The Day the Two Big Reds Met

It is odd seeing the Man o’War Stakes run a week after the Kentucky Derby this year. For years this mile and a half event was run in the fall and usually decided the grass championship. One of its most memorable runnings came in 1973 when the great Secretariat broke the course record in his grass debut. An original shoe worn by Big Red in the Man ‘o War Stakes will soon be made available for purchase or auction soon, but in the meantime, here is a look back at one of Secretariat’s most remarkable victories. ~ Steve Haskin

The Day the Two “Big Reds” Met

By Steve Haskin


One of the most important advances in the history of Thoroughbred racing was the emergence of grass racing, which actually took a while to get off the ground. In the beginning, grass racing was dominated by horses who could run well on both dirt and grass, such as Round Table and then T.V. Lark and Mongo. And there were top-class dirt horses like Kelso, Bald Eagle, Damascus, and Roman Brother, who ran in the Washington D.C. International at Laurel Race Course in November.

Through the 1950s there was only one grass race that was considered a prestigious event, the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City, first run in 1953. The 1 3/16-mile event started to become popular when Round Table won it in 1957 and 1959. Also winning the U.N. in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s were major stars Career Boy, Clem, T.V. Lark, and then Mongo twice in 1962 and ’63. When T.V. Lark won in 1960, he defeated the previous year’s Horse of the Year Sword Dancer.

Unlike the United Nations, the aforementioned Washington D.C. International was by invitation only and included just a few American horses each year who were either champions or championship caliber, mainly on dirt.

Finally, in 1959, the newly formed New York Racing Association decided to join in the growth of grass racing by inaugurating the Man o’War Stakes to be run in the fall at Belmont Park at the European classic distance of a mile and a half. It was hoped that by running it in the fall after the U.N. it would prove to be a championship deciding event. So popular was the race right out of the gate it had to be run in two divisions in its first year. But grass racing was still such a novelty that in the five years from 1960 to 1964, only twice did they even bother to elect a grass champion. There simply were not enough pure grass horses.

People began to take notice of the Man o’War in 1962 when Beau Purple upset champions Kelso and Carry Back. In 1964, the great Gun Bow made his grass debut in the Man o’War, finishing second to Turbo Jet. But, again, these were mostly dirt horses trying for a major score on grass. Then in 1966 the Man o’War Stakes took off, attracting top-class grass horses and establishing itself as the race that decided or helped decide the grass championship. First it was Assagai, coming off four straight grass stakes and three victories, winning in 1966, then runner-up Fort Marcy in 1967, followed by winners Hawaii in ’69, Fort Marcy in ’70, and Run the Gantlet in ’71. All were voted grass champion. Fort Marcy in fact became the first pure grass horse to be voted Horse of the Year.

Then came 1973 and the crowning of Secretariat as arguably the greatest horse of all time, right up there with Man o’War. When racing’s new “Big Red” was sweeping the Triple Crown in spectacular fashion and becoming the idol of sports fans all over the country, there were no thoughts of him as being a grass horse. After all, he was crushing his opponents by as many as 31 lengths in the Belmont Stakes and shattering track records. His stride was something to behold, whether it was at Saratoga, Garden State Park, Aqueduct, Churchill Downs, Pimlico, Belmont Park, or Arlington Park. He just ate up the ground with those humongous strides and could beat you on the lead or coming from last.

After returning to New York following Secretariat’s easy romp in the Arlington Invitational, trainer Lucien Laurin and owner Penny Tweedy began talking about the possibility of running Big Red on the grass in the fall, with the Man o’War Stakes as the likely target.

“They wanted to show people, especially the cynics overseas, that Secretariat was just as good on the grass,” jockey Ron Turcotte recalled.

But first there was the Whitney at Saratoga and the rich Marlboro Cup at Belmont, a $250,000 race sponsored by the Philip Morris Corporation, which morphed from a match race between Secretariat and his stablemate Riva Ridge into an open invitational consisting of the best horses in the country. That nearly fell apart when an ailing Secretariat was upset in the Whitney by a far less inferior Onion and his status became uncertain for the Marlboro Cup. Suffering from a virus and high fever and being forced to miss the Travers Stakes it was touch and go whether he would be able to make the race. But after a sensational work Secretariat did compete in the Marlboro Cup and set a new American record defeating Riva Ridge and the best horses in the country.

Now it was time to start preparing Big Red for his grass debut in the Man o’War Stakes in five weeks. Laurin began his grass training, starting him off with some light work just to get a feel for the grass. Turcotte said he did very little with him, but he could feel how well he was moving over the new surface. “As soon as he stepped on it I knew he loved it,” Turcotte said.

Then came the monkey wrench in the plans. Riva Ridge was intended for the mile and half Woodward Stakes two weeks after the Marlboro Cup, but with rain in the forecast and Riva’s dislike for a wet track, it was decided to enter both horses in the Woodward with the possibility of Secretariat subbing for his stablemate in case of a sloppy track.

“I was stunned when I saw they entered Secretariat and were considering running him cold turkey off virtually no training,” Turcotte said. “Secretariat ate so much you had to burn it off with fast works, but I hadn’t done anything with him. I asked Lucien, ‘You’re not going to run him, are you?’ He said they were just talking about it in case it rained.”

When it did rain and the track was listed as sloppy, Riva Ridge was scratched leaving an unprepared and undertrained Secretariat to come back only two weeks after running the fastest mile and an eighth ever on dirt and having to stretch out to a mile and half. That was a lot to ask from a horse who just weeks before was sick with a virus and trying to rush back to make the Marlboro Cup. It was a recipe for disaster.

“When Lucien told me ‘the boss wants to run’ and they were leaving him in it killed me,” Turcotte said. “I knew he wasn’t ready for this race.”

Although Secretariat put in a tremendous effort, finishing 11 lengths ahead of the top-class Cougar II and running the mile and a half in 2:26 3/5, second only to his other-worldly time in the Belmont Stakes, he ran into a tiger in the Allen Jerkens-trained Prove Out, who ran the race of his life to defeat Big Red and then would come right back and crush Riva Ridge in the two-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup in 3:20 flat. Only the great Kelso has ever run a faster two miles. Prove Out was so good after moving to Jerkens’ barn he had the distinction of defeating four future Hall of Famers – Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Forego, and Cougar II — in a little over two months.

So Secretariat had set a new American record at a mile and an eighth after being seriously ill, came back in two weeks to run one of the fastest mile and a half races in history on a sloppy track off no training, and now had to run another mile and a half race on a new surface only nine days later.

With such an arduous task ahead of him, several trainers, who normally wanted no part of Secretariat, decided this would be the perfect time to take him on while he might be vulnerable. One of those trainers was Mack Miller, who had the plucky little Tentam, one of the most versatile horses in the country, riding an impressive three-race winning streak and sitting on another big race. After winning a division of the mile and an eighth Bernard Baruch Handicap on grass at Saratoga in a course-record 1:45 2/5, he returned to the dirt to win the mile and an eighth Governor Stakes at Belmont in 1:46 4/5, which was only three-fifths of a second off the track record that Secretariat would shatter the following week in the Marlboro Cup. He then returned to the grass and ran off with the United Nations Handicap defeating the Brighton Beach Handicap winner Star Envoy by four lengths. Earlier in the year, Tentam had won the six-furlong Toboggan Handicap in 1:09 2/5 and the Metropolitan Handicap, defeating Key to the Mint, Riva Ridge, and King’s Bishop, so he was dangerous at any distance and over any surface.

Miller had no intention of running against Secretariat until the Woodward and seeing how far the Meadow Stable colt had deviated from his original plans. Had Big Red remained on his original schedule and gone straight into the Man o’War there was no way Miller would have run Tentam. “I wanted no part of running my horse against Secretariat, but this seems to be the season for changing plans,” he told reporters. “Now you can say I joined the club.”

Of course, Allen Jerkens, with two upset victories already over Secretariat with Onion and Prove Out, wasn’t about to let this opportunity pass by and ran his hard-knocking grass specialist Triangular, who was coming off a third-place finish in the Manhattan Handicap behind London Company and Big Spruce, both of whom would also be taking on Secretariat. The Leroy Jolley-trained London Company had won four grass stakes before the Manhattan and would win another four the following winter and spring.

Big Spruce had won the Lexington Handicap on grass the year before, and in 1973 won the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita by 10 lengths before getting beat a head in the 1 ¾-mile San Juan Capistrano. He would gain recognition the following year by defeating Forego in the Governor Stakes and Marlboro Cup on dirt before finishing a fast-closing second to the great European filly Dahlia in the Canadian International on grass. Also in the Man o’War field, trying to make a name for himself on grass, was Gulfstream Park Handicap and Amory Haskell Handicap winner West Coast Scout.

So this was not going to be easy for Secretariat, especially considering what he was being asked to do in such a short period of time. Whatever optimism Mack Miller had going into the race was tempered when he watched Secretariat work on the grass for the first time several days before the race. With Turcotte aboard, Big Red sizzled five furlongs in an incredible :56 4/5, the fastest five-furlong work ever recorded on the grass.

Turcotte couldn’t believe what he felt under him. “I came back and told Lucien he was 10 to 15 lengths better on the grass,” he recalled. “He was a completely different horse. He would pound the dirt, but he was like a deer on the grass. He just skipped over it.”

Even Miller was astounded by the work, saying afterward, “My horse worked well and I was fully satisfied, but Secretariat’s work almost floored me. At times he is frightening. I’ve never seen a colt with more fluid, marvelous action.” Miller admitted he was looking for Tentam to get consideration for grass champion and that wouldn’t happen if he stayed in the barn.

Despite his defeat in the Woodward, facing such a tough field in his grass debut, and even having New York’s leading tip sheet “Lawton’s” picking the pure grass horse London Company to win off his impressive score in the Manhattan Handicap, Secretariat still was sent off as the 1-2 favorite. That work obviously told the bettors all they needed to know. Tentam was next at 7-2, with Big Spruce 6-1 and London Company 8-1 in the seven-horse field.

The break was clean with no one appearing to want the lead. Secretariat was back in third and seemed to take a few strides to find his rhythm, as Tentam established a short lead from the inside. The field was well bunched when Secretariat split horses and quickly shot to the lead, appearing to be leaping off the turf. It was apparent he was loving the new surface, as he bounced over it with those long fluid strides while opening a length advantage, which he increased to two lengths going around the first turn through an opening quarter in :23 4/5.

Down the backstretch, the lead was now almost three lengths, but Tentam, under Jorge Velasquez, finally made his move along the hedge and narrowed Big Red’s lead to a length through a half in :47 flat. Turcotte then let out a notch on Secretariat and opened up again, drawing clear by two and then three lengths. No one behind Tentam was doing anything, and just when it looked as if Secretariat was in complete control, Tentam made another run at him to close to within a length nearing the head of stretch. No one knew for sure how Secretariat would handle that final quarter, running in his third race in 23 days, never having run on grass, and having a tough, experienced older horse who had run brilliantly on grass breathing down his neck, while opening eight lengths on the rest of the field.

They turned for home after a mile and a quarter in 2:00 flat, which was almost four full seconds faster than the course record for 10 furlongs. But Turcotte could feel he still had a ton of horse under him and never went to the whip. He continued to hand-ride Secretariat, just briefly waving the stick at him. Big Red opened up by three lengths at the eighth and was five in front at the wire, still under a hand ride. His time of 2:24 4/5 established a new course record. He had built up so much momentum going past the wire he was timed galloping out a mile and five-eighths in 2:37 4/5, which equaled the world record…on any surface. The two horses who shared the world record carried eight and 11 fewer pounds than Secretariat, and he was just galloping out. Tentam finished 7 1/2 lengths ahead of Big Spruce, who had closed belatedly from last.

“I was just playing with Tentam the whole way,” said Turcotte. Mack Miller had seen enough. “I saw today the greatest horse I’ve seen in my lifetime…on dirt or grass,” he said. “I must say I don’t ever want to run against him again.”

Two horses from the Man o’War field who dared to run against him again were Big Spruce and Triangular. Because Laurin and Turcotte were Canadian, it was decided to use the Canadian International Championship as Secretariat’s farewell race. The connections of Big Spruce and Triangular felt the mile and five-eighths distance would be to their advantage. Unfortunately for Turcotte, the Man o’War Stakes would be his final ride aboard Secretariat. A suspension cost him the mount at Woodbine and he was replaced by Eddie Maple. All Turcotte told Maple was, “Just drop his head and don’t pick it up.”

Once again, Secretariat showed how much he loved the grass, bounding away to a huge lead and then coasting home to score by 6 1/2 lengths over Big Spruce. That was more than enough to earn him the grass championship to go along with Champion 3-Year-Old and Horse of the Year.

Big Red had left an indelible legacy on dirt and on grass, but he also left a lot of what-ifs. What amazing feats would we have seen had he continued to race as an older horse?

“We never saw the true Secretariat,” Turcotte said. “He wasn’t even fully mature at 3. He was still maturing and one can only imagine what he would have done at 4 and even 5. People don’t realize what a tough horse he was with all he had to overcome.”

But even retiring early, the name Secretariat remains not only a symbol of greatness, but a part of our vocabulary. As heroic a figure as he had become throughout his spectacular Triple Crown sweep, it took a record-breaking performance in the Man o’War Stakes, in which he was confronted with numerous obstacles, to elevate him to an even higher plateau. It is a plateau no one has reached in more than half a century. Big Red had “met” his namesake on the Belmont Park turf course and they now reign together in racing’s highest pantheon.


Photographs courtesy of Bob Coglianese, New York Racing Association


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