Author Mike Sekulic has been a horseracing fan for more than 39 years. The Arcadia, Calif., resident works in the mortgage field but also has degree in English from California State University Long Beach. Sekulic wrote this piece in recognition of the 40th anniversary of Cougar II's controversial disqualification following a five-length victory in the Woodward Stakes, Oct. 2, 1971.
By Mike Sekulic
Chile-bred Cougar II was a champion Thoroughbred who raced from 1968 to 1973. He was brought to the U.S. as a 4-year-old, in 1970, and made his first four starts for track announcer Joe Hernandez’s Perla De Chico Stud. He won two of those efforts before being bought by Mary Jones Bradley (Florsheim shoe heiress, known as Mary F. Jones at the time) for $125,000 and turned over to trainer Charlie Whittingham. Cougar II placed in three of four starts for his new owner in 1970.
Cougar’s march to greatness began in 1971, the beginning of his 5-year-old season. He won the San Gabriel Handicap and San Marcos Handicap, then finished second by a half-length to the top turf runner and Victoria Derby and Cox Plate winner Daryl’s Joy on Santa Anita’s turf course. Back to the dirt, he was a fast-charging (not to mention very wide) second to Ack Ack in the Santa Anita Handicap, losing by an ever-diminishing 1 1/2 lengths. Then he shifted back to turf for the San Juan Capistrano where he defeated 1970 Horse of the Year Fort Marcy by about three lengths. Under top weight, Cougar was third in Hollywood Park’s Century Handicap (a race where jockey William Shoemaker said that the competition did their best race-riding against his horse, keeping him boxed in all the way), before posting popular wins in the Californian Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and the Hollywood Turf Invitational (then called the Ford Pinto Invitational) at 12 furlongs on turf, beating Fort Marcy by a head.
At this point Cougar was becoming immensely popular with the fans, and he was one of the top horses in the country as well, so Cougar's owner wanted Charlie Whittingham to enter him against Ack Ack in the Hollywood Gold Cup. It was Mrs. Jones’ belief that her horse could be Horse of the Year, and that he should be given the opportunity to compete against Ack Ack again, so that he could turn the tables. In their only prior meeting Ack Ack had held off “The Big Cat” on a track labeled “slow,” which was not to Cougar‘s liking. When Cougar came back to win the San Juan Capistrano, Californian and Ford Pinto Invitational, Mrs. Jones thought he was an improving horse, sitting on top of the world, so she made the bold statement, “I cannot wait to have it out with Ack Ack in the Gold Cup.“ Charlie Whittingham scratched Cougar II the morning of the Gold Cup, according to Mrs. Jones, because he wanted to maximize Ack Ack’s chance of winning and keep that horse’s Horse of the Year campaign on track.
Cougar turned up a week later, losing by about a half a length in the two-mile Sunset Handicap on the turf. He had hit the rail at about the sixteenth pole and totally lost his momentum. The winner, Over the Counter, carried 114 pounds to Cougar’s 130. Luckily, the dramatic incident nearing the wire only cost him a victory.
Mrs. Jones next set her sights on the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park and had her way.The horse had been sent East several times but generally fared poorly. This time, however, Cougar won by an easy five lengths, running 10 furlongs on dirt in 2:00 2/5, only to be disqualified to third for an “interference,” which really didn’t amount to a hill of beans. A famous racing writer called the disqualification “the greatest travesty in the history of the NYRA.“ He was much the best and had obliterated the best field the East Coast could muster up that day. He won with a disdainful and complete authority over his rivals. Charlie Whittingham, upset that Cougar was disqualified, said, “I made my point,” meaning that if, according to his opinion, that Cougar—who was the second best horse in Whittingham's stable and in the country—was able to make a mockery of the Woodward field, what would Ack Ack have done? Ack Ack had been intended for the Woodward, but he came up ill, and never started again, so Cougar was sent to Belmont in his place. Cougar went back to California and won the Oak Tree Invitational, in a five-length romp, running 2:24 3/5 for 12 furlongs on turf.
Cougar’s next 4 starts were losses; 3 seconds (San Pasqual, Santa Anita Handicap, San Juan Capistrano) and 1 third (San Antonio), but he only lost the Big ‘Cap by a head to Triple Bend, while giving that one seven pounds. Charlie Whittingham entered Marge Everett’s Buzkashi so that he could engage the front runners, because that way Cougar would have a pace up front, and a target to run at, but Buzkashi ran into the rail coming out of the gate, so Cougar II was on his own! Buzkashi was fine and was back racing soon thereafter. Triple Bend managed to hold off Cougar by a head, with Unconscious close behind in third.
Later in the year, Triple Bend opted to go to New York when a situation with level weights with Cougar was in the cards in the Californian Stakes, and what a good decision that was because Cougar came from 16 lengths off the pace to win by nearly 3 lengths while running the second fastest 1 1/16 miles on dirt in history, 1:39 1/5. The time, which was astoundingly fast, was just 1/5 of a second off of Swaps’ track and world record. Indeed, Cougar was back in a big way, and three weeks later he returned to the turf, running 1 3/8 miles in a record 2:11, a mark that stood for around 15 years, while defeating Unconscious and Star Envoy. Then he finished third by 1 1/2 lengths to Typecast and Violonor, who carried 117 and 110, respectively, to Cougar’s 129. These narrow defeats while carrying top weight motivated owner, Mrs. Jones, to publicly complain that Cougar was the “star of the show” and “the best horse.” She thought it was unjust that he was hampered in this manner, saying, “People want to see him win!” and that he would be able to win more often if he didn’t have to give away so much weight. Cougar returned in autumn to take the Carelton F. Burke and Oak Tree Invitational, both in easy fashion. Cougar II was awarded the Eclipse Award for championship turf horse of 1972.
The first goal of 1973 was the Santa Anita Handicap, a race that he had finished second in 1971 and 1972, and Charlie Whittingham brought him up to the race after a four-month vacation on workouts alone, to win under top weight by a nose, defeating Kennedy Road in 2:00. By this point, though, Cougar was 7 years old and had probably lost a step. He finished third six times (San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano, Hollywood Turf Invitational, Marlboro Cup, Woodward Stakes), but he did manage to win the Century Handicap and the Sunset Handicap, both on turf. In the Hollywood Gold Cup his owner took a lot of flack from the press and from the racing fans because she removed regular rider Bill Shoemaker and put on Laffit Pincay Jr. Shoemaker had just been third, by 1 1/2 lengths, on Cougar in the Hollywood Turf Invitational, while Life Cycle and Wing Out, at 115 and 118 pounds, to Cougar’s 130 pounds, got the best of the weight situation. At that point Mrs. Jones thought Shoemaker was not the jockey for her horse, so she asked Whittingham to put Pincay on, because they had won the Santa Anita Handicap together. Mrs. Jones was booed by the fans when she appeared in the paddock, and when Shoemaker won on Kennedy Road the fans roared approval for them, and it is said that Mr. Jones left the track that day in tears.
When speaking of his experience in the Gold Cup that day, Pincay said that the more he got into Cougar the more the horse fought him, dropping farther and farther back, to where he was nearly 20 lengths back at the far turn. Pincay said he wanted to keep the horse within striking range, but that the horse had different plans. Shoemaker had similar complaints about Cougar, saying that the horse had a mind of his own and wanted to lag way, way behind, leaving him way too much to do! The horse finally did get going, much too late, probably running his last 1/4 in :23 4/5, while third.
The Sunset Handicap was the next stop, and it was a winning effort, with Shoemaker up, over Life Cycle and Wing Out, in 2:26 for 12 furlongs.
Cougar II was then invited to the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup, and he finished a very good and fast-finishing third to Secretariat and Riva Ridge, besting the track record himself (1:46 1/5 for Cougar) but Secretariat won in 1:45 2/5. After the race Charlie Whittingham was quite proud, saying, “If he hadn’t tried to tear down the starting gate, and hadn’t broken so badly, and hadn’t had to alter his course in the stretch, he would have been closer. We’ll be back for the Woodward...and I’m not conceding anything to Secretariat and Riva Ridge.” That’s how good Charlie Whittingham thought Cougar II was...and Charlie was a great horseman. When returning from the race to have his horse unsaddled Shoemaker supposedly said something like, “Those are two runnin’ sons of guns!”
Cougar II was immensely popular with the racing fans in Southern California. He would get a rousing ovation in the post parade and he would stop, look at the fans, do a little showing off, stop and look at the tote board or the fans again, and then go off into his warm-up, whenever he was ready. Fans would bring out banners that read, “GO Cougar GO” in the infield at Santa Anita. Michael Whittingham (the trainer’s son) said he would get chills when Cougar II ran because the fans were so excited and would cheer him from the paddock to the post.
In 1971 and 1972 Cougar II was invited to the prestigious turf championship race, the Washington D.C. International at Laurel Racecourse. Each year he boarded the plane from Southern California and went East only to be scratched each time. It was well known, after two terrible starts on very soft turf that Cougar hated soft turf, so when the storms came to Maryland prior to the race each year, softening up the turf and creating horrible racing conditions, Cougar was scratched both times. What an unfortunate turn of events, though, as this likely cost him the Champion Turf Horse award in 1971 because, if the turf had been firm and he had won, he likely would have garnered the award, which ended up going to Run the Gantlet, the winner of the race. Mary Jones said, “I just wish we could get Run the Gantlet on a firm turf, we would win by five lengths!” In the official program for the 1972 race Cougar II is listed as the morning line favorite over Droll Role (winner), Riva Ridge, Belle Geste and San San (the Arc de l’Triomphe winner), which speaks not only to his reputation but to the level of respect he held within the racing world. He was the favorite over Riva Ridge and the Arc winner!
Cougar II finally retired at the end of 1973 with a record of 50 starts, 20 wins, seven place, 17 show, for earnings of $1,162,725, which was good for ninth place on the all-time earnings list at that time. He was the first foreign-bred horse to reach the million dollar mark. To that point in racing history there were only 13 equine millionaires, total, so his feat was quite remarkable. He constantly carried top-weight and was usually the wagering favorite. His 1:39 1/5 for 8 1/2 furlongs on dirt, and his 2:11 for 11 furlongs on turf were remarkable shows of speed and versatility. He finished in the money in 30 of his last 31 races.
It’s also interesting to consider that Fort Marcy beat Damascus by a nose, and was third to Dr. Fager by 1 1/2 lengths, and Cougar II managed to beat Fort Marcy in two of their three meetings. And here’s another bit of trivia: Cougar II defeated the top class fillies and mares, Susan’s Girl, Drumtop, Typecast, Shuvee, Summer Guest and Manta. Many believed that he should have been the champion turf horse of 1971 and the handicap horse of 1972 as well, he was that good. He was ranked as one of the very top horses in the country on turf and dirt in 1971, 1972 and 1973 by the Daily Racing Form.
Cougar II paraded before the fans at Santa Anita on Oak Tree Invitational day of 1973, and this marked his final farewell to his adoring public. Yes, of course he put on his regular show, all flash and brilliance. The good ones know they’re good. He knew how good he was; after all he was “The Big Cat,” the star of the show.
The Racing Hall of Fame finally and deservedly honored Cougar II by inducting him into the hall of champions in 2006. Del Mar has a race named in honor of Cougar II. What a fitting tribute to one of the most charismatic and dynamic racehorses that has ever graced a racetrack.