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.”

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