The resemblance to Marlboro country seemed less than striking, and for a while the reaction was an uncertain "So what?" In a stroke of what passes for Madison Avenue genius, the cigarette people announced they had discovered that horses did other things than climb the Grand Tetons—like race—and were putting in with the New York Racing Association to stage a $250,000 showdown between stablemates Secretariat and Riva Ridge at Belmont Park. Snickers rose when first Riva Ridge and then Secretariat was beaten at Saratoga. What had seemed merely a meaningless interruption of Belmont's traditional array of fall stakes was looking more and more like a promotion campaign that would be saddled up but could peter out before the clubhouse turn.
But never sell a good adman short. The race was opened to five other very special horses, the purse structure was rearranged for the mile-and-an-eighth handicap, Secretariat gradually recovered from the vapors that apparently rendered him hors de combat in the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga and suddenly New Yorkers had themselves a happening: seven runners who among them had won $4,539,335 and 63 stakes races. Coming, as it did, on the same day as the traditional $100,000 Beldame Handicap, the occasion was further dressed up by the NYRA, which offered total purses of $451,800 for the nine-race card—the richest afternoon in thoroughbred history. Some thought it might also have been the best.
First, Desert Vixen, the country's 3-year-old filly champion, laid the groundwork for a spectacular hour of sport by smothering six rivals (five of them older) and tying Canonero's track record of 1:46[1/5] for the nine furlongs as she won the Beldame by more than eight lengths. Half an hour later the boys took to the stage, and now it was Secretariat's turn to inform the world that the Saratoga affair had been a horrible mistake and that he was indeed the horse of the year.
The Triple Crown champion did it all perfectly on cue, and the match race that was laughed at in August became one to be remembered in September. At the end of Saturday's extravaganza that had a crowd of 48,023 roaring from flag fall to finish, there were the blue and white blocked silks of Meadow Stable all alone. Back to his record-breaking Belmont Stakes form, Secretariat became racing's 13th millionaire (and only the second one to achieve this status as a 3-year-old), soundly trouncing Riva Ridge by 3� lengths. And, just as he had set a record in the Belmont, he did it again in the Marlboro Cup, covering the distance in 1:45[2/5]. It was a remarkable performance by a colt who was considered, even by his own people, to be at least a week away from peak form, and by legions of rival horsemen as possibly overrated. The 3-year-old beat the best older horses under true handicap conditions, and the new believers fell obediently into line.
Secretariat's achievement is astonishing because quite a few horsemen thought him to be subpar following his bout with the flu, an illness that still has some people confused. Trainer Lucien Laurin maintained that Secretariat's temperature developed two days after the Whitney, which was reason enough to scratch him from the Travers two weeks later. Owner Penny Tweedy, however, confessed that Secretariat had run a temperature on and off for a week before the Whitney. Taking the owner's word for it, the champ should never have been allowed to go out and get beaten by Onion.
During the weeks in which Secretariat was trying to recover in time for the Marlboro Cup, Laurin was forced to play catch-up as his critics peered skeptically over his shoulder. "It hasn't been easy," said Lucien. "I could have used another week. I know I've got the two best horses; whether either wins is another question. I do know that if Secretariat were coming up to this race as well as Riva Ridge has, they could put 135 pounds on him and I wouldn't be worried."
They only put 124 pounds on Secretariat—three pounds over scale weight for a 3-year-old in September. Riva came in with 127 pounds, Cougar and Key to the Mint at 126, Kennedy Road at 121 and long shots Onion and Annihilate 'Em both at 116.
After an all-night rain, the sun and wind dried out the track to the point where it was wet-fast, as they say in racing circles. Riva Ridge, who would have been scratched had the track come up truly off, may have disliked the surface more than most, but by midday Laurin had decided definitely to start him, more, as it turned out, to play the role of an interested rabbit than anything else. Trainer Charlie Whittingham, who sent out both Cougar and Kennedy Road, was satisfied they would run creditably, but Mary Florsheim Jones, owner of Cougar, was not nearly so sanguine. "I think Cougar has had it," she said. "He hates anything but real fast." As is well, known, what Cougar really likes is a turf course at a longer distance. The chances for Key to the Mint presumably would be helped by track conditions. Onion and Annihilate 'Em were given no real chance to win.
Strategy for the race seemed to dictate that Onion and Kennedy Road would attempt to take the lead and hope for the best. Laurin was going to make sure that Riva Ridge went with either or both of them and his orders to Jockey Eddie Maple were explicit: do not let anything get away from you to steal it. Nothing did. Although Kennedy Road broke first from the gate, it was Onion who got the early lead, with Maple on Riva Ridge hugging him all the way. As pigeons flew out of the way—at about 60 miles per hour to the horses' 40—Jockey Ron Turcotte had Secretariat back in fifth place, but never far out of it. When the field went into the far turn it was clear that Turcotte had plenty of horse under him and was waiting to deal the crucial blow.
Riva took over from Onion, but here came Secretariat. Taking no chances of being caught along the rail by tiring horses, Turcotte ran well outside his rivals. He started a long, gradual move that took him to a head-and-head confrontation with Riva Ridge at the top of the stretch and put him into a clear lead just after the pair had passed the three-sixteenth pole. From there on it was all gravy. Riva Ridge, who had run well himself on a track he did not fancy, was still two lengths ahead of the fast-closing Californian, Cougar, who had nearly seven lengths on fourth-place Onion. Behind the latter came Annihilate 'Em, Kennedy Road and Key to the Mint. The time, nearly a second faster than Desert Vixen's record in the previous race, had been equaled only by Tentam on the turf at Saratoga and never anywhere before on a dirt track. However, this is not a common competitive distance for top older horses.