August 4, 1973 ~ $50,000 Whitney Stakes ~ 1 1/4 miles ~ Saratoga Race Course
Arriving at Saratoga in the summer of 1973, Secretariat was the Conquering Hero returning home. The Big Red colt had won his first stakes race at Saratoga the previous summer. Even then, as a two-year-old rookie racehorse, knowledgeable observers were beginning to hail him as something special.
Now, he was the Triple Crown champion, the first to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes since Citation, 25 years before. As many of the top horses and stables in the country arrived in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for the famous summertime race meeting, Secretariat stood at the top of the world of sports stars, and few thought he would ever lose another race.
But he did.
In the Whitney Stakes, before another huge throng of adoring fans, Secretariat ran second to a little-known horse named Onion.
Secretariat had lost races before. But that was then, and this was now. The defeat stunned everyone.
There is a reason they call Saratoga the “Graveyard of Champions.” The list of famous racehorses who have lost at Saratoga is almost as long as the list of famous horses who have won there. In fact, there is a race at Saratoga called the Jim Dandy, which is named in honor of a horse called Jim Dandy, who once upset Gallant Fox (another Triple Crown winner) at odds of 100-1.
It was at Saratoga, in 1919, that the word “upset” was popularized into the American sports lexicon. That’s when a horse named Upset beat the mighty Man o’ War. It was the original Big Red’s only defeat.
In those days, the word upset had a more literal meaning, along the lines of tip over, or capsize. But it had no particular connection with sports.
Then came Upset’s victory over the seemingly invincible Man o’ War. So shocking was Upset’s triumph over Man o’ War, that sports scribes began to describe unexpected outcomes in other sports like football and basketball by saying so-and-so “pulled off an Upset.” Eventually, the capitalized “U” in Upset became lower case as upset became a part of regular usage, and a word we know well today.
Of course, the word onion never has gained as clear a usage as upset, but Onion’s upset victory over Secretariat on Aug.4, 1973 will long be remembered as one of the most startling upsets in sports. There really was little remarkable about Onion’s victory over Secretariat. It happened in the same way as do many races every day: a speed horse gets a clear lead, has a chance to pace himself, and finds enough gas left in the tank to hold off his challengers. On this day it was jockey Jacinto Vasquez delivering a perfectly-judged ride aboard Onion.
And Onion was a sharp racehorse for the Whitney. He had just set a new track record for 6 1/2 furlongs 11 days before at Saratoga. The footnotes from the Daily Racing Form’s chart of the Whitney tell the story:
“ONION sprinted away to a clear lead around the first turn, made the pace under good rating, and while remaining well out from the inner rail, responded readily when challenged by SECRETARIAT at the far turn, lugged in slightly just inside the final three sixteenths, was quickly straightened away and proved best under brisk urging.
“SECRETARIAT,” the Form continued, “knocked open the stall doors before the start, came away in good order, ducked to the inside after entering the backstretch, went up after ONION at the far turn, continued to race along the rail while dueling with that rival until the final sixteenth and weakened.”
At the betting windows, the track offered “win” wagering only, and Onion paid a nice $13.20, with Secretariat losing at odds of ten cents on the dollar.
Onion’s victory brought considerable attention to that horse’s trainer, Allen Jerkens, who handled the horse for the Hobeau Farm, a prominent New York-based stable. It was the first of several notable upsets for Jerkens, who soon was being called “The Giant Killer.”
The upset of Secretariat, incidentally, was not the only surprise of that week at Saratoga. Three days earlier, Secretariat’s stable-mate, Riva Ridge was upset in a minor race by a 51-1 shot named Wichita Oil. At the time, advertising men with Phillip Morris Co. had been discussing a special match race called the Marlboro Cup between Secretariat and Riva Ridge, the two Kentucky Derby winners from the same barn. After both were beaten in the same week by unknowns, one wag suggested the Marlboro match race should pit Onion versus Wichita Oil.
Very funny. But the special Marlboro race idea wasn’t dead.