September 15, 1973 ~ Marlboro Cup ~ 1 1/8 mile ~ Belmont Park
Big things were happening in sports in the early 1970’s, and Secretariat was an important part of the story. It was the dawning of the age of corporate sponsorship of sports, and the sponsors were especially interested in television.
Nowadays, we take corporate sponsorship for granted. There’s the Winston Cup, the Rolaids Relief Man Award, Bank One Ballpark, Toyota Blue Grass, Visa Triple Crown, and on and on. Thirty years ago, though, the idea was fairly new. And confined mostly to golf tournaments. Now corporations sponsor everything from the Orange Bowl to the Olympics.
Today, there are whole cable networks devoted exclusively to sports, and the major networks spend millions (even billions!) for the rights to broadcast the big events of the major sports.
Corporations have advertised forever at sporting events, but it was in the 1970’s that they began to absolutely lavish money on sports.
One of the first big heroes they backed was Secretariat.
Philip Morris executive Jack Landry was a horse racing fan. He saw in the amazing popularity of Secretariat the chance to expand corporate sponsorship into new territories, reaching millions of Americans through television.
Horse racing liked the idea because it showcased their sport.
Landry dreamed up a $250,000 Marlboro Cup match race pitting Secretariat against Riva Ridge, the stablemate of Secretariat. Riva Ridge was generally considered the best older horse in training.
The race would be run on Sept. 15, 1973, at Belmont Park, in New York – the news media capital of the world. Newspaper coverage was important to the idea, but what the sponsor really loved was the chance to air its own
event live on CBS television, reaching millions of sports fans who, just a few months before, had tuned in to witness Secretariat’s thrilling triumphs in the Triple Crown.
There were problems with the concept, including rules in New York that prohibited pari-mutuel betting on races in which the only entrants were owned by the same owner. Then, too, the horses had to cooperate.
Up at Saratoga, Riva Ridge lost to an unknown 56-1 shot named Wichita Oil. A few days later, Secretariat was entered in the Whitney Stakes. In his book, “The Most Glorious Crown,” author Marvin Drager recalls Phillip Morris’ Landry starting to worry as the Whitney approached. Landry told reporters, “If Secretariat loses, you’ll see one dead man lying in the middle of the track – me.”
Secretariat did lose to a horse with the ignominious name of Onion, but Landry survived. The press had fun with it, suggesting that instead of Secretariat and Riva Ridge, the Marlboro Cup should match Wichita Oil and Onion, or the Marlboro Man versus a camel.
But upsets and jokes didn’t hurt the concept. The public still loved Secretariat, and the idea of running the Big Red Horse against Riva Ridge – two Kentucky Derby winners from the same barn – only added interest.
The New York Racing Association and Phillip Morris came up with a new plan. They abandoned the match race idea and created an invitational event that would pit all the top horses in the Marlboro Cup. Which it did.
Secretariat and Riva Ridge headed the cast, with challengers that included: West Coast champion Cougar II, the Santa Anita Handicap winner; Kennedy Road, America’s top turf horse; Onion, the unlikely conqueror of Secretariat; Annihilate ‘Em, a swift new stakes performer; and Key to the Mint, the Rokeby Stable star who was a rival of Riva Ridge’s, and a bastion of the Eastern establishment.
And what a race! Even if it was all Secretariat at the end.
Onion beat it out of the gate to make the lead at the start of the race. However, Riva Ridge wouldn’t let him get away. Secretariat settled into fifth place on the outside, waiting.
Heading into the far turn, Riva Ridge pounced on Onion, and Secretariat commenced his move, too. As they turned for home, it was just Secretariat and Riva Ridge, and suddenly a match race, after all.
But that didn’t last long. Secretariat rolled away from Riva Ridge and hit the wire a three-and-a-half length winner in a new world record time of 1:45 2/5 for 1 1/8 miles on dirt.
Interestingly, the previous world record had been set in the last meeting of Kentucky Derby winners. That was in the Stymie Handicap, at Belmont Park the previous year, when Canonero II, the 1971 Kentucky Derby winner, defeated Riva Ridge, the 1972 winner in 1:46 1/5. Now the time torch had passed to the 1973 Kentucky Derby winner. But that’s where the torch stopped.
The Marlboro Cup was an unqualified success. It marked the beginning of increased television interest in racing’s big events, and more corporate sponsorship in other major sports.
Of course, it took newspapers a while to embrace the idea. Major dailies covered the Marlboro Cup, but had trouble using the world “Marlboro” in their stories. Many felt corporate sponsorship sullied the image of sports. Others just didn’t like the unpaid advertising aspect of the thing. The Louisville Courier-Journal called the event the “M-Cup,” in a sort of protest. That idea backfired when readers noted that M-Cup sounded like a brassiere size. One wag wondered what the paper would do when Dove soap sponsored a women’s golf tournament. Would they call it the D-Cup Invitational?
Many papers that didn’t wish to mention the sponsor’s name adopted a plan of referring to corporate-sponsored events by the city in which they were played. The Kemper Open became the Kansas City Open. That idea fizzled when the Buick Open was played in Pontiac, Michigan, which meant the Buick Open became the Pontiac Open. But corporate sponsorship was an idea whose time had come. It brought too much money, and increased television coverage of sports.