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.
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 6� 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 :48[1/5], 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.