I hope to start a new series remembering fall racing from past
years. Some of the stories, such as this one, will be a combination of
recycled older columns, with a good deal of new material added to make
it more comprehensive. Although this initial column first ran only three
years ago, I noticed that the vast majority of comments were not from
people who currently frequent this site, so it is hoped with the added
material it will be fresh to many readers.
The Unbeatable Horse
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
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. 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.
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.
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
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.
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 full-sister to Man o’War.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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, Prove Out 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
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.
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
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
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.
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 earned a 127 Beyer in
the Jockey Club Gold Cup and a 129 in the Grey Lag to go along with his
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.