Big Red, Riva, and the Unbeatable Horse

We’ve all heard or used 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.

One of those horses is Prove Out. 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 for which he was totally unprepared.

First, let’s look at Secretariat. Big Red had developed a very high fever a week before he was defeated by Onion in the Whitney, but with Saratoga bracing for one of its biggest crowds ever and the opening of the infield to the public, the pressure was on to run. The feeling in the Secretariat camp was that Big Red could still win even if not at 100 percent. But the colt was still still feeling the effects of his illness, and the stress of competition brought it to a head. Secretariat was so sick after the race he was forced to miss the Travers and it put his scheduled appearance in the inuagural Marlboro Cup in jeopardy. It was not only the one-length defeat to Onion, but finishing only a diminishing half-length ahead of Rule by Reason that convinced everyone Secretariat was nowhere near his best. His appetite declined after the race and he acted sluggish for several days, and there was no choice but to skip the Travers. You have to remember, this was 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 pretty much lost its luster. Philip Morris had to change plans and decided to make 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, 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint, Cougar II, Canadian champion Kennedy Road, Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em, and his Whitney nemesis Onion.

Cougar II, known in California as “The Big Cat,” added a great deal of luster to the race. The Chilean-bred, who had won almost every major race in California, was best remembered by Easterners for his dominant victory in the 1971 Woodward Stakes, only to be taken down in what was considered one of the worst disqualifications in memory. That may very well have been the beginning of the “East Coast Bias” that still is prevalent in California.
Big Red was a horse who 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 for the Marlboro Cup, 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 with his typical overpowering move, 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, a son of the legendary Ribot. His dam, Equal Venture, is a half-sister to Triple Crown winner Assault. Equal Venture’s broodmare sire is Equipoise, and Prove Out’s fourth dam, Masda, is a full-sister to Man o’War.

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. Of those 27 starts, 25 were in allowance or maiden races, and in his only two ventures into stakes company, he finished well up the track. The longest distance he’d ever won at was 1 1/16 miles, and that came in his maiden victory.

Jerkens, however, 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.”

Hirsch, son of the great Max Hirsch, was a proven horseman when he took over the King Ranch horses following his father’s death in 1969. One of those who came into his care was the “Mighty Mite” Gallant Bloom, who was coming off a championship season at 2. Gallant Bloom was already riding an impressive winning streak from 2 to 3. When it finally came to an end against the boys in 1970, she had won 12 consecutive races over a three-year period, while knocking off future Hall of Famer Shuvee four times and demolishing another future Hall of Famer, the older Gamely, by seven lengths in the Matchmaker Stakes. Gallant Bloom also was destined for the Hall of Fame.

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 the top-class 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 mile and a half Man o’ War Stakes (then the premier fall stakes in the U.S.) 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. Those were not the kind of works Big Red needed to get sharp for a race. In his mile work (Riva Ridge also worked that morning), Secretariat went around the turf course as if he were in a common gallop.

The Woodward was only two weeks after the Marlboro Cup, and after being drilled hard to make the latter 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. Both he and Riva should have passed the Woodward, but Laurin and Tweedy were determined to be represented.

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, a surface Riva Ridge detested, they would substitute Secretariat. The track did come up sloppy and Riva Ridge was scratched the morning of the race, leaving an unprepared 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 frustrated over Prove Out’s performance at Bowie. When one of his good horses ran that poorly, Jerkens took it personally and would often take drastic measures. 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. Prove Out had never run farther than 1 1/16 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 or at least pick up a piece of the purse.

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, as the crowd went silent.

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. To further demonstrate what a remarkable performance this was, it was projected that Prove Out would have earned a spectacular 131 Beyer speed figure.

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. And he did finish 11 lengths ahead of Cougar II in third. If Prove Out had been trained by anyone else he would not even have been in the race and Secretariat would have won by 11 lengths, running the second-fastest 1 ½ miles in Belmont history.

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. So, Secretariat had broken a world record at 1 1/8 miles, finished second in a fast-run race going 1 1/2 miles, and broken a turf course record at 1 1/2 miles – all in the span of 23 days.

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, winner of the 1970 Travers and second and third behind the great Shuvee in the 1970 and ’71 Jockey Club Gold Cup, respectively, 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.

Although it is sacrilegious to say this, and all due respect to Lucien Laurin, Riva Ridge, in addition to racing in Secretariat’s shadow, was one of the worst handled horses in memory. Yes, he won the Futurity at 2 on a sloppy track, but that was a blazing-fast surface and not a true sloppy track. He eventually would demonstrate his utter disdain for the slop. Yet Laurin ran him four times over very sloppy tracks and once over a quagmire on the grass going 1 1/2 miles in the Washington D.C. International following an arduous 11-race 3-year-old campaign – all major stakes. And he was already tailing off at that point. Twice he ran him in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, a distance well beyond his scope, especially with his front-running style. The second time he ran him in the Gold Cup, he was coming off a track-record-breaking performance going 1 1/8 miles only 12 days earlier.

And in the worst move of all, after running in all three Triple Crown races, he was sent to California (not a common occurrence back then) three weeks later for the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Derby, carrying a burdensome 129  pounds against tough horses such as Bicker, Finalista, and Quack. The last named would go on to defeat older horses that same meet in the Hollywood Gold Cup, running the fastest 1 1/4 miles on dirt in U.S. history (1:58 1/5). Riva absolutely gutted himself in the Hollywood Derby, leading every step of the way while under constant pressure and setting swift fractions. He was tenacious down the stretch, digging in gamely to win by a neck over Finalista, to whom he was conceding 15 pounds.

Riva ran a month later in the Monmouth Invitational Handicap and finished fourth at 1-5. It was discovered the following morning that he had been “gotten to” when his blood tests came up positive for the tranquilizer phenothiazine. Tweedy was “outraged” and “astonished.” Around that time, an admitted race fixer told a House committee in Washington that he would cash tickets by drugging the heavy favorite.

So, it is safe to say that Riva Ridge was never given a chance to receive the recognition he deserved. Four defeats in the slop and two on the turf; two defeats at two miles; one defeat giving the older Canonero II 13 actual pounds as a 3-year-old and getting beat in American-record time; one race in which he was drugged; and four straight defeats to end his 3-year-old campaign (two at 1 1/2 miles and one at two miles) after being gutted in the Hollywood Derby. Twice he finished second behind world and American record performances, yet still managed to break two track records and equal another. In the Brooklyn Handicap, he broke the American record for 1 3/16 miles under 127 pounds, defeating True Knight, Tentam, and Key to the Mint in 1:52 2/5. Three months later, he broke the track record in the Stuyvesant Handicap, blazing the 1 1/8 miles in 1:47 flat under 130 pounds. That should have been his final race, but he was thrown into the two-mile JC Gold Cup only 12 days later in another sure “bounce,” effort.

Getting back to Prove Out, he 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. To demonstrate just how fast a horse Prove Out was, at all distances, he would have earned a 127 Beyer in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and a 129 in the Grey Lag to go along with his projected 131 in the Woodward, and who knows what he would have earned in his track-record allowance romp over Forego.

Prove Out will not be remembered as a great horse, and in fact is only remembered at all because of his upset of Secretariat and possibly as the broodmare sire of the great Miesque. 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 an extraordinary horse, who, on that day and on Gold Cup day may very well have been unbeatable.

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