretariat and Riva Ridge at Belmont Park on Sept. 15. The Marlboro Cup is one of a heavy schedule of four televised races starring the Triple Crown winner which some New York officials hope will attract new fans and money and put the staggering sport back on its feet in the state.
The match race was to have been the centerpiece of the series; now Marlboro and the New York Racing Association are left with two tarnished champions. Last week's double losses are apt to leave new fans—and even some old racing buffs—as excited about Secretariat vs. Riva Ridge as they would be if the Marlboro Man was scheduled to race a Camel.
August 12, 1973
Secretariat's appearance in the Whitney—the first time he has faced older horses—had been planned well ahead of the television signing and, as Laurin pointed out, would serve as a perfect prep on the Saratoga track for his next serious objective, the classic mile-and-a-quarter Travers on Aug. 18. But Onion, a 4-year-old gelding by Third Martini with the speed of Roman in his blood, got in some good prepping of his own just four days before the Whitney. He established his affinity for the track by beating its record over 6½ furlongs.
"I never thought he could beat Secretariat, but I knew he was a pretty good sprinter," said Onion's skilled trainer, Allen Jerkens. By the time Onion had finished his day's work, Jerkens was clearly up to old tricks. Race fans suddenly were recalling the three occasions he sent sprinter Beau Purple against champion Kelso. In each race Beau Purple took the lead at the start and held on to win.
Onion was one of only four horses that dared to face Secretariat, and even the record-breaking crowd was a disappointment, perhaps because prerace reports trumpeted what a huge crowd there would be. Some estimated it might reach 40,000, and that was plenty to frighten many into staying home. Not to be overlooked were the inroads of the state's Off-Track Betting office in nearby Schenectady, an invitation to take it all in for free on TV.
Until the starting gate opened, the whole show belonged to pretty Penny and her glamour colt. As Mrs. Tweedy took her seat in the clubhouse boxes, few thought it likely that Secretariat would lose. One who did was a trainer who noted that Secretariat's last workout, a half mile in an unimpressive :48⅕ was also on a dull surface. If he handled himself the same way in this race, he could be in for trouble.
Trouble was just what he got. Possibly some of it occurred because Secretariat failed to "fire" on his own instinct, but the rest simply has to be attributed to Turcotte, who gave the colt the added burden of doing virtually all of his serious running on the rail where the going was doubly deep. As the horses waited for the start, Secretariat seemed to show his old determination as he drove forward and banged his head against the gate, but he was never his competitive self once the race began. Going up the backstretch, Onion was held well out from the rail by Jockey Jacinto Vasquez while Secretariat remained inside, displaying none of his usual drive. Turning for home, the horses were briefly head and head, but with Secretariat plowing along on the deep inside it was not a match for long. Leaving the 16th pole, Onion, who carried 119 pounds as did Secretariat, drew away to win. It was the first stakes victory of his career and only the fourth official defeat for the Triple Crown champion in 17 starts.
Both Laurin and Turcotte felt that Secretariat had not handled the track well. The trainer thought that his rider should have gone to the outside before the final turn. Turcotte defended himself by pointing out that Vasquez took Onion so wide most of the trip that Secretariat was left with only the inside route.
"Whatever it was, we'll stick to the planned schedule and hope he comes back," said Laurin. Mrs. Tweedy added, as if making a discovery, "Now we know nothing is certain in racing. I wonder where that man from Marlboro is...?"
The man, Jack Landry, had said earlier, "If Secretariat loses, you'll see one dead man lying in the middle of the track—me." As dusk fell on Saratoga, either the track's harrows had neatly buried Landry or he had ridden resolutely back to Marlboro Country.
Before the race, Saratoga had been enlivened by Secretariat's presence and the anticipation of his appearance in the Whitney. He had wowed them at Churchill Downs, at Pimlico, at Belmont and, most recently, at Chicago's Arlington Park. But at Saratoga, where sophisticated horsemen have grown accustomed to the sight of all the great ones and their owners during 106 years of the best racing in America, it remained for this handsome and confident animal to stand the town on its gossipy ear. "He isn't a horse," said one spectator. "He's a cult."
Bunting of Meadow Stable blue and white flew on Broadway. The entrance to Siro's Steak House across from the track was guarded by cast-iron jockeys painted in the now familiar Triple Crown colors. Pinkertons were on duty around the clock at Barn 24 where Secretariat and Riva Ridge enjoyed togetherness in Stalls 10 and 11. When the big horse went to the main track in the mornings, 2,000 people turned up just to see him gallop once around, and a record 5,000 were on hand at 7 a.m. last Wednesday to see him work a half mile under wraps. The only critics in sight were those questioning the ambitious summer and fall schedule the Meadow Stable braintrust had mapped out for their willing runner. "Counting the Whitney, it will be four races in two months," said Mrs. Tweedy. "Sounds overambitious, and it may be. Who knows?"
Some who thought they knew were most of the members of the $6,080,000 Secretariat syndicate who are paying $190,000 a share for his lifetime breeding rights. They would have been immensely pleased if he had been retired the instant he crossed the Belmont Stakes finish line to become the ninth Triple Crown winner.
Two of Secretariat's upcoming track dates are perfectly in line with standard programming for any 3-year-old champion. One is next week's Travers and the other is the traditional Woodward on Sept. 29. In between these two classics Secretariat will help initiate a new phase of thoroughbred racing in the Big Apple when, for $250,000, he will engage in the mile-and-an-eighth exhibition "race" against Riva Ridge. It is that race that has prompted more than a few traditionalists to take another look at Penny and wonder, "Has she become star-struck? Or money-crazy?"
The Marilyn Monroe program for Secretariat was launched in June as the brainchild of Landry, a native of Saratoga who now labors under the title of group vice president and director of marketing for Philip Morris, U.S.A. "I fell in love with him when I saw the Sanford last August in Saratoga," he said recently. "After the Belmont, the idea for a match race really got to me. I think the timing was right, for Mrs. Tweedy truly wants to do things that are good for racing—she proved it by taking Secretariat to Chicago. NYRA President Jack Krumpe indicated that it was time to bring major commercialism into racing."
Two hundred miles upstate, Krumpe, an energetic former Dartmouth athlete, sat in his Saratoga office and agreed. "Yes, the special race was Landry's idea. I went to the NYRA trustees to recommend that commercialization of racing for substantial amounts of money would be good if it could go on national television. The key was Secretariat and his participation. This is the sort of imaginative marketing racing needs, particularly in New York. Racing here is in desperate shape. We're dying. If we don't do something with bold imagination, we might soon really be dead." The illness has been brought on largely by the state's Off-Track Betting Corp. In the first two years OTB operated, the daily attendance at the New York City tracks, Belmont and Aqueduct, dropped 24% and the average handle was down 14%.
Not far from Krumpe's office Mrs. Tweedy sat in her clubhouse box. "This horse has created a tremendous amount of non-race-fan interest," she said. "As I see it, a purse from outside sources has been offered. If properly done, this race can help the sport and it is a worthy thing to participate in. As for my being money-crazy, that is crazy. My father's estate will owe the Internal Revenue Service around $12 million in taxes on Oct. 3rd. Of course we can pay part of it and get an extension, but we are naturally interested in income. That is one of the reasons we just syndicated Riva Ridge for $5,120,000. But the Marlboro Cup purse won't come to us. My father's heirs will select a dozen or more charities to receive a portion of the $250,000."
Not far from where Mrs. Tweedy sat, Laurin climbed out of his Mercedes in front of Barn 24. "I had nothing to do with the match race," said the dapper, usually cheerful French Canadian. "If the racing secretaries picked Riva Ridge, who am I to say he isn't the best handicap horse around? The only hitch there is that if it comes up slop or mud, this is one time Riva will have to run, because of our TV commitment. I know he won't run his best on an off-track, but that's the way it must be."
The determination of how it must be was a group effort. Marlboro offered $200,000 toward the purse. The NYRA added another $50,000, which will most likely come from the more than $100,000 that CBS is paying the NYRA to televise the four Secretariat races. In addition to the Whitney, the Marlboro Cup and the Woodward, viewers will see The Jockey Club Gold Cup on Oct. 27.
After Secretariat was locked in, the question of a legitimate rival for a true match race had to be solved. NYRA Racing Secretary Kenny Noe was called on, along with Ken Lennox of Monmouth Park and Jimmy Kilroe of Santa Anita. All three selected Riva Ridge.
The heavy schedule of traditional events plus the match race has left a number of syndicate members nervous indeed. Some of them say that things have already been overdone. Secretariat is now partially in the hands of the William Morris Agency. Already in the works are a painting by famed equine artist Richard Stone Reeves from which 750 lithographs will be made to sell at $350 each, and a varied assortment of silver ingots, medallions and posters.
In the weeks before the Whitney, Secretariat very nearly needed an agent as his popularity grew daily. Mrs. Tweedy refused to sell a share of the syndicate for $450,000. At least one service to him for 1974 was being negotiated for $100,000. But after his loss to Onion it is unlikely that Secretariat can still command the following the cigarette manufacturers, television and the New York racing officials presumed he would. Now the question of whether the demanding schedule his owner has set for him is realistic has become more pressing. Only if Secretariat returns to his Triple Crown form will Meadow Stable, the syndicate and the folks from Marlboro Country be left sitting tall in the saddle.
...OTHER YEARS, OTHER GUYS AND DOLLS
Distinguished horses with distinctive owners are a Saratoga tradition. Arrayed alongside their racing colors are some of the spa's most notable notables
The granddaddy of all the Whitneys and of U.S. racing was mustachioed W.C. His Goldsmith won the first Saratoga Special.
A.G. Vanderbilt is The Jockey Club's maverick. He daringly shed his coat on opening day of this season.
George Widener, turf patron and all-night dancer at the spa', casinos, gave a cup to Samuel Riddle, owner of Man o' War.
Zelda Fitzgerald? Not in a Saratoga box! This is Isabel Sloane, who was famed for her bridge parties.
Llangollen Farm's Liz Tippett (she tested for Scarlett) talks to C. V. Whitney, heir to W.C.'s colors.
Jock Whitney, one of Mrs. Tippett's three exes (he was a GWTW backer) is the co-owner of Greentree Stable.
Warren Wright made dough in baking powder, built Calumet Farm, His Bull Lea sired Triple Crown winner Citation.
Elizabeth Arden often personally applied her lotions to ailing horses. The formula worked; she won many Saratoga stakes.