Almost from the start Prove Out, a chestnut son of Graustark out of a Bold Venture mare, had posed problems for his owner-breeder, the King Ranch's Bob Kleberg, and Trainer Buddy Hirsch. At two he won only one of seven starts. Four wins in 16 races at three was not much better. By mid-August this summer at Saratoga, with no wins in nine races as a 4-year-old, even as devoted an owner as Kleberg was ready to toss in his saddle cloth. "I just couldn't do anything right with this colt," said Hirsch, "and I finally persuaded Mr. Kleberg that we should get rid of him. I got a man willing to pay $65,000, but I warned the boss, 'This is a dangerous man to sell a horse to; he's apt to jump up and make anyone look bad.' "
Prophetic words. The dangerous man was Allen Jerkens, trainer for Jack Dreyfus. Only a week before the transaction for Prove Out, Jerkens had sent out the lightly regarded Onion to register that stunning setback to Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes. Last week at Belmont Park, Jerkens did it again and in the process convinced innumerable people that if he does not deserve to be called the best horse trainer in the United States, he at least has two-third rights to Secretariat's trainer, Lucien Laurin. A few more victories like Prove Out's over Secretariat in the mile-and-a-half Woodward and Jerkens will own Laurin outright—plus his farm in South Carolina and his house in Key Largo.
The victory by the only nonstakes winner in the select Woodward field of five ranks as even more startling than Onion's triumph at Saratoga, or any of the three upsets Jerkens pulled off a few years back with Beau Purple over champion Kelso. In this weight-for-age classic Prove Out, a 16-to-1 shot, had to give 3-year-old Secretariat seven pounds before he could give him a 4½-length whipping. Secretariat was an ailing colt in the Whitney, but for the Woodward Trainer Laurin pronounced him "in perfect condition to run the race of his life." And when excuses were made later (as they always are when a champion is upset), there could be no justification for pointing the finger at Secretariat's condition. He has now lost two of his three races against older horses, which may necessitate some rewording of his title "Horse of the Century." Maybe just the Ninth Triple Crown Winner is sufficient.
One of the reasons there was only a small crowd of 32,117 at Belmont was the uncertainty of Secretariat's appearance. Laurin entered him, along with stablemate Riva Ridge, but after their one-two finish in the recent Marlboro Cup he said he would not run them against one another again. When the track came up sloppy, out went Riva, along with West Coast Scout. That left only four to tackle Secretariat, and most trainers, including Jerkens, did not give themselves much of a shot.
"I suppose we're running," said Phil Johnson, who trains Amen 2nd, "for the good of the game—and a piece of the purse." Said Charlie Whittingham, who had brought Cougar 2nd east from California to finish third in the Marlboro: "Cougar probably won't run his best in the slop, but if we win we look good. If we lose, I've lost before and know what it feels like."
After taking over Prove Out's training in August, Jerkens sent the King Ranch castoff to the post four times and won twice. But there were problems. Racing in blinkers, the grandson of Ribot seemed a perpetual "weaver." In the Chesapeake Handicap at Bowie just a week before the Woodward, for instance, he killed off any chance he might have had by hitting the rail. So for the Woodward Jerkens decided to make a couple of changes. First, he replaced Jockey Eddie Maple with New York's leading stakes-winning rider, Jorge Velasquez. And he removed the blinkers. "In a long race," explained Jerkens, "horses find it more difficult to settle down when they have blinkers on."
Perhaps it was the increased visibility, but Prove Out certainly settled down. Just as Onion had in the Whitney, Prove Out took the lead as soon as the gates were sprung. Ron Turcotte, aboard Secretariat, went right after him and the 20th running of the Woodward was, from this point on, a two-horse contest. Before it was over it was not even that.
Turcotte may not have been aware of the slow pace, but slow it was. Prove Out dawdled his way through a snaillike first half. "I was just trying to save my horse," said Velasquez later. "I saw that big choochoo train beside me and I thought he'd win easy. I slowed it up only to save my horse for the end and maybe get second money."
Heading up the backstretch, Turcotte did something about his situation—but apparently not enough. He opened up two lengths on Prove Out, and as the crowd let out an appreciative roar in expectation of the rout that was about to unfold, Secretariat's victory seemed assured. "The slow pace didn't matter," Turcotte insisted upon dismounting. "He was going pretty good at that point and I wasn't worried." It was only after Secretariat had coasted through six furlongs in 1:13[2/5] (in the Belmont Stakes he had covered the distance in 1:09[4/5]) on his way to a mile and a quarter in 2:01⅘ that Secretariat's followers realized trouble was ahead—and behind. "At the three-eighths pole," said Turcotte, "I wanted my horse to move out from the rail and get with it, but the old response just wasn't there."
Velasquez had been playing it cool. Still saving ground on the deeper inside, he shot Prove Out up to challenge Secretariat as the pair of them headed past the quarter pole. "When I saw Ron whipping the choochoo train I thought for the first time maybe I had a shot. I went to the whip, too. But instead of the choochoo taking off and running away from me, it was my horse who took off. He just kept on running."
So he did. By the eighth pole Prove Out had more than a length lead, and he extended it to nearly five lengths at the end, crossing the line in the extremely good time of 2:25[4/5]. A year ago the distance had taken 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint 2:28[2/5] to run. The beaten Secretariat finished more than 2½ seconds behind his world record, set in the Belmont on the same track.
As he accepted congratulations—including those from Prove Out's former trainer, Hirsch—about all the reserved Jerkens would say was, "I still can't believe it. It just doesn't seem real." Another one who could not quite believe it, perhaps because it was so real, was Laurin. "Don't let anyone tell you that the slow pace didn't matter," he said. "Of course it did. The pace did it. Absolutely. After those first two slow quarters Ron shouldn't have just opened up two lengths on the backstretch. This colt likes to run and he was ready to run. He should have been allowed to open up five or six lengths—or even more—and then he would have made those other horses come and run at him. He still might have been beaten, but he would have had a much better chance of winning."
Secretariat, who carried only 119 pounds in the Woodward to 126 on Prove Out and the other older males, had worked in the days before the race on Belmont's turf course and may start next in the Man o' War coming up. At the moment, that seems safer for him than the Washington, D.C. International at Laurel on Nov. 10. For one thing, Washington may sound like a dangerous word to Laurin: the only three races Secretariat has lost this year—the Wood, Whitney and Woodward—all, eerily, begin with the letter W.