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.



Leave a Comment:


Great story Steve. Thanks for relaying it to us.

04 Aug 2008 10:15 AM

Thank you, Mr. Steve Haskin, for another great memory!  I hate to hear from people that Secretariat wasn't so-called as great as anyone thought just because he was beaten by Onion and Prove Out that year, yet you just showed how much Prove Out truly was a champion in and of himself.  That must have been one of the best years in horse racing history with all the great horses developing all throughout the year and continuing to dominate all the ranks through the years afterwards.  Horses like Secretariat, Forego, Cougar II, Prove Out, and many more of that early part of the 1970s will forever be remembered as a good quality group of competitors.

04 Aug 2008 10:23 AM

Thank you, Steve, for reminding of us of the true greatness of the horses of that era.  Jerkens really embellished his reputation with Prove Out.  I was at Bowie for the Chesapeake and couldn't believe it when Prove Out lugged in and hit the rail - hard.  Then, to come back and win those races you have documented so well was just amazing.  I remember thinking to never, ever throw out a Jerkens horse when the money is down.  Great story.

04 Aug 2008 10:30 AM
Ernie Munick

“No one would have beaten him today”

Russ Harris, the greatest newspaper handicapper of all time, wrote that about General Assembly after the '79 Travers, Bid's year.

The Secretariats always loved off tracks.

04 Aug 2008 10:59 AM

they do not make horses like that anymore nor do they make horsemen like that either.  just goes to show that the horse of yesterday is and was stronger than the highpriced babies of today.  thanks for a great memory

04 Aug 2008 11:05 AM

Wonderful history lesson, always beautifully written.

04 Aug 2008 11:27 AM

Mr. Jerkins was a wizard or a giant killer or both. Note that…”Jerkens had given Prove Out several three-mile gallops to build up his stamina” shoot today’s horses don’t go three miles in a week. I also seem to recall that the NYRA had mentioned that if Riva Ridge faced Big Red it would be a non-wagering event. What followed was a panel of North American racing secretaries lining up a select field of older horses to include Riva Ridge, and the big west coast horses of Cougar and Kennedy Road. Anyway that is how I recall the event of inaugural Marlboro Cup. the 70's were more than just fun.

04 Aug 2008 11:57 AM
Mike S

PROVE OUT beat FOREGO, CUTLASS, HALO, RIVA RIDGE, SECRETARIAT and COUGAR II, so he was clearly a very good horse. During that two month period in 1973 PROVE OUT was as good as a horse can get!

COUGAR II was finished in the Woodward Stakes that year, as it was his last of 50 career races, he was 7 years old, and the track was off (which he hated). But in the Marlboro Cup he was an excellent third. I always say that "COUGAR was an old man by the time he faced SECRETARIAT" and I think that people don't realize how great COUGAR as a result of this. Had a 5 year old, or a 6 year old COUGAR faced SECRETARIAT I'm not saying he would have won, but he surely would have been a lot closer, that's for sure. But a 7 year old, at the end of his career, on a track he didn't like, was not going to be competitive. COUGAR II was a great horse, no doubt, and it seems, now, that he is not widely remembered as such. I try to remind people every chance I get.

04 Aug 2008 1:10 PM
Rebs Policy

Thank You Mr. Haskin for an always welcome visit to racing's most recent "Golden Age." I remember watching Prove Out run at SA as a 3YO. He was indeed an eyeful.

I have just a minor correction for you:

"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 for the first time in his career."

Riva Ridge had raced on the grass the previous year in the 1972 Washington D.C. International that was won by Droll Role. I remember that race vividly as it was marred by two horses falling, Boreen & Jumbo Jet, thankfully without injury. Riva was sliding all over the turf that day and having a helluva time trying to stay with Belle Geste's rather taxing pace on the treacherous course.

Other than that tiny fact change, it is always a pleasure to read your musings on racing's illustrious history. Thanks again. ;~)

Every Good Wish,


04 Aug 2008 1:28 PM

Steve, can your brain be downloaded?

04 Aug 2008 1:58 PM

Wonderful story, beautifully written! What a reminder of just how good Secretariat was, and how good the other top horses of his time were. Stamina, speed, they had it all! Would any of today's runners have a chance against that bunch? I doubt it.

04 Aug 2008 2:00 PM

Tough horses. Tough trainers, and yes the 70's were more fun.  Maybe that's why I'm often reading about the horses of yesterday than the results of today.  Some performance or "horse connection" will send me to my copy of "Champions."  Boy! Did those horses run.  Thanks, Steve, again for the history of it all.

04 Aug 2008 2:15 PM

Mike S.: I agree with you about Cougar II. He is one of my all time favorite racehorses. I remember how excited I was when I heard he was going to run against Secretariat and Riva Ridge. He tried really hard but just couldn't get to them. Maybe he just didn't like those East Coast tracks.

Steve: As always, a wonderful story. Thanks for the memories.

04 Aug 2008 2:40 PM

Great article, Steve.  While you're talking about unbeatable horses, how about Zenyatta's race on Thursday?  I think I'm more excited about the distaffers this fall than the Classic division!

04 Aug 2008 2:58 PM

Remember Sinister Minister a couple of years ago, what was up with that?

04 Aug 2008 4:32 PM


I can't express enough how exciting it is to read every single one of your stories, be it a reminiscence, race recap, or simply analysis of workouts leading up to a major race.  Your fervor for the sport bursts from the pages (or screen) every time.  You are one of the greatest racing writers of all time; thank you for once again reminding us of a great story in racing history of which many of us do not remember, or never knew, the details.  There's little I love more than learning stories like this of racing's bygone days.  Thanks again!

04 Aug 2008 7:41 PM

Steve, I sure hope you never get tired of writing these great articles, cuz I never get tired of reading them-THANKS for bringing back all the great memories.  

04 Aug 2008 9:56 PM

Steve, you definitely have to write another book.

Secretariat is Big Red, what's your nickname Steve?

04 Aug 2008 10:37 PM

In my opinion, after reading about Prove Out, he is a great horse. Not a legendary hall-of-famer, but with those times and accomplishments, that is absolutely amazing.

Is this how Jerkins gained the title "The Giant Killer" from Prove Out's performance?

04 Aug 2008 11:05 PM
Matthew W

DJ you can say that again! What about the distaffers? Only three crack runners, I like them all, I've liked Ginger Punch the most, but, quite frankly, after viewing the incredible turn of foot by Zenyatta, I can see it now, Hystericalady by two at the quarter pole, Ginger Punch engeges at the 1/8 pole, beats her by that same neck--for 2nd! I that the polytrack of does that mare have the best kick since Personal Ensign!!! I've been in racing for 37 years and I haven't seen a horse go by another horse like that but maybe a couple times---I mean the 2nd filly was trucking and well clear---Zenyatta made up 2 1/2 lengths and put two of her own on her--in the matter of a few strides---she completely shadowed Big Brown's Haskell---ah, but THERE is another one, like Big Z, Big Brown looks unbeatable (to me)---that is, gived his head by his (new) jock he SO NEEDS!! I think Big Brown with G Gomez would wire The BC Classic--if they would "listen" to me and realize Brownie's a SMART horse who BALKS/SULKS at Kent's hand---Big Brown needs his head early and often--at least let him engage--otherwise he's gonna "quit" on a jock like Kent, like he did in The Belmont AS WELL as The for Zenyatta, she's unbeaten and she reminds me of Forego!! She's big, dark, and keeps on coming, what a year!! The Distaff! Ginger Punch, Hysterical Lady, Zenyatta! Big Brown! The great Curlin! Street Boss, who's sneaking up on The Sprint and my clear pick to win it....we'll have some real good horses at The Cup this year, and maybe we'll have that horse who "couldn't be beat"

04 Aug 2008 11:11 PM
Matthew W

What a great story about one of Racing's "Forgotten Great Races", I was almost fifteen and well into Racing from age twelve, rooting for The Big Cat, as Cougar II was called out here---Cougar had closed so much ground in The Marlboro Cup, the seven year old's first foray East since The Woodward two years prior, where he was (brutally) DQ'd from a five length win---he was bet hard vs Secretariat in The Gold Cup--he was a 1 1/2 TURF horse but NEVER a 1 1/2 dirt horse and he was well back throughout, Secretariat never looked like he was going to win but you're OH SO RIGHT: Prove Out was THAT HORSE--who cound not be beaten, I mean, Red was hard campained, he ran all right, just why do you run that distance if you don't have to? I saw Cougar many times, he was a handsome horse of medium stature, dark bay with a chain bridal and that beautiful long tail---he ran with his head up like a miler but he could get a distance and was simply an intelligent horse who would stop and stare at the crowd for seemingly minutes instead of going off and warming up...not a great horse, but he exuded class and was worth the price of admission...Prove Out's 1973 Jockey Club Gold Cup could be the SECOND best 1 1/2 on dirt ever run....soundly beating the guy with the BEST EVER, Racing's all-time tour de force!! Beating Secretariat by five can be questioned, but Cougar II finishing another five back in 3rd legitimizes it as the truly great race it is....

04 Aug 2008 11:31 PM

Another great history lesson!  Every detail was just fascinating!

04 Aug 2008 11:45 PM
The Deacon

Excellent article Steve, this great sport has told us that many horses throughout history, for whatever reasons get real good and are virtually unbeatable. It is what makes great conversation. I remember watching Prove Out and he was brilliant. Ruffian comes to mind as being unbeatable as well. She broke down in a match race with Foolish Pleasure before, if not for that, who knows............

05 Aug 2008 12:55 AM

we will take one just like him as that Horse was a giant killer for real...two miles in 3:20 flat is smokin folks...LLTK!!!

05 Aug 2008 1:56 AM

ps...thanks for the story, the exposure of Prove Out & the history lesson...Long Live The Dirt!!!

05 Aug 2008 2:05 AM

Someone was harping on another blog that Secretariat wasn’t so great because he lost 5 times. Intrigued, I consulted Bill Nack’s great biography, Secretariat: The Making of a Champion, in order to rebut that claim. So I already knew something about Prove Out’s accomplishment in the ‘73 Woodward. But, as usual, Steve has done an incredibly better job of putting that story in its proper historical context, and I am in awe of yet another tour-de-force by the master.

I’d just like to add a few notes to what has already been written by our guru about Prove Out’s pedigree. His sire Graustark was favored to win the 1966 Kentucky Derby since Buckpasser was injured, but his opportunity never came as he sustained a career ending coffin bone break while leading the Bluegrass Stakes. Graustark was full-brother to His Majesty, sire of Pleasant Colony.

Graustark was by Ribot, a product of Federico Tesio’s breeding genius. Ribot won all 16 of his races over a 3 year career. These included 2 wins in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in 1955 and 1956. Besides Graustark and His Majesty, Ribot also sired Preakness Champion Tom Rolfe and Belmont Champion Arts and Letters.

Prove Out’s 4th dam Masda was full sister to Man O’ War. Her daughter by Chicle, Incandescent, was Prove Out’s 3rd dam. Chicle was said to be vicious. So he was mated with a daughter of Fair Play? What on earth were they thinking? And Ribot was also a pretty mean character. Prove Out’s 2nd dam, Igual, who was by the Champion and Hall of Famer Equipoise, was the dam of Assault and Prove Out’s dam, Equal Venture, was Assault’s full sister.

Quite a distinguished family.

Prove Out’s time in that Woodward is listed by Richard Sowers in his “The Abstract Primer of American Racing” (©2004 Old Sport Publishing Company) as the 2nd fastest winning time at 12 furlongs on dirt in a major North American race in the years 1946-2003. Sadly this seems to be a redundancy to Steve’s comment that it was the 2nd fastest at Belmont Park as all 13 of the times on that list occurred at Belmont. Is that because at most other tracks 1½ mile races are around 3 turns but at Belmont Park the runners only have to deal with 2? Or is it because most tracks simply did not have races that long? The Belmont Stakes is represented 5 times, the Brooklyn Handicap 3 times, the Coaching Club American Oaks twice (Ruffian’s victory in the 1975 edition of that was timed in 2:27 4/5 ranking 12th. The Woodward, Jockey Club Gold Cup and Ladies Handicap once each.

I like to believe that records are meant to be broken, but some have the look of being immortal such as Kelso’s 3:19 1/5 in the 2 mile Jockey Club Gold Cup when he was 7. Swaps’ 2:38 1/5 in the 1 and 5/8 mile Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park in 1956. Secretariat’s 2:24 in the 1973 Belmont Stakes. No wonder we think the modern American thoroughbred is kind of wimpy. We no longer test them to their full genetic potential.

Besides the Wikipedia articles cited above and the Sowers book, I also consulted my favorite, because it’s free, pedigree source,

05 Aug 2008 2:09 AM

Wonderful story!

I am reminded of another horse that I had the pleasure of seeing run that, when he was right (which sadly wasn't often), was nearly unbeatable. His name was J.O. Tobin and watching him beat Seattle Slew at Hollywood Park is something I'll never forget.

05 Aug 2008 12:27 PM

Steve, please write a book, cataloging the wonderfully detailed stories you have.  You blend the knowledge of the sport you have with the art of tale telling.

05 Aug 2008 4:02 PM


Did you see montjeau's king george performance in 2000.Nothing would have beaten him that day.For anyone who didn't see it they can check it out on youtube.

regards ross.

05 Aug 2008 4:37 PM
Mike S

How cool it is that some people remember COUGAR II fondly! I really do think COUGAR II was a "GREAT" horse, honestly. I can't be too harsh on him for finishing 3rd in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Marlboro Cup and Woodward Stakes at the end of his 7 year old year. I mean, he was 7 years old! So at that age he had definitely lost a step. But his form at 5 and 6 was brilliant, and I think he would have done way better against a SECRETARIAT or RIVA RIDGE, at that age, than he did at the age of 7. After all, COUGAR II raced 50 times! So if he got tired at the end of his career and finished 3rd in those races I think that's just fine. He did way better than any "lesser" horses would have done.

And don't forget that at the age of 6 COUGAR II ran 1-1/16 miles in 1:39-1/5 (the 2nd fastest up to that point in history) and then, three weeks later, he won at 1-3/8 miles on turf in 2:11 (NAR), a record that stood for about 15 years!

05 Aug 2008 6:15 PM

Really enjoyed this, it read like a good book. A time when horses were sound and trainers did not make any.

05 Aug 2008 6:42 PM

There really is a story behind each and every horse.  I always knew the name Prove Out, and I assumed that he just happened to beat Big Red on an off day.  Now I finally know his facsinating saga.  So there WAS one horse who actually could and did legitimately beat the great Secretariat.  

Just imagine racing Prove Out five times in as many weeks, and working him at such long distances!  Also, the frequency with which the triple crown winner himself was raced is surprising.  Today that would be considered abusive.  I wish we could get back to those days when horse limbs were more solid so that I could enjoy watching a live race without anxiety.  Also, the way the horses of old toyed with track records and world records is just unbelievable.  How many records did Secretariat set anyway?  Derby, Preakness*, Belmont, Marlboro Cup, Man O'War, and that world record workout you mentioned.  WOW!  And he never even was hit by his jockey, who just seemed to be along for the amazing ride.  I once heard Pincay say that he thought he was going to win his first kentucy derby that day with Sham because the horse was giving it everything he had, and then along comes the big red horse to his outside just doing it so easily, and they both went on to break the record.    

Steve, it is one of my pleasures in life to sit down at a quiet time in my day and enjoy your articles.  You are the Vin Scully of horse racing.  (I wish I could find the long Lava Man article you wrote, or knew the approximate date it appeared.)

05 Aug 2008 8:00 PM

I got to see Cougar11 run at santa anita was one of the best looking horses ever had the big billowing tail and a high action but what a horse. had the misfortune to go there with a really fast horse and run into Ack Ack on his way to horse of the year.

05 Aug 2008 8:13 PM
Mike S

In all my praise for COUGAR II did I mention that he was in the money in 30 of his last 31 races, all stakes? That's an amazing feat. And just one more reason he was a GREAT horse.

05 Aug 2008 8:14 PM
Julie L.

Mike S. - how wonderful to have someone bring up the great Cougar II, he was one of my very favorites during the 70's, my bestfriend Gail was a huge fan of Ack Ack so you can just imagine how the two of us got when Cougar II and Ack Ack would face off. He was truly one of the "greats" and he sired a Kentucky Derby winner in Gato Del Sol whom I have pointed out before won the Derby from the 18 hole running wide the whole race and ridden by the great Eddie D.

06 Aug 2008 1:33 PM
Steve Haskin

Thank you all again for your comments. I just returned from Saratoga and I will address as many of them as I can as soon as I catch up.

06 Aug 2008 4:19 PM
Mike S

Julie L, my fellow COUGAR II fan! When ACK ACK beat COUGAR II in the Santa Anita Handicap, COUGAR II was way back early, on a dull track, and was still 4th, 6-1/2 lengths back, at the top of the stretch, and extremely wide, but still managed to get up for 2nd, being beaten by a diminishing 1-1/2 lengths.

Later that year, Charlie Whittingham scratched COUGAR II from the Hollywood Gold Cup because he feared that COUGAR II would run down ACK ACK and ruin that horse's chance for Horse of the Year. ACK ACK was Charlie's favorite.

COUGAR II sort of helped ACK ACK secure the Horse of the Year award in 1971 by going to Belmont and obliterating the field of New York's finest in the Woodward Stakes (only to be unfairly disqualified...he was WAY the best that day).

06 Aug 2008 4:52 PM
Julie L.

Mike, I agree with you that Whittingham wanted the Horse of the Year title for Ack Ack and what a shame that he didn't allow the face off. Cougar II was a beautiful, talented and great runner, I just wish more people rememebered him and what he accomplished on the racetrack. Viva la Cougar!

06 Aug 2008 5:39 PM
Steve Haskin

My error on Riva Ridge. Totally forgot about that International, perhaps because he never picked his feet up on the soggy turf, which makes it more surprising they'd try him on it again. Anyway, I did correct that.

Jim, that's a very kind comment and I appreciate it, but if someone ever did download my brain, I'm afraid their computer would crash.

Again, MeckeFan and everyone else, thank you for the kind words. I'm glad these looks back are being well received. It encourages me to keep writing them.

07 Aug 2008 9:53 AM
marc w

As mentioned above with the Sham fan I actually challenged Secretariat's broodmare success more than his race record (because I thought he had to have success with the blue hen mares seen) I mentioned I thought Dr Fager was a better horse. Secretariat was certainly one of the greatest, of that there was no doubt. Mr. Haskin you with your experience and knowledge would also know that horses like Hoist The Flag, Ruffian, more recently maybe Candy Ride, and the like, certainly looked like no one could beat them, but didn't get the same press as Big Red. (Ruffian got her share but not to that extent---it would be interesting to find out if  John Cruguet he thought Seattle Slew or Hoist the Flag was a better horse? Maybe you could find out?

I mentioned on "that same post" that probably even the Fager might have lost to "Prove Out" he was so powerful in those races, and he may just have been the best horse "ever " for those few starts. More recently I truly believe that Empire Maker was a better horse than Funny Cide--but he wasn't in the Derby and I have no doubts had he gone in the Preakness --Funny Cide would have been the best then too. He was just fantastic for those 2 races--just a good horse for the rest of his career.

07 Aug 2008 12:42 PM
Rebs Policy

Dear Mike S and Julie L,

A pleasure to see two staunch Cougar II fans.

1970 was my first year at the track -- 8-y-o backside brat -- and I got to see, in person, every start Cougar II ever made in California. (It was fairly easy after his first few wins as he became a "weekend warrior," running in high-profile stakes that were most often run on Saturdays.) I remember his run at Ack Ack all to well in the '70 Big Cap. As soon as Pincay put him on the crown of the track -- the surface near the rail was not favorable -- he took off after his famous stablemate like a hungry canary on bird seed. (I was rooting for Terlago that day as my parents worked for Jerry Fanning.) The fact that Ack Ack made all the running that day on a tiring track made his victory doubly impressive.

I used to visit both champions in the stable area back then -- stable employees kids roaming the backside was not unusual back then. Charlie Whittingham was always the kindest man and never talked down to me or was dismissive about questions about racing. A finer gentleman was not to be found and... what a mouth. Ribald & hilarious.

Those were truly halcyon days for the track. What times! Thanks for jogging my memory. And thanks again to Steve Haskin. Your columns always bring out stimulating and welcome conversation. A catalyst for good.


Now how about that great gelding, ANCIENT TITLE, another CA fan fave, getting into the H.O.F. That old dude was made of nails & pride. What a special trooper!

All the best,


07 Aug 2008 2:05 PM

Great Article (and don't ever say an article like this could be too long.  I could rea this stuff all day long.)

I wonder how Curlin or Big Brown or any of the other prima donnas racing today would have fared in those races or even during those times, especially if they had to overcome the same obstacles that those great horses had to overcome.  I remember when horses raced in the Derby and then ran in a prep race the following week for the Preakness which was run a week later. It was so different back then---breeding intentions (stamina vs speed), training methods, purses, etc. etc.  Probably one of the biggest differences were the trainers.  Horses back then were unsound too, but they found ways to deal with it and overcome those problems.  And the owners raced their horses even when they could have easily retired them for stud purposes.  It ticke me off when I read somewhere that if Big Brown would have won the Belmont he probably would have been retired.  Just say that he did.  Many people would be louding him for his greatness, but too me it would have been a fraud.

07 Aug 2008 3:09 PM
Steve Haskin

Helen S., thank you. If you e-mail me at I will find that Lava Man article and send it to you.

07 Aug 2008 8:56 PM
eugene levey


27 Feb 2009 9:18 AM

Dear Mr. Haskin,

As usual, I find your material about a year later and a dollar late, but I still would like to comment. I loved your article and simply want to add to it, but allow my comment. You set it up the way say Seabiscuit was set up or the latest book on ManOWar by I can’t recall her name. A match race of sorts was set up in the background of those colts, the one against War Admiral, the other against Barton, and perhaps Ruffian against Pleasure. Your "two elements" phrase reminded me of those incidents, elements that came together that resulted in something historical, but there was the difference,  as you noted: in the other events, all expected  and prepared for a great meet; in Secretariat’s case, AJ (Allen Jerkins) prepared, LL (Lucien Lauren)  did not.

Now for what I would like to add.  Some years back, I researched that race and Prove Out in particular. Had he been sound, he would have been Graustark’s best, and in 1972 there might have been a Triple Crown winner and it would not have been Riva Ridge. The horse had talent belonging to the Hall of Fame, so if anyone claims Secretariat defeated easy fields, they had better think twice.  Prove Out was one of many such runners Secretariat faced. Here is why. I don’t know where you stand on Beyer figures but I respect them given they be taken in the context of the race.  Andy gave Prove Out a monstrous 131 for the Woodward, something only the best can do.  I went further and calculated figures for the Jockey Club Cup and the Grey Lag he won the following year. The horse scored a 127 for the Cup which is what I expected. On reading the post race material, I thought the horse lost some of the form he had in the Woodward.  Though he ran an overall good time (actually a great time) and a sharp time in the closing quarter, it was not as clean as the Woodward.  Still a 127 is something only the best perform.  Then he scored a huge 129 in the Lag, a Hall Of Fame figure, something Secretariat did on a regular basis.  These 3 figures average to 129, a Hall of Fame score.  So for about 5 weeks or so, beginning late in the 1973 season, a new super horse had arrived, one that was clearly the best of the older horses.

When Secretariat lost the Woodward, it was not like other opponents he had lost to; this one was a legitimate contender. Prove Out might well have defeated Citation and perhaps a few others that day. Some have said that Secretariat could not handle the mud, but I question that. Secretariat never had trouble on mud before, which he ran on multiple occasions. Up to that race, he had run twice on the surface and had not lost. In fact, on his first such run, he finished 1/5th off the 1 1/16th mile track record on a hand ride (the Laurel Futurity he ran as a two).  He ran very fast workouts in the mud as well, so that was not the problem. AJ once made the “mud” comment on the Woodward some years later saying the horse could not handle mud, but I believe he was defending LL who was still living at the time. Secretariat scored an enormous 128 in the race, below the casual hand-ridden 129s he had been running. It was a labored driving 128 indicating training issues more than anything else. He subperformed. In the ManO’War one week later, the horse went 1.5 miles again but with ease. LL used the Woodward as a workout and then gave him his typical 5 furlong zinger 3 days before and the horse barely broke a sweat while shattering the course record.  Had Secretariat been in peak form for the Woodward we might have seen a different finish. Averaging Secretariat’s top three Beyer scores of 129, 129, and 148 (using the par figures at that time) gives an average of 135, a few points better than Prove Outs’ 129. (Even if we were to use the revised figure of 139 for the Belmont, using updated par figures for the distance, the average would be about 132.) Secretariat had speed to spare when he was peak.  

In the Woodward, Secretariat was as good as he could be that day, but Prove Out was as good as he would ever be.

A quick note: In the Woodward, Secretariat ran the distance in 2:26 2/5s, again breaking Gallant Man’s track record, and this time in the mud.  Some estimated his time at 2:26 3/5s, but that is using the old 1/5th for a length scale which is not accurate. A better scale is 1.3 lengths for the fifth which I have found support for in a number of publications. Secretariat’s second ¾ mile time bettered his Belmont run, and even bettered Affirmed’s time in his famed run against Alyadar in their Belmont.  Both Secretariat and Prove Out that day ran like the super stars they were.  

08 May 2009 2:52 PM

Russ to suggest Prove Out was a superstar or great horse is just plain wrong.  Prove Out did not hit the board in more than half his races.  You can't call that anything more than a good horse at best.  Secretariat ran some great races and as a 3 year old ran a few clunkers.

04 Sep 2009 11:15 PM

Great story about Prove Out. His time of 2:25.8 in the Woodward seems astonishing given that it was achieved on a sloppy track with standing water. Conditions like that are grueling. I am not sure how this compares to Secretariat's 2:24 Belmont Stakes achieved on a lightning fast track, but it can't be far off.

11 Nov 2009 10:42 AM
Saratoga AJ

Which is why to this day I still maintain that Secretariat's connections ducked a rematch with Prove Out in the the biggest championship race at the time,the JCGC. That's why they switched to grass for Sec's last two races. He never would have beaten Prove Out at two miles (3:20).

27 Jan 2010 1:10 PM

Saratoga AJ

I had often wondered about the 'ducking' as well. I have never found anything written on that. Here is what is known: The meadow had two good horses, Riva and Sec. They wanted to give Riva a shot at the title for best older horse and to do that he had to run the gold cup. They had decided after the Marloboro that they would not pit the two against each other again. Penny liked both horses and didnt want to see Riva defeated again. She knew Sec was the better of the two. It also made economic sense to run them seperately, on different schedules. If they both won, they could maximize their earnings. Riva could never handle a track other than a good dirt course. As for Sec, they had wanted to try him on grass, even before the Woodward, so they eyed the ManOWar, just a few weeks after the Marlboro. When he performed so well in that race, all kinds of options opened, more on grass than dirt. One thing for sure, Riva was going to run the gold cup, so that left grass races as the only option for Sec. He had time for only one race before his retirement so the Candadian was the best fit.

As for Sec not being able to run 2 miles better than 3:20, that is a tall assertion to prove. All the indicators indicated his ability to run long distances, probably as much as 2.5 miles. His slowest 1.5 run was 2:28 and a little change in the Canadian; all others were 2:24, 2:24.6, and 2:26.4 (a terrific time) in the Woodward on the slop, and without training. These are Kelso figures. Kelso's best figure at 1.5 was 2:23.8 on turf. Sec's was 2:24 on dirt and dirt is a slower surface than grass. If Kelso ran two in 2:19, I think Sec would have bettered that or at least the indicators suggest it. No, Prove Out had some luck that day in the Woodward, he faced a Sec not in training for that race, and still Prove Out(who was in peak form)had to run a Hall of Fame figure to win. He did that. Had Sec been in training for that race, it would have been different, we dont know how different, but different. And Prove Out had a little more luck his way. In his previous race at 9 furlongs, his longest distance up to that time, he finished 7th, and logically entered the Woodward as the long shot. Nobody saw him coming. Had he won his last race, I think Lucien would have worked Sec, preparing him in case he had to run. Or possibly he might have scratched him believing there was not enough time to properly work him. All idle speculation in the end.

11 Jun 2010 12:45 PM

Thats great. I love Riva Ridge.

12 Jan 2011 10:42 PM

This is the race that does the greatest harm to Secretariat's legacy.  The other losses are explainable and Secretariat avenged all those losses.  But he never avenged that loss to Prove Out.  Moreover, Prove Out was a spectacularly talented horse with an impeccable pedigree.  Secretariat needed his best effort against Prove Out.

07 Feb 2013 8:56 PM

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