The Unbeatable Horse

How many times have you heard the expression, “No one would have beaten him today?” Throughout history, there have been numerous horses who, for one or two races, turned in performances so extraordinary, you can’t imagine anyone beating them. Often, these horses were meant for great things, but were hampered by a variety of problems, such as unsoundness, breathing problems, mental issues etc. When everything came together perfectly, however, that potential greatness surfaced, and pity anyone who happened to cross paths with them on that day.

To continue our celebration of Secretariat’s 35th anniversary, I am going to relay the story (long again, sorry) of one of those horses, and perhaps it will explain why even Big Red couldn’t beat him.

That horse is Prove Out, and the perfect storm that developed on Sept. 29, 1973 was made up of two elements that came together at the exact same time. One of those elements was Prove Out’s greatness that surfaced on that day, thanks to the remarkable training of Allen Jerkens, who had already brought down the mighty Secretariat with Onion, a hard-knocking, fast horse who did not come close to possessing the raw talent and brilliance of Prove Out. The second element was the poor decision by trainer Lucien Laurin and owner Penny Tweedy to run Secretariat in the Woodward, a race in which he was not intended to run and was totally unprepared for.

First, let’s look at Secretariat. As everyone is well aware, Big Red was incubating a virus when he was defeated by Onion in the Whitney. The stress of competition brought it to a head and the colt came out of the race with a fever. His appetite declined and he acted sluggish for several days, and there was no choice but to skip the Travers. You have to remember, this is a horse who worked a mile for the Whitney in the mud in 1:34 4/5 after splits of :57 2/5, 1:09 1/5, and 1:21 3/5. His mile time was a track record at Saratoga, as was his 1 1/8-mile gallop-out in 1:47 4/5. The gallop-out time was a full second and two-fifths faster than the final time of the Whitney.

Prior to the Whitney, the Philip Morris Corporation proposed a $250,000 match race between Secretariat and his stablemate Riva Ridge, winner of the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes who had set a world record for 1 3/16 miles in the Brooklyn Handicap on July 4. The race, which was the brainchild of Philip Morris marketing director Jack Landry, would be called the Marlboro Cup and was scheduled for Sept. 15.

But some took exception to the race, which would be nothing more than major payday for Meadow Stable. Most people, however, were thrilled at the prospect of seeing the two Kentucky Derby winners meet. This would be Riva Ridge’s chance to knock off the horse in whose shadow he had existed for almost a year. But when Riva Ridge was upset by a 56-1 shot named Wichita Oil in an allowance race on the grass on Aug. 1, it took a good deal of interest out of the match race. No one could understand why he had been put on the grass at that point. Then, when Secretariat was defeated in the Whitney three days later, the race had pretty much lost its luster. Philip Morris had to change tactics and made the race an open invitation.

Riva Ridge rebounded from his defeat to win an allowance race on Aug. 21, just barely holding on to defeat Halo by a half-length. But the entire Marlboro Cup hinged on whether Secretariat could make it back in time. And no one knew how sharp he’d be coming off an illness and a six-week layoff. Secretariat worked well, but needed a stiff drill three days before the race to indicate he was ready to tackle the likes of Riva Ridge, Key to the Mint, Cougar II, Kennedy Road, Travers winner Annihilate “Em, and his Whitney nemesis Onion.

Big Red carried so much muscle he needed to work fast before a race to get sharp, both mentally and physically. Even as a youngster, he was a big, fat baby who had a tendency to get lazy. When Secretariat worked five furlongs in :57 flat, going out six furlongs in 1:08 4/5, Laurin knew he was ready.

History shows that Secretariat defeated Riva Ridge by 3 1/2 lengths, and his time of 1:45 2/5 established a new world record. He now looked invincible again.

Meanwhile, far beyond all the hoopla, Allen Jerkens was quietly working on his new acquisition, Prove Out, a regally bred colt whom he had purchased privately from King Ranch for Jack Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm. Prove Out was born for greatness, being by the classic sire Graustark, out of Equal Venture, a granddaughter of Equipoise who had already produced major stakes winners Heartland and Saidam.

But Prove Out had bad ankles and other problems, and his trainer William J. “Buddy” Hirsch could do little with him. By August of his 4-year-old year, he had won only four races (a maiden and three allowance races) in 27 career starts. The longest distance he’d ever won at was 1 1/16 miles, and that came in his maiden victory.

But Jerkens had his eye on Prove Out for a while, recalling the promise he had shown at Santa Anita at the end of his 3-year-old campaign. Jerkens and Hirsch were good friends, and one day Hirsch approached Jerkens and said, “I don’t want you to think I’m hustling you or anything, but that horse I saw you looking at is coming up for sale. He’s a little raunchy and Mr. Kleberg (King Ranch owner Robert Kleberg) is mad at him and wants to sell him.”

Jerkens knew Prove Out came from families that were trained hard and felt he might respond to hard training, much like Beau Purple, who began Jerkens’ legendary role as “The Giant Killer” by upsetting five-time Horse of the Year Kelso on three occasions.

Jerkens had just sold Dreyfus’ Widener Handicap winner Vertee for a nice profit, and decided to take a chance on Prove Out, buying him for Dreyfus for $65,000. He began by concentrating on the colt’s ankles, tubbing them and poulticing them. He used a eucalyptus vaporizer to clear up his sinuses and applied linament to his shoulders. In short, he did everything he could to build him back up and alleviate any aches and pains that may have been bothering him.

Prove Out also had a bad habit of lugging in, so Jerkens put his best exercise rider, Jimmy Rhoades, on him to try to teach him to keep a straight course. Two weeks after getting him, Jerkens ran him in a seven-furlong allowance race at Saratoga on Aug. 24. To prevent him from lugging in, he equipped the colt with a burr and put an inside cup on his blinker. Prove Out responded by defeating the quick-footed Cutlass and the 3-5 favorite Forego by 6 1/2 lengths in a track-record 1:21 flat.

But when Jerkens dropped Prove Out back to six furlongs in another allowance race on Sept. 1 at Belmont, he was taken too far off the pace and just missed catching Dr. Fager’s full brother Highbinder by a head in 1:09 4/5. Jerkens ran him right back nine days later in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race and Prove Out equaled the track record of 1:40 2/5, beating Halo by 5 1/2 lengths.

The nine-furlong Chesapeake Handicap at Bowie on Sept. 22 looked like an easy spot for the colt’s first stakes victory. He was in with only 111 pounds and was sent off as the 9-5 favorite. But all of Jerkens’ work seemed for naught when Prove Out lugged in again and hit the rail before retreating to a seventh-place finish.

Back in the Secretariat camp, Laurin and Tweedy had decided to point Secretariat to the Man o’ War Stakes on the grass on Oct. 8 and run Riva Ridge in the mile and a half Woodward Stakes. Secretariat had his first work on the turf, breezing a half-mile in :48 around the dogs and then turned in a slow, easy mile in 1:38. The Woodward was only two weeks after the Marlboro Cup, and after being drilled hard to make that race and then setting a new world record, the Woodward was hardly the place for Secretariat to come right back and stretch out from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/2 miles. If the term “bounce” existed back then, Secretariat was a prime candidate to bounce.

When the weather forecast called for rain on Woodward day, Laurin and Tweedy decided to enter both Riva Ridge and Secretariat. If the track was fast, Riva Ridge would run, but if it came up sloppy, which Riva Ridge detested, they would substitute Secretariat. The track did come up sloppy and Riva Ridge was scratched, leaving Secretariat to go 1 1/2 miles on an off track only two weeks after breaking a world record and having to go into the race off two slow works on the grass. It was a recipe for disaster.

Jerkens, meanwhile, was angry and disappointed over Prove Out’s performance at Bowie. In the morning, he equipped the colt with a severe run-out bit and turned it the opposite way. The bit had prongs that hit the side of the jaw, and Jerkens used it in the hope that during the race the burr would remind the horse of that bit hitting the side of his mouth and he would respond to it.

Jerkens decided to take a shot and run Prove Out in the weight-for-age Woodward, even though he’d have to pick up 15 pounds off the Chesapeake run the week before, concede seven pounds to Secretariat, and stretch out from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/2 miles. It also would mark Prove Out’s fifth start in five weeks since coming to Jerkens, who felt if the track came up fast and Secretariat should scratch then someone had a shot to get lucky.

But it didn’t come up fast and Secretariat didn’t scratch. The day of the race, Jerkens and Dreyfus were hanging out in the picnic area behind the grandstand when they showed a replay of Secretariat’s Marlboro Cup on the closed circuit TV monitors. After watching Big Red draw off from the field, Jerkens turned to Dreyfus and said, “What the hell are we doing in this race?”

Jerkens had given Prove Out several three-mile gallops to build up his stamina and removed the blinkers for the race, feeling he didn’t need them going a mile and a half.

Because of space I won’t go into the running of the race other than to say the 1-5 Secretariat took over the lead from the 16-1 Prove Out shortly after heading into the backstretch and was able to slow the pace down. Around the far turn, with Big Red winging out there by two lengths, the crowd waited for the explosion that was sure to come. Secretariat had picked up the pace with a :24 flat quarter, with Prove Out and Cougar II lapped on each other. After another testing quarter in :24 2/5, Cougar II was done, but Prove Out wouldn’t go away. To the amazement of everyone, he came charging back along the inside and just blew right on by Secretariat.

Despite never even coming close to running this far, Prove Out came home his final quarter in a spectacular :24 flat, drawing off to a 4 1/2-length victory. Over a sloppy track that was not playing fast at all, Prove Out stopped the teletimer in 2:25 4/5, which still to this day is the second-fastest mile and a half ever run at Belmont. Only Secretariat’s out-of-this world Belmont performance was faster. Another unbelievable aspect of Prove Out’s performance was his running each of his last three quarters in :24 flat, a feat unheard of at that distance.

Regardless of what cynics may say, Secretariat did not lose the Woodward. Prove Out won the Woodward, and I can’t think of any horse who would have beaten him that day. Although everything was against Secretariat, he still ran the mile and a half in 2:26 3/5, which would have equaled Gallant Man’s previous track record before Big Red shattered it in the Belmont Stakes.

Remarkably, Secretariat would come back only nine days later and set a new course record of 2:24 4/5 in winning the Man o’War Stakes by five lengths in his grass debut, defeating the top-class Tentam and Big Spruce.

Prove Out wasn’t done with his assault on Meadow Stable superstars. For the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, Jerkens breezed Prove Out a pair of slow miles, then breezed him three furlongs in :39 the Sunday before the race. The following morning, Prove Out worked a mile and a half in 2:39 3/5 with a final half in :49 1/5. Three days later, on the Thursday before the race, he galloped a mile and a half, after which he broke off into a dead run for a half-mile, which was timed in :47 2/5. He then galloped out an additional furlong in :12 3/5. There certainly was never anything conventional about Allen Jerkens.

With all this bottom and sharpness in him, Prove Out went head and head with Riva Ridge in the Gold Cup through a seemingly suicidal half in :47 2/5. After six furlongs, Riva Ridge was spent, but Prove Out kept right on going. He covered the mile in a brutal 1:37 1/5 with half of the race still to be run. By comparison, Damascus ran his mile in the 1967 Gold Cup in 1:40 1/5. Arts and Letters went his mile in 1:40 4/5 in 1969. When Kelso set his track and American record in the 1964 Gold Cup, he went his mile in 1:38 2/5.

So brutal was the pace that Riva Ridge would be beaten more than 33 lengths. When the distance-loving Loud came charging up to challenge nearing the quarter pole, Prove Out looked like he was cooked, especially when he veered in and bounced off the rail. But, again, to the shock of everyone, he shifted to another gear and spurted away from Loud. Somehow he managed to close his final quarter in an incredible :24 4/5, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. His time was 3:20 flat, and to this day only Kelso has run a faster two miles in this country (3:19 1/5 and 3:19 4/5).

In two races, Prove Out had demonstrated every aspect of greatness – speed, stamina, courage, fast-closing fractions, and class, defeating three future Hall of Famers – Secretariat, Riva Ridge, and Cougar II. By destroying Forego earlier, it means he defeated four Hall of Famers in three different races at three different distances in the span of two months.

Prove Out showed his brilliance again the following spring, winning the 1 1/4-mile Grey Lag Handicap by six lengths in a swift 2:00 1/5. But physical problems again caught up with him and he was retired to Gainesway Farm after three straight defeats.

Prove Out will not be remembered as a great horse, and in fact is only remembered at all because of his upset of Secretariat. But he should serve as a reminder that greatness can emerge anytime, anywhere, and from anyone. Make no mistake about it, Secretariat was beaten in the Woodward by a great horse who, on that day, may very well have been unbeatable.



 

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