Marlboro Cup of Champions

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. - See more at:
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. - See more at:

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. In 2011, he contributed a piece to The Racing Hub about Cougar II on the 40th anniversary of his controversial disqualification in the Woodward Stakes.

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. - See more at:
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. - See more at:

By Mike Sekulic

Philip Morris Corporation executive Jack Landry had a vision. As a racing fan, he proposed a match race that would pit Meadow Stable’s (owned by Penny Tweedy) stars, the 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, against their 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Riva Ridge.

The age of corporate sports sponsorship was in its infancy and, as such, since this proposed match race was to be sponsored by Philip Morris, the people responsible for Marlboro cigarettes, it would be called the Marlboro Cup. While it was a clever marketing move, some newspapers refused to print the name of the race, not wanting to give “Marlboro” the free publicity.

As the target date for the race approached, the match race idea was tarnished when Secretariat was upset by the unheralded Onion in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga, and Riva Ridge lost to 56-1 longshot Wichita Oil in an allowance race on the turf at the same venue. Some racing writers and wise-guys cracked that the Marlboro Cup should have Onion squaring off against Wichita Oil! Thankfully, that was not to be.

Scrapping the match race idea, the New York Racing Association and Philip Morris decided to alter the structure of the race, making it a championship event that would include the best male handicap horses and 3-year-olds in the nation. It would be contested at Belmont Park, on September 15, 1973, at 1 1/8 miles, for an enormous purse of $250,000.

The field was headlined by Secretariat and Riva Ridge, of course, and included Cougar II, Onion, Annihilate ‘Em, Kennedy Road and Key to the Mint.

Secretariat, champion 2-year-old colt of 1972, and the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years, was being hailed as probably the greatest horse of all time after putting on the three best performances in Triple Crown history.

Secretariat roared to victory in the Kentucky Derby, in a track record time of 1:59 2/5 after running each successive quarter mile faster (than the prior quarter). He defeated Sham by 2 1/2 lengths, and it was another eight lengths back to Our Native and Forego. It was a performance of staggering implications.

The Preakness was next, and he made an astounding move, sweeping around the clubhouse turn and into the backstretch, charging from last to first in a matter of several strides. He went on to victory in what would later be proven to be track record-setting performance. Once again, it was 2 1/2 lengths back to the ultra-completive Sham, and another eight lengths back to Our Native.

The stage was set for something of historical significance to possibly happen on June 9, 1973, but who could have guessed what would transpire that day? The racing world had not seen a Triple Crown sweep since Citation in 1948, so some people wondered if it could be done, but no one had seen an effort quite like the one they were about to witness.

Not only was Secretariat successful in his mission, he was magnificent and seemingly otherworldly! His performance, a display of raw strength and talent, which saw him open an enormous lead at the far turn and go on to a 31 length victory was so mind-blowing that many were calling it not only the greatest Belmont Stakes performance, but the greatest 1 1/2-mile race in history, and perhaps the greatest single performance by a Thoroughbred, ever. His final time, 2:24, shaved 2 3/5 seconds off of Gallant Man’s track record!

The immortal Belmont Stakes race-call by track announcer Chic Anderson induced goose-bumps, as he roared, “Secretariat is widening now…he is moving like a tremendous machine.” If the word “Goliath,” is defined as “As a person or thing of colossal power or achievement,” and it is, that was Secretariat.

Riva Ridge was voted champion 2-year-old colt of 1971, but missed the Triple Crown the next year when he finished fourth in the Preakness, as it was contested over a sloppy track he did not enjoy. As a 4-year-old he won the Massachusetts Handicap and the Brooklyn, and was coming off of a half-length win over Halo in an allowance race at Saratoga. He had just become racing’s 12th millionaire.

California’s darling, Cougar II, Champion Turf Horse of 1972, also known as “The Big Cat,” added even more splendor to the field. The betting public had made Cougar II the heavy favorite in 21 of his last 22 starts, and the only time he was not favored in that time span he finished first in the 1971 Woodward Stakes by five lengths, in a fleet 2:00 2/5, having won with complete authority, but was disqualified for slightly brushing an opponent at the top of the stretch. It was one of the worst judgment calls ever made by the New York stewards.

Adept at racing on turf and dirt, Cougar II had won that year’s Santa Anita Handicap. In May of 1973 he became only the 11th equine millionaire in racing history, and the first foreign bred horse to earn $1 million, upon winning the Century Handicap at Hollywood Park. He had been in-the-money in 28 of his prior 29 starts, all stakes.

Queen’s Plate winner Kennedy Road, a multiple champion in his native Canada, won four stakes in California earlier in the year, including the 1973 Hollywood Gold Cup. While Key to the Mint, champion 3-year-old colt of 1972, was the fifth champion in the field! Onion, conqueror of Secretariat, and Annihilate ‘Em, winner of the Travers Stakes, completed the cast.

With several champions meeting on the track the Marlboro Cup had, arguably, attracted one of the very best fields in history, perhaps rivaled only by the meeting of Damascus, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager in the 1967 Woodward Stakes at Aqueduct Park.

Secretariat had captured the imagination of the public, having graced the covers of not only Sports Illustrated, but of national magazines, Time and Newsweek, so there was the excitement and hope that another moment of greatness was about to be displayed. Was America’s equine hero ready for another spectacular display?

The huge crowd assembled at Belmont Park, and the national television audience tuning in for the Marlboro Cup broadcast on CBS, was treated to something special, as the stage was set by Desert Vixen in the 6th race, the Beldame Stakes, which she won by 8 1/2 lengths over Poker Night and champion Susan’s Girl, while matching Canonero II’s track record of 1:46 1/5.

It was time for the 7th race on the card, the meeting of champions, and Secretariat‘s opportunity to shine, yet again. Ron Turcotte, regular rider for both Meadow Stable stars, not surprisingly, chose Secretariat as his mount. Trainer Lucien Laurin gave a leg up to Eddie Maple on Riva Ridge.

As the field sprang from the gate, Kennedy Road broke on top, but was immediately passed by Riva Ridge, who was quickly overtaken by Onion before they had raced a quarter mile. Annihilate ‘Em kept up with the leading group while hugging the rail in 4th. With a hotly contested pace on the front end, Secretariat, never far back, bided his time in 5th. The quarter went in :22 2/5, the half in :45 3/5 on the “wet-fast” racing surface.

Secretariat, loomed boldly just behind the leading group at this point, waiting to strike, while Key to the Mint, raced about 4 lengths behind, and Cougar II, after a bad start, lagged another 4 to 5 lengths behind that.

After covering six furlongs Riva Ridge had fended off all the challengers for the early lead, except one, and that one was Secretariat. The match race had been engaged. Secretariat loomed boldly to Riva Ridge’s outside and challenged him for the lead. When they hit the top of the stretch, with six furlongs gone in 1:09 1/5, Secretariat began to assert himself, demanding the lead, moving away from the field in a display of raw strength, blazing the mile in 1:33! Secretariat rushed home in a world record time of 1:45 2/5, shattering the track record by 4/5. Riva Ridge, ultra-game in defeat, held off Cougar II for the place.

It was all Secretariat and Riva Ridge down the stretch, but Cougar II, who was in a drive while charging from last place had to alter course rather drastically after Kennedy Road and Onion came together in front of him at about the 3/16th’s pole. Upon unsaddling, Cougar’s jockey, the great William Shoemaker made a reference to the first two finishers—“Those are two runnin’ sons of guns!”

Of his trouble in the race, the Daily Racing Form would later comment about Cougar II, “He was closing ground on both Secretariat and Riva Ridge at 1 1/8 miles in the Marlboro, after almost tearing down the gate at the start, following which he was blocked while in the midst of a drive toward the leaders at the top of the stretch.” Trainer Charlie Whittingham said, “We didn’t think we could have caught Secretariat in the Marlboro, but if he didn’t encounter so much trouble he would have beaten Riva Ridge.” Racing luck means everything.

The top three finishers in the Marlboro Cup were millionaires at a time when it was extremely difficult to earn $1 million. The U.S. dollar was quite solid in value, and inflation, as we now know it, had not eroded its value. There were no million dollar purses in those days. The Marlboro Cup, with its $250,000 pot, was the richest race to that point in time. In fact, the $451,800 in total purses offered for the racing card (nine races) that day at Belmont Park was the largest single-day purse distribution in Thoroughbred racing history.

To illustrate how difficult it was to gain inclusion in the Millionaire’s Club, Fort Marcy became racing’s 10th millionaire in 1970, and it took until May of 1973 for Cougar II to become the 11th, and Riva Ridge was the 12th shortly thereafter. Secretariat became the 13th millionaire in history via his victory in the Marlboro Cup. Inclusion in the “Millionaire’s Club” was something special, something attained by only the greatest of horses.

Sometimes things don’t live up to their hype, but this was not one of those times. The potential and the promise of a  championship race had been realized, as Jack Landry’s Marlboro Cup had delivered one of the best fields ever assembled on a racetrack, and a world record performance by the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. Secretariat’s enormous reputation grew by virtue of his tour de force romp, and helped to solidify his claim to the title, “The Greatest Horse of All Time.”


Leave a Comment:

Del Mar Mark

Awesome memories Mike - LOVED ol' Cougar II.

23 Sep 2013 9:02 PM

Mike brings racing to life like no one else! He captures the moment and brings it to life, making me feel like I am there reliving the event. Beautifully written, please print more articles by him in the future!

23 Sep 2013 9:21 PM

Secretariat in my opinion is the greatest horse of ALL time. He achieved so much in such a brief period and did it in track record fashion. He obliterated the Belmont track record for 1 1/2 miles and shaved almost a second at 1 1/8 miles. What horse has ever done this?

23 Sep 2013 9:44 PM

Reading this fantastic story is almost like sitting at Clocker's Corner at Santa Anita listening to Mike expound his vast knowledge of the racing sport.  He absolutely has one of great memories of past races and his love of the sport is evident not only in this article but in speaking to him.  Great job. Frazier

23 Sep 2013 10:01 PM

An outstanding journey down memory lane---I watched that race in my youth but only remembered that Secretariat won and Riva Ridge ran second. I had forgotten how deep the field was and that it was a world record. Thanks Mike for the re-ride.  BC

23 Sep 2013 10:18 PM

I was at the rail near the finish line that day, young and totally besotted with that magnificent chestnut colt. From the time I first saw him step foot on a racetrack in 1972, Secretariat was then, continues to be, and will always be one of the great loves of my life.

Many said at the time that Secretariat saved racing. While I'm not sure that's entirely true, the Marlboro Cup concept led the way for the Breeders Cup. So in that sense, Secretariat's influence on the sport continues to be immense and of incalculable value. Add his importance as one of the great broodmare sires of all time, and if Red didn't save the sport, he sure as heck has been the spark that kept it's fires burning, in the U.S., at least.

Considering all Red went through that summer of '73 -- getting sick in Saratoga, then being rushed into the Woodward when he was actually being pointed for a start on turf -- to see him win that Marlboro Cup in world record time was breathtaking.

Thank you for this article about the first Marlboro Cup. The racing world owes an immense debt to Jack Landry, Phillip Morris Corp., Penny Chenery Tweedy, and the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle, Secretariat.

24 Sep 2013 12:12 AM

Great article by Mike Sekulic who certainly knows his stuff. A noted authority on past superstars of the racing world and a fine photographer to boot.

24 Sep 2013 5:51 AM

CougarⅡ was an unique and impressive horse!

His great-grandchild,Biwa Hayahide by Sharrood(his broodmare is CougarⅡ),was very active in Japan.

24 Sep 2013 7:37 AM
Pedigree Ann

Thank you for acknowledging the trouble that His Felinity, My Own True Love Cougar II encountered in this race. And that his DQ in the Woodward was bogus. Even though the Marlboro Cup distance of 9f was a bit on the short side for him - his wins in the Californian were due to insane paces that set it up for his awesome charge from behind - he acquitted himself well.

24 Sep 2013 9:20 AM

Excellent article. Very informative and well written. I'm a huge fan of  Secretariat and Mike really brought back some memories.  I've never been much of a reader of the blood horse but this piece really sparked my interest. Thanks for publishing it :)

24 Sep 2013 11:45 AM

Terrific article - thank you.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The athletic feat of Secretariat and the other contenders was amazing.  The splits of 1:09 1/5, 1:33 for a mile, and 1:45 2/5 are awe-inspiring.  What a tremendous racehorse Secretariat was - truly the best there ever.  Wish he could have raced as a 4 year old.

Thank you again for the revisit to the 1973 Marlboro Cup!

24 Sep 2013 11:59 AM

Terrific article - thank you.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The athletic feat of Secretariat and the other contenders was amazing.  The splits of 1:09 1/5, 1:33 for a mile, and 1:45 2/5 are awe-inspiring.  What a tremendous racehorse Secretariat was - truly the best there ever.  Wish he could have raced as a 4 year old.

Thank you again for the revisit to the 1973 Marlboro Cup!

24 Sep 2013 12:04 PM

Just like the great thoroughbreds mentioned in this article, great prestigious races like the Marlboro cup are long gone and will never come back. The breeding for frail, short career sprinters and milers have overtaken this once great racing industry.

24 Sep 2013 1:38 PM
Ellen F

Oh Mike,

Your article gave me the shivers…  The race is so well described. You have captured the incredible drama of the day. And I am printing it out for my children. I was there. I was at the Marlboro Cup.

Bless you,


24 Sep 2013 7:17 PM

This is a wonderful article that I thoroughly enjoyed reading.  Each paragraph brought back memories of a very special time in horse racing history.  Loved it!!

24 Sep 2013 8:44 PM
Love 'em all

Loved this story.  Spent an hour or two searching out more info on Cougar II who really sparked my interest in this story.  What a horse!

Wow.  You lucky folks who actually saw the '73 Marlboro Cup in person.  Here's a list of all the MC winners ... '73 through '87.

Thanks so much for sharing, Mr. Sekulic.

25 Sep 2013 10:33 AM

Thank you for remembering the great Kennedy Road.  Different level from Secretariat but still beloved.

25 Sep 2013 1:21 PM

Awesome article, Mike! Author and photograher EXTRAORDINAIRE, for sure!!

25 Sep 2013 4:30 PM

Loved this story.  Anytime a story involves Big Red, it catches my eye. I agree with you, chucky, about the state of todays racehorses.

25 Sep 2013 6:05 PM
Ryan Stillman

Awesome article. This was very well researched Masterfully written.. I look forward to more from this writer

25 Sep 2013 9:37 PM

Pretty good article but you have it wrong, Man O' War is the greatest horse of all time.  And, for the record, Spectacular Bid ran just a second and a fifth off of this alleged "greatest horse ever" pretty good for a horse that didn't win the Triple Crown!!  

26 Sep 2013 12:50 AM
steve from st louis

A world's record without Turcotte even drawing his stick, a pure hand ride.

26 Sep 2013 3:23 PM
Katherine Mouzourakis

Bravo Mike! I watched the broadcast on tv and you couldn't have told a better story. Felt like I was re-living it again. Thanks for the great memories and keep it up with more stories in the future. If Blood-Horse had a brain, they'd commission you as a part of their team - their loss if they don't!

26 Sep 2013 7:03 PM
Saratoga AJ

Secretariat was one of the greats, but certainly not the best of all time. He would throw in his clunkers. Onion beat him at equal weights in the 1973 Whitney, and Prove Out absolutely trounced him by almost 5 lengths in the 1973 Woodward. And Prove out carried seven more pounds!

To be the greatest you have to prove you can carry weight. Sec never did.

In my opinion you have to consider five time HOTY Kelso as perhaps the best, since he carried in excess of 130 pounds numerous times while beating more great or very good horses than any other thoroughbred in history. He took on all comers year after year, spotting them weight most of the time. Some of the champions he beat included the likes of  Carry Back, Gun Bow, Bald Eagle, Tompion, Never Bend, Beau Purple, Quadrangle, Roman Brother, Crimson Satan, Jaipur, Ridan and Pia Star.

27 Sep 2013 10:33 AM

What an incredible field in this race! Very much in the spirit of what Breeders' Cup does today. Fantastic article!

28 Sep 2013 9:41 AM

mike has captured a moment in time and shared  a memory for many people.

In this day when million dollar winning horses are common, this article reminds you of just how different and difficult it was in this industry.

Mike you have a passion for this business and the photos you take are magnificent.

Keep it going............Andy

29 Sep 2013 10:20 AM

An excellent piece that deftly combines passion, knoweldge, and literary flair.

And Mr. Sekulic chose an event worthy of his writing talents.  The Marloboro Cup, particularly the 73' running, was the Breeder's Cup Classic before the Breeder's Cup.  Except, unlike any Breeder's Cup Classic, the 73' Marlboro Cup featured 3 no-doubt Hall of Famers, a trio that made what were otherwise outstanding runners like Key to the Mint and Kennedy Road appear to be afterthoughts.

In my opinion, Secretariat was the greatest thoroughbred racehorse of all-time.  His best was simply  better than any other horse's best.  And while Secretariat didn't always reproduce his best, his off-days could have simply been the result of the fact that his team campaigned him in such a way that they weren't afraid to lose every once in while.  They wanted to push Secretariat so that he could prove the extent of his talents, and they embraced the concept of a prep race(and that one could have a productive loss).  

Riva Ridge was arguably a sloppy Pimlico track from being a champion at 2,3, and 4.  Riva Ridge lost the 3 year old title to Key to the Mint in part because Lucien and Penny continued to try and win big races late in the year even though the horse had started to tail off.

The fact Cougar II wasn't in the Bloodhorse Top 100 was the single greatest oversight of the rankings.  Had the races Cougar won in 1971 and 1972 carried with them the same grade status they did in 1973(the first year of the grading system), Cougar would have had a career total of 10 North American grade 1 victories, not including the dubious 71' Woodward dq.  He would have won grade 1s from 8.5 furlongs on dirt to 14 furlongs on turf.  And he was remarkably consistent, placing in 44 of 50 career starts, and his final 20(almost all at the grade 1 or grade 1 equivalent level).

04 Oct 2013 4:08 PM
Mike Sekulic

While I do think the 1973 version of the Marlboro Cup was the best one, because of the high-quality field, the race did attract all the top horses during its brief run. For example, the field in the 1975 running, featurning WAJIMA, FOREGO, ANCIENT TITLE, FOOLISH PLEASURE, STEP NICELY, AVATAR and ROYAL GLINT, was fantastic.

06 Oct 2013 2:26 PM
Chris Aplin

Thanks Mike for the back story of the origins of the Marlboro Cup.  I found it very interesting and part of racing history that I never knew.  You brought the race to life by your article.  Fantastic!

08 Oct 2013 11:07 AM
rocky wills

Wish the sport could get back to this

15 Oct 2013 10:53 AM
Mike Sekulic

The NYRA posted this video of the 1973 Marlboro Cup to on November 8, 2013:

05 Dec 2013 9:17 PM

Recent Posts

What We're Reading

More Blogs