First Marlboro Cup and the Big Red Machine

When Arrogate goes to the post for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, not even the most astute handicappers will have any idea what to expect. Are we going to see the four-race terror that was unleashed on the sport or the horse who was made to look somewhat flawed in his last two starts at Del Mar? Uncertainty breeds intrigue and there surely will be intrigue in the Classic. Even if he works like a terror at Santa Anita, how is that going to translate back to Del Mar when he returns to the scene of his two defeats?

But if you like intrigue based on the uncertainty surrounding a major star you should have been around for the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup in 1973.

The race itself had a dubious foundation, built at a cost of $250,000, and its sponsor, the Philip Morris Corporation, was desperately looking for a big fancy structure to place atop that foundation. What they had proposed was an unusual, but fascinating, match race between Triple Crown winner Secretariat and his illustrious stablemate Riva Ridge, the 1971 2-year-old champion and winner of the previous year’s Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, who had set a new world record for 1 3/16 miles in the July 4 Brooklyn Handicap. This mile and an eighth event would mark the first time a sporting event would be sponsored by and named after a corporation.

It was an unheard of proposition, sort of like giving away gobs of money to see a home run Derby between teammates Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, with Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks, and the other sluggers of that era left out.

Secretariat was more than just the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. He already was a legend, an icon,, an equine force of nature that had transcended his sport to become a national celebrity. And, oh yes, he looked to be unbeatable. As good as the kind-hearted, loppy-eared Riva Ridge was, his owner Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin knew he was not quite up to the task of beating Secretariat. But for $250,000, they weren’t about to nix the idea. And poor Riva was used to playing second fiddle to Big Red. They knew he would at least make it competitive and put on a show…up to a point.

Some took exception to the race, which would be nothing more than a major payday for Meadow Stable. Most people, however, were intrigued 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.

Then something happened that made marketing director Jack Landry and the other the top executives at Philip Morris start chain smoking. When Riva Ridge was upset by a 56-1 shot named Wichita Oil in an allowance race on the grass on August 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 time, especially an allowance race, following back-to-back victories in the Massachusetts and Brooklyn Handicaps.

Then came the Whitney debacle only three days later. The unbeatable Secretariat was shockingly beaten by a recent allowance sprint winner named Onion, a quick-footed horse trained by The Giant Killer Allen Jerkens. With Secretariat proving to be mortal after all, the Marlboro Cup pretty much lost its luster. The brain trust at Philip Morris had to do some quick thinking. They decided to continue on, but changed plans, changing the purse structure, and making the race an open invitation, inviting the best horses in the country.

It was announced several days after the Whitney that Big Red was incubating a virus in the Whitney. The stress of competition supposedly brought it to a head and the colt came out of the race with a cough and 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 Stakes.

This was a horse who worked a mile for the Whitney in the mud in 1:34 4/5 after outrageous 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 looked to be the event of the year, with a record crowd pouring through the gates and the horses being saddled on the grass course for all to see. Penny Tweedy told Sports Illustrated after the race, “We felt he was fighting off the fever and could still perform at his best. We didn't think it that important to cancel. After the race we knew that something was wrong.”

Secretariat’s hotwalker Steve Jordan recalls, “He was definitely sick for the Whitney. I can’t recall any trepidation going into the race, but most of the time these things explode from the stress of a race. And I’m sure he was incubating something going into the race. Afterward, we just walked him for eight to 10 days.”

The Whitney was now history, and all the attention turned to the Marlboro Cup. Could Secretariat rebound big-time and prove to everyone that it was indeed the illness that compromised his chances? Was Riva Ridge’s defeat on the grass an aberration and he, too, would return to form on the dirt?”

It was time to start scouring the country for horses worthy of competing for the megabucks and in the highest level of competition.

There was slight ray of hope when Riva Ridge rebounded from his defeat to win an allowance race on August 21, just barely holding on to defeat Halo by a half-length. It wasn’t the kind of dominating performance everyone had hoped for, but it at least erased that blot from his record and put him back on the right track.

The big question, and on what the entire race hinged, was whether Secretariat could make it back in time and return to his Triple Crown form. It was going to be touch and go. Lucien Laurin felt he had to get four stiff works in the colt, with the last one being brilliant enough to convince him Big Red was ready to perform at his best coming off an illness and a six-week layoff.

Steve Jordan recalled, “One morning I was standing in the yard with Lucien and (assistant) Henny Hefner and Lucien said, ‘I don’t know, this is really squeezing on this horse to make this race after being as sick as he was. This is a big task facing all these good horses.’ Henny always had a way of putting things in perspective, and he shrugged his shoulders and just said, “Well, boss, then we’ll just win in it with the other horse.’”

Jordan walked Secretariat each day and could feel him getting stronger.

“I was out grazing him one morning, and back then we used only a single chain,” he recalled. “Out of nowhere, he started raising hell and rearing up right near the old wooden manure pit. The first thing I did was look to see where my car was parked, because I knew if he got loose I’m going right to my car and saying sayonara to the racing game; I’m gone. I jumped inside the manure pit to brace myself, and he finally settled down. I was ashen and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I looked up and saw Penny and Lucien standing at the end of the shedrow and they’re both smiling. Lucien yells to me, ‘Stevie, you can bring him in now. I guess he’s feeling better, isn’t he?’”

Jordan had discovered earlier just how strong Big Red was when the colt literally lifted him off the ground just by sneezing.

Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton described Big Red’s march toward the Marlboro Cup as only he could: “Returned to Belmont to point for the $250,000 Marlboro, the sport’s pin-up horse looked bloody awful, rather like one of those sick paintings which betoken an inner theatre of the macabre. It required supernatural recuperative powers to recover as he did. He was subjected to four severe preps in two weeks. Astonishingly, he gained weight and blossomed with every trial. He had to work in time approximating track records just to keep fit, and trainer Lucien Laurin never got to the bottom of him actually. The colt had a most accommodating appetite. Not to be vulgar, but one of Laurin’s contemporaries quipped, “Either he is a good doer, or he’s got a tapeworm.”

With Secretariat seemingly healthy and feeling good and Riva Ridge back in the win column, the remainder of the field began to come together.

There was Riva Ridge’s arch rival, the 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint, winner of the Suburban Handicap and second in the Met Mile; California invader Cougar II; Canadian champion Kennedy Road; Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em; and Big Red’s 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.

In all, the seven runners assembled had earned a total of $4,539,335 and won 63 stakes.

The last and most important piece of the puzzle would be Secretariat’s final work three days before the race. He was a horse who carried so much muscle and flesh 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.

So Laurin sent out Big Red for his all-important final work, needing to see a fast time and strong gallop-out. If he didn’t demonstrate the sheer brilliance his trainer was looking for, there was a chance of him being withdrawn, which would have proved to be a disaster…for the race and the fans. But the last thing anyone wanted was for Secretariat to have a relapse because he came back a week too soon. With that $6,080,000 million syndication tag still hanging over his head, back-to-back defeats was unthinkable.

Any fears or trepidation that may have existed disappeared in the vapor trail Secretariat left as he rocketed his five furlongs in :57 flat, galloping out six furlongs in 1:08 4/5. There was no doubt now that he was ready, even though Laurin felt he was still a week away from being 100 percent.

Laurin was quoted as saying, “It hasn't been easy. I could have used another week. I know I’ve got the two best horses; whether either wins is another question. I do know that if Secretariat were coming up to this race as well as Riva Ridge has, they could put 135 pounds on him and I wouldn’t be worried.”

In weighting the race, run on September 15, racing secretary Kenny Noe assigned Secretariat 124 pounds, with the 4-year-old Riva Ridge carrying 127. With the five-pound weight allowance for 3-year-olds, Secretariat was giving his stablemate two pounds on the scale. Cougar II and Key to the Mint would carry 126, down to 3-year-old Annihilate Em and the 4-year-old Onion at 116.

An all-night rain hit New York the night before the race, but the sun and wind dried out the track quickly, making it wet-fast, and then just plain old fast. That made the backers of Riva Ridge, who detested the slop, and Cougar II, who did his best on a fast track, very happy.

The 48,023 fans in attendance got a peek at what was to come the race before the Marlboro Cup when the brilliant filly Desert Vixen, riding a seven-race winning streak, including runaway victories in the Monmouth Oaks, Delaware Oaks, Alabama, and Gazelle, all by more than six lengths, romped by 8 1/2 lengths in the Beldame Stakes, running the mile and an eighth in a sizzling 1:46 1/5 and equaling the track record, while demolishing one of the greatest fields of fillies and mare in memory; a field that included champion Susan’s Girl, Summer Guest, Convenience, and Poker Night. If this was the prelude to the big show, everyone knew the track record was about to fall in the Marlboro Cup.

The Meadow Stable entry, the original two opponents for the race, was sent off as the 2-5 favorite, with Key to the Mint at 7-2 and the late-running Cougar II 4-1.

Riva Ridge broke on top, but was quickly joined on the inside by Onion, who attempted the same tactics he used in the Whitney by charging to the lead, with Riva in pursuit, followed closely by Kennedy Road and Annihilate Em. Sitting right behind them in striking position was Secretariat, as they blazed along the opening half in :45 3/5.

Heading into the far turn, Riva Ridge moved up to challenge Onion, as Ron Turcotte let out a notch on Secretariat and he began closing in from the far outside. It soon became apparent that the race was going to be between the two Meadow Stable colts, just as the Philip Morris people had envisioned. Cougar II was still far back and Key to the Mint for some reason wasn’t firing on this day.

Following a rapid 1:09 1/5 for the three quarters, it was now all Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Big Red headed his stablemate approaching the top of the stretch, with Turcotte keeping him well off the rail, while looking over his left and then right shoulder to see if there were any threats being mounted. There was no one even close on his outside, so he gave one last peek over at Eddie Maple on Riva Ridge and saw that he had them measured.

Turcotte never once went to the whip and let Secretariat open up on his own, passing the eighth pole with a two-length lead in a scorching 1:33 flat. Turcotte continued hand-riding Secretariat through the final furlong and just waved the whip at him briefly approaching the wire. Big Red crossed the finish line 3 1/2 lengths in front of Riva Ridge, who was two lengths ahead of the fast-closing Cougar II under Bill Shoemaker. The final time of 1:45 2/5 shattered Desert Vixen’s short-lived record by four-fifths of a second and established a new world record.

After the race, Steve Jordan was standing on the track waiting for both colts to return and found himself next to the great Charlie Whittingham, trainer of Cougar II and Kennedy Road, who was waiting for his two horses. Cougar was the first to return and when Shoemaker jumped off and pulled off the tack, Jordan, standing no more than five yards away, heard him say to Whittingham, “Charlie, those are two runnin’ sonofabitches that beat us.”

Secretariat, with such a brilliant performance, had made his Whitney defeat inconsequential, as if it never happened. The Big Red Machine was back operating at full power.

With no more worlds to conquer on the dirt, and Riva Ridge a more than able representative in the Woodward Stakes, the plan was to point Secretariat for the Man o’War Stakes on grass in three weeks. Laurin and Mrs. Tweedy felt as if they were unstoppable, with two indestructible weapons that they could fire at will wherever they pleased.

With rain in the forecast for Woodward day, they entered both Riva Ridge and Secretariat with the thought that if it rained and the track was sloppy they would scratch Riva and run Secretariat, as if the race were a mere formality.

They were well aware that Secretariat needed to work fast prior to a big race, and ignored the fact that he was given only a half-mile breeze around the dogs on the grass, followed by a slow mile work on the grass in 1:38, in which 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, despite not being 100 percent, 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 Mrs. Tweedy were determined to be represented.

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 off an illness and having to go into the race off two slow works on the grass. It was a recipe for disaster.

Allen Jerkens, who had upset Secretariat with Onion, this time had his new project, Prove Out, for the Woodward. Having purchased the well-bred colt for Jack Dreyfus from King Ranch for $60,000, Jerkens worked feverishly on getting Prove Out over a myriad of maladies and quirks and felt he had him ready for the Woodward. Never one to fear a single horse, he took a shot and would have been thrilled with a second-place finish behind Secretariat. After all, Prove Out, a son of Graustark, out of a full-sister to Triple Crown winner Assault, had already trounced the 3-5 Forego in a seven-furlong allowance at Saratoga in a track record 1:21 flat. So the talent was there. It was just a matter of a genius like Allen Jerkens bringing it out.

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.

In describing the race briefly, 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 said that Prove Out would have earned a sensational 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 1/2 miles in Belmont history.

Running in the Woodward did not alter Secretariat’s plans. Remarkably, he 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. Big Red was a quite a sight bounding along on the lead, seemingly leaping off the turf with every monstrous stride.

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

To show how good Prove Out was at this time, he came back and routed Riva Ridge, who had bounced out of the Marlboro Cup with a track-record winning performance in the Stuyvesant Handicap under 130 pounds, beating him by 33 lengths in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, run in 3:20 flat. Only Kelso had ever run a faster two miles. And he did it by running Riva ridge into the ground off brutal fractions and still coming home his last quarter in :24 4/5, despite bouncing off the rail at the head of the stretch.

Mrs. Tweedy admitted in later years that they made some mistakes with both Riva Ridge and Secretariat. But it was easy for them to get caught up in all the hype and hoopla and the fame of having a national celebrity that people worshipped.

But what Secretariat accomplished in those 23 days between the Marlboro Cup and the Man o’War, not to mention his career finale in the Canadian International Championship, was truly remarkable, and has always been overshadowed by his heroics in the Triple Crown.

As for the Marlboro Cup, the road that Secretariat, and, yes, Riva Ridge, paved in 1973 led to future memorable runnings in its brief history, won by champions such as Forego, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Chief’s Crown, Slew o’ Gold, Wajima, and Turkoman.

With the Breeders’ Cup Classic inaugurated in 1984, the Marlboro Cup lasted only three more years, fading into the history books in 1987.

But of all the memorable runnings, including Forego’s epic victory under 137 pounds, the one that had the most profound effect on the sport was the return to greatness by the horse many consider the greatest of them all.

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