Sizing Up Secretariat's Competition

Saturday will mark the 45th anniversary to the day of Secretariat's defeat at the hands of Prove Out in the Woodward Stakes. I have written extensively about Prove Out and how that upset came about, calling him an unbeatable horse on that day and on Jockey Club Gold Cup day when he crushed Riva Ridge, running the two miles in a time that was bested only by Kelso.

Secretariat was totally under-trained for the Woodward, working slowly on the grass while pointing for his grass debut in the Man o'War. And using today's terminology, he "bounced" to the moon coming back only two weeks after breaking a world record in the Marlboro Cup, while substituting for Riva Ridge, who was scratched because of the sloppy track.

Over the years, we really have never assessed the true talent of Secretariat's competition throughout his career. Yes, we always compare Big Red to his main rival Sham, who would have been a superstar in any other year. And occasionally we casually mention that he did defeat Forego in the Kentucky Derby, well before Forego became Forego. And, of course, we all know that he defeated Riva Ridge in the inaugural Marlboro Cup. That is quite a talented trio right there. But what of his competition at 2 and pre-and post-Triple Crown? Do we really know much about the horses he defeated? And for that matter, do we really know much about Onion, who shocked the world by upsetting Secretariat in the Whitney when Big Red was incubating a virus that would keep him out of the Travers Stakes, or about his stablemate Angle Light, who knocked off Secretariat and Sham in the Wood Memorial?

How many people know anything about Secretariat's first stakes appearance, the Sanford at Saratoga? For example, raise your hand if you knew that Big Red wasn't even favored in that race, despite his lofty reputation, coming off back-to-back victories, and going off at 2-5 in his previous start.

That honor went to LINDA'S CHIEF. To demonstrate the magnitude of Secretariat's victory and the quality of the horse he defeated by three widening lengths, Linda's Chief went into the Sanford undefeated in five starts and having already won the Youthful Stakes at Belmont and the Juvenile and Tremont Stakes at Aqueduct. The race following the Sanford, he broke the track record at Belmont for 6 1/2 furlongs. Facing Secretariat again in the Champagne Stakes, he finished 11 lengths behind Big Red, who eventually was disqualified, despite being much the best.

Sent to Santa Anita for his 3-year-old campaign and turned over to Bobby Frankel, Linda's Chief won the San Miguel by 3 1/2 lengths, was beaten a neck by the top-class Ancient Title in the San Vicente, and then won an allowance race by four lengths, defeated Ancient Title by five lengths in the one-mile San Jacinto Stakes in a track record 1:33 4/5, and beat Ancient Title again by three lengths in the San Felipe Stakes. Finishing fourth in the San Felipe, beaten 7 3/4 lengths, was a colt riding a four-race winning streak, including the Santa Catalina Stakes, named Sham.

Linda's Chief and Sham then hooked up in the Santa Anita Derby, with Linda's Chief the 3-5 favorite. Linda's Chief broke from post 5 in the six-horse field, with Sham's stablemate Knightly Dawn outside him in post 6. At the start, Knightly Dawn came in sharply and repeatedly on Linda's Chief, and as the footnotes said, "Linda's Chief, taken in hand when intimidated after the break..." Sham went on to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Linda's Chief. That race and the so-called tactics by trainer Frank Martin would infuriate Frankel even years later just thinking about it. To his credit, however, Sham did run the mile and an eighth in a blazing 1:47 flat, three-fifths off the track record.

Linda's Chief would skip the Kentucky Derby, but went on to win the California Derby, Withers Stakes, Arlington Grand Prix, and Saranac Stakes.

The horse who was placed first in the Champagne was STOP THE MUSIC. To demonstrate Secretariat's superiority over the Greentree Stable colt, he defeated the son of Hail to Reason in the Futurity, Hopeful, and Laurel Futurity, the last two by five and eight lengths. Stop the Music would go on to set a new track record of 1:33 3/5 for a mile at Belmont, win the Dwyer Handicap, and finish second in the Travers, Vosburgh Handicap (to Forego), Carter Handicap (beaten a head by Forego), Met Mile, Withers (to Linda's Chief), and third to Forego in the Brooklyn Handicap and third in the Whitney.

There is not much of a gauge one can get on the quality of CHAMPAGNE CHARLIE, who Secretariat defeated by 4 1/2 lengths in the Bay Shore Stakes and three lengths in the Gotham, in which he equaled the track record of 1:33 2/5, other than to say the son of Northern Dancer was in good form coming off a victory in the six-furlong Swift Stakes, the first of four Derby preps in New York.

As everyone is well aware, Secretariat, along with Sham, was upset in the Wood Memorial by of all horses, ANGLE LIGHT. But not much is really known about Big Red's stablemate, such as the fact he had already faced Secretariat three times before the Wood, finishing second to him in the Garden State Stakes. As a 3-year-old, Angle Light was no slouch, finishing second in the Bahamas Stakes at Hialeah; third, beaten a neck, in the Flamingo Stakes; won a one-mile allowance race at Aqueduct by 10 lengths; and was third, beaten one length, in the Louisiana Derby. 

If there is one thing you can say about Secretariat, with the exception of Prove Out, Big Red came back to demolish every horse that beat him. In Angle Light's case, he had finished 22 lengths behind Secretariat in the Champagne, 16 lengths behind him in the Laurel Futurity, 3 1/2 lengths behind him in the Garden State, and then finished 21 lengths behind him in the Kentucky Derby. So, there is no reason not to believe that Secretariat did, as reported, have an abscess in his mouth in the Wood and was in pain grabbing hold of the bit. Horses just don't run that dull in one race for no reason and then come back and set track records in all three Triple Crown races.

Moving on to the Triple Crown and the subsequent Arlington Invitational, the only horses worth mentioning other than SHAM and FOREGO are OUR NATIVE, MY GALLANT, ROYAL AND REGAL, and SHECKY GREENE.

Royal and Regal was a fast colt sprinting and routing who won the seven-furlong Bahamas in 1:22 flat and the Florida Derby in 1:47 2/5, defeating Forego by three lengths. Finishing fourth and fifth, respectively, were Our Native and My Gallant.

Our Native was a tough, hard-knocking colt who ran 33 times at 2 and 3, and is best known for finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, beaten 11 lengths in each race. He and My Gallant engaged in a torrid stretch battle in the Blue Grass Stakes, with 14-1 My Gallant beating 8-1 Our Native by a head, with 5-2 favorite Forego finishing fifth.

My Gallant, after being beaten 21 lengths in the Derby, skipped the Preakness and prepped for the Belmont Stakes by defeating older horses, including 1970 Travers winner Loud, by 2 1/2 lengths in a 1 1/8-mile allowance race at Belmont.

Following the Belmont, he would again get the better of Our Native in the Arlington Invitational, finishing second, a half-length in front of his rival, but nine lengths behind Secretariat. His best efforts after that were second-place finishes behind Forego in the Roamer and Discovery Handicaps.

As for Our Native, he went into the Arlington Invitational off a victory in the Ohio Derby over Forego's future nemesis Arbees Boy, and would go on to win the Monmouth Invitational Handicap (now the Haskell), defeating eventual Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em by a neck in a solid 1:48 3/5, three-fifths off the track record. 

Also finishing behind Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby was Shecky Greene, champion sprinter of 1973 with victories in the Hutcheson Stakes and Kelso, Select, Midwest, Florida Breeders and Patuxent Handicaps, as well as the Stepping Stone Purse. He showed he could carry his speed two turns, winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes. He also finished second to the older King's Bishop in the Fall Highweight Handicap under topweight of 137 pounds.

Before getting to Secretariat's fall races, we must establish something about ONION, who has on occasion been mistakenly regarded as a former claimer by those holding Big Red's Whitney defeat against him.

Onion never ran in a claiming race, and although he was an allowance horse for most of his career, he did finish second to King's Bishop in the Carter Handicap in a blistering 1:20 2/5, finished second to the speedy and classy Alfred Vanderbilt horse North Sea in the Paomonok Handicap in 1:09 3/5, and was a close third in the one-mile Westchester Handicap in 1:34 flat. He also placed in a couple of other stakes and did finish fourth in the inaugural Marlboro Cup. But he was never in better form than he was going into the Whitney. Following his second in the Carter Handicap, in which he ran the opening half in a brutal :44 1/5, he broke the track record for 6 1/2 furlongs at Saratoga, winning by eight lengths in 1:15 1/5. He then, in typical Allen Jerkens fashion, won the Whitney four days later.

Moving into the fall races, we, of course, have to start with the Marlboro Cup and Big Red trying to bounce back from his illness. To summarize what Secretariat accomplished in this race in addition to setting a new world record of 1:45 2/5, he defeated two future Hall of Famers in RIVA RIDGE and COUGAR II and four champions in Riva Ridge, Cougar II, KEY TO THE MINT and KENNEDY ROAD. He defeated the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, Santa Anita Handicap, Woodward Stakes, Suburban Handicap, Hollywood Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, Blue Grass Stakes, Queens Plate, Oak Tree Invitational, Hollywood Invitational, and San Juan Capistrano, as well as two Travers winners, two Brooklyn Handicap winners, and two Whitney winners.

Just touching one more time on Secretariat's Woodward defeat, to those who felt Big Red laid an egg that day, despite having to come back in only two weeks after his world-record Marlboro Cup and not having any sharp dirt works, it must be noted that had PROVE OUT not been in the race, Secretariat would have won by 11 lengths over champion and future Hall of Famer Cougar II, running the second fastest mile and a half in Belmont history in the slop, behind only his other-worldly Belmont victory. That's how big a race Prove Out ran, and he came back and ran just as big a race in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Secretariat would then rebound off that race by setting a course record for a mile and a half on the grass at Belmont, winning the Man o' War Stakes wire to wire by five lengths in 2:24 4/5 in his grass debut. That means Secretariat set a world record for 1 1/8 miles, finished second at 1 1/2 miles in the slop in the third-fastest time in Belmont history, and set a new course record for 1 1/2 miles on grass...all in the span of 23 days. And remember, he went into the Marlboro Cup coming off an illness that forced him to miss the Travers, so he was even more ripe for a "bounce" coming out of the Marlboro Cup.

Finishing second to Big Red in the Man o' War was TENTAM, one of the most versatile horses in the country, who had won the Met Mile, Governor Stakes (in 1:46 4/5) Jim Dandy, and Toboggan Handicap and second in the Travers, Amory Haskell Handicap and Jerome Handicap on dirt and won the United Nations and Bernard Baruch Handicaps on grass. In the latter, he shattered the course record by four-fifths of a second, covering the 1 1/8 miles in 1:45 2/5.

Finishing 7 1/2 lengths behind Tentam in the Man o' War was Elmendorf's classy stayer BIG SPRUCE, who would then finish second to Big Red in the Canadian International, beaten 6 1/2 lengths.

Big Spruce was another horse who was equally adept on both grass and dirt. On grass, he won the San Luis Rey Stakes by 10 lengths and the Lexington Handicap and finished second in the Washington D.C. International, Canadian International twice, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, and Manhattan Handicap. On dirt, he defeated Forego twice, in the Governor Stakes in 1:46 1/5 and Marlboro Cup in 1:46 3/5, and also captured the Gallant Fox twice. In the D.C. International and his two Canadian Internationals, the only two horses to finish in front of him were Hall of Famers Secretariat and Dahlia.

Also finishing well behind Secretariat in the Canadian International, as well as the Marlboro Cup, was KENNEDY ROAD, champion in Canada at 2, 3, 4, and 5, including Canadian Horse of the Year at 5. He captured the Queen Plate, Dominion Day Handicap and other stakes in Canada, and won the Hollywood Gold Cup, San Antonio Stakes, and San Diego Handicap in the United States.

So, that is quite a resume as far as the quality of Big Red's competition, which included three future Hall of Famers. Many of the horses he defeated either have been forgotten or are never mentioned anymore, but they all combined to help define the legacy of Secretariat.


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