Big Red Bounces Back in the Marlboro Cup

This is the story of how Secretariat managed to recover from an illness suffered in the Whitney Stakes in time to once again make history in the inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup, paving the way for an unforgettable fall season that solidified his greatness. ~ Steve Haskin

Big Red Bounces Back in the Marlboro Cup

By Steve Haskin


In the spring of 1973 Thoroughbred racing was basking in the glow of Secretariat’s epic sweep of the Triple Crown. Not only had he become the first horse in 25 years to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes, he did it with such flair, accomplishing feats never before seen, it raised the Sport of Kings to new heights and turned this equine Adonis into a national celebrity. When he appeared on the covers of Time, Newsweek, and Sports Illustrated the week before his mind-blowing victory in the Belmont it set new standards of journalism by making a horse the most newsworthy celebrity in the country.

But by August a cloud hung over the Sport of Kings; the cloud of uncertainty. How did this seemingly invincible force of nature who had tread where no other Thoroughbred had ever gone throughout his record-breaking Triple Crown manage to get beat in the Whitney Stakes by an allowance caliber sprinter named Onion? And how would his shocking defeat at Saratoga affect the running of the newly conceived Marlboro Cup with its lucrative $250,000 purse, which originally was designed as a match race between Secretariat and his illustrious stablemate Riva Ridge?

There was no doubt that Secretariat’s defeat in the Whitney was a major setback for the new Marlboro Cup. And in the following weeks more questions arose that could have put an end to the race before it began.

The Marlboro Cup already had a dubious foundation, with its rich purse and its sponsor, the Philip Morris Corporation, proposing a match race between two stablemates, which didn’t sit well with a number of racing fans who saw this as just payday for the colts’ owner Meadow Stable’s Penny Tweedy. This mile and an eighth event, scheduled for September 15, would mark one of the first times a sporting event would be sponsored by and named after a corporation. But it seemed as if forces were conspiring against it.

Secretariat was more than just the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. He already was a legend, an icon that had transcended his sport. As good as the kind-hearted, loppy-eared Riva Ridge was, Penny Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin knew he was not quite up to the task of beating Secretariat. But for $250,000, they weren’t about to turn down the proposal. They knew Riva would at least make it competitive and put on a show…up to a point. And many believed that Penny’s heart was with Riva Ridge, who had helped save the farm during a time of financial crisis and the death of Penny’s father, Meadow Stud’s founder Christopher Chenery.

Although some took exception to the race, many were intrigued at the prospect of seeing the two Kentucky Derby winners meet. This would be Riva Ridge’s chance to knock off the horse in whose shadow he had existed for almost a year.

Then something happened that made marketing director Jack Landry and the other top executives at Philip Morris start chain smoking. When Riva Ridge was upset by a 56-1 shot named Wichita Oil in an allowance race on the grass on August 1, it took a good deal of interest out of the match race. No one could understand why he had been put on the grass at that time, especially an allowance race, following back-to-back victories in the Massachusetts Handicap and a world record-breaking performance in the Brooklyn Handicap.

Then came the Whitney debacle only three days later. With Secretariat proving to be mortal after all, the Marlboro Cup pretty much lost its luster. The brain trust at Philip Morris had to do some quick thinking. They decided to continue on, but changed plans, altering the purse structure, and making the race an open invitation, inviting the best horses in the country.

But their problems were far from over. There were still major questions hanging over the race. It was announced several days after the Whitney that Big Red had developed a virus. The stress of competition apparently had brought it to a head. But it later came out that Secretariat had been sick before the Whitney. And there was a record crowd expected. If he had been scratched it would have been a major blow to the New York Racing Association and racing in general, with so many seats already sold.

It was not only the one-length defeat to Onion, but finishing only a diminishing half-length ahead of the vastly inferior Rule by Reason that convinced everyone Secretariat was nowhere near his best. He came out of the race with a 105-degree fever, his appetite declined and he acted sluggish for several days.

Secretariat’s hotwalker Steve Jordan added, “He was definitely sick for the Whitney. I can’t recall any trepidation going into the race, but most of the time these things explode from the stress of a race. And I’m sure he was incubating something going into the race. Afterward, we just walked him for eight to 10 days.”

There was no choice but to skip the Travers Stakes, which was won by four-time stakes winner Annihilate ‘Em with red-hot Ron Turcotte picking up the mount at the last minute.

The Whitney was now history, and all the attention turned to the Marlboro Cup. Could Secretariat rebound big-time and prove to everyone that it was indeed the illness that compromised his chances? Could he even recover in time from his illness to make the Marlboro Cup? Was Riva Ridge’s defeat on the grass an aberration and he would return to form on the dirt?

Although there was still a question surrounding Secretariat’s status, it was time to start scouring the country for horses worthy of competing for the megabucks and in the highest level of competition.

There was a slight ray of hope when Riva Ridge rebounded from his defeat to win an allowance race back on dirt on August 21, but just barely holding on to defeat Halo by a half-length. It wasn’t the kind of dominating performance everyone had hoped for, but it at least erased that blot from his record and put him back on the right track.

The big question, and on what the entire race hinged, was whether Secretariat could make it back in time and return to his Triple Crown form. It was going to be touch and go. Lucien Laurin felt he had to get four stiff works in the colt, with the last one being brilliant enough to convince him Big Red was ready to perform at his best coming off an illness and a six-week layoff.

Steve Jordan recalled, “One morning I was standing in the yard with Lucien and (assistant) Henny Hefner and Lucien said, ‘I don’t know, this is really squeezing on this horse to make this race after being as sick as he was. This is a big task facing all these good horses.’ Henny always had a way of putting things in perspective, and he shrugged his shoulders and just said, ‘Well, boss, then we’ll just win in it with the other horse.’”

Jordan walked Secretariat each day and could feel him getting stronger.

“I was out grazing him one morning, and back then we used only a single chain,” he recalled. “Out of nowhere, he started raising hell and rearing up right near the old wooden manure pit. The first thing I did was look to see where my car was parked, because I knew if he got loose I’m going right to my car and saying sayonara to the racing game; I’m gone. I jumped inside the manure pit to brace myself, and he finally settled down. I was ashen and my heart was pounding out of my chest. I looked up and saw Penny and Lucien standing at the end of the shedrow and they’re both smiling. Lucien yells to me, ‘Stevie, you can bring him in now. I guess he’s feeling better, isn’t he?’”

Jordan had discovered earlier just how strong Big Red was when the colt literally lifted him off the ground just by sneezing.

Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton described Big Red’s march toward the Marlboro Cup as only he could: “Returned to Belmont to point for the $250,000 Marlboro, the sport’s pin-up horse looked bloody awful, rather like one of those sick paintings which betoken an inner theatre of the macabre. It required supernatural recuperative powers to recover as he did. He was subjected to four severe preps in two weeks. Astonishingly, he gained weight and blossomed with every trial. He had to work in time approximating track records just to keep fit, and trainer Lucien Laurin never got to the bottom of him actually. The colt had a most accommodating appetite. Not to be vulgar, but one of Laurin’s contemporaries quipped, ‘Either he is a good doer, or he’s got a tapeworm.’”

With Secretariat seemingly healthy and feeling good and Riva Ridge back in the win column, the remainder of the field began to come together.

There was Riva Ridge’s archrival, the 3-year-old champion Key to the Mint, winner of the Suburban Handicap and second in the Met Mile, as well as being victorious in the previous year’s Brooklyn and Whitney against older horses followed by victories in the Travers and Woodward Stakes. In the latter he snatched the 3-year-old championship away from Riva Ridge by beating him soundly.

Then there was the ageless California invader Cougar II, a star on grass and dirt who was destined for the Hall of Fame. Even at age 7 “The Big Cat” was still going strong, having won the Santa Anita Handicap earlier in the year and the Sunset Handicap on grass in his start before the Marlboro Cup, in which he missed the course record by two-fifths of a second carrying 128 pounds. In his seven starts that year, all of them Grade 1, he finished in the money in all of them. Cougar had been sent east for the 1971 Woodward Stakes, in which he romped by five lengths only to be disqualified in a very controversial decision. In all, he had won 14 stakes and placed in 16 others since coming to America from his native Chile.

Also accepting an invitation was Kennedy Road, champion in Canada at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5, including Horse of the Year in 1973. Sent to trainer Charlie Whittingham in California in 1973, he won the Hollywood Gold Cup and San Antonio, San Diego, and Cabrillo Handicaps, giving Whittingham a powerful one-two punch with Cougar.

The field was completed with Travers winner Annihilate ‘Em and Big Red’s Whitney nemesis Onion. The seven runners assembled in what was now being billed as the “Thoroughbred Race of the Year” had earned a total of $4,539,335 and won 63 stakes, including six classics counting Kennedy Road’s Queen’s Plate victory, and 13 championships.

The last and most important piece of the puzzle would be Secretariat’s final work three days before the race. He was a horse who carried so much muscle and flesh he needed to work fast before a race to get sharp, both mentally and physically.

So Laurin sent out Big Red for his all-important final work, needing to see a fast time and strong gallop-out. If he didn’t demonstrate the sheer brilliance his trainer was looking for, there was a chance of him being withdrawn, which would have proved to be a disaster…for the race and the fans. But the last thing anyone wanted was for Secretariat to have a relapse because he came back a week too soon. With that $6,080,000 million syndication tag still hanging over his head, back-to-back defeats was unthinkable.

Any fears or trepidation that may have existed disappeared in the vapor trail Secretariat left as he rocketed his five furlongs in :57 flat, galloping out six furlongs in 1:08 4/5. There was no doubt now that he was ready, even though Laurin felt he was still a week away from being 100 percent.

Laurin was quoted as saying, “It hasn’t been easy. I could have used another week. I know I’ve got the two best horses; whether either wins is another question. I do know that if Secretariat were coming up to this race as well as Riva Ridge has, they could put 135 pounds on him and I wouldn’t be worried.”

In weighting the race, racing secretary Kenny Noe assigned Secretariat 124 pounds, with the 4-year-old Riva Ridge carrying 127. With the five-pound weight allowance for 3-year-olds, Secretariat was giving his stablemate two pounds on the scale. Cougar II and Key to the Mint would carry 126, down to 3-year-old Annihilate Em and the 4-year-old Onion at 116.

An all-night rain hit New York the night before the race, but the sun and wind dried out the track quickly, making it wet-fast, and then just plain old fast. That made the backers of Riva Ridge, who detested the slop, and Cougar II, who did his best on a fast track, very happy.

The 48,023 fans in attendance got a peek at what was to come the race before the Marlboro Cup when the brilliant filly Desert Vixen, riding a seven-race winning streak, including runaway victories in the Monmouth Oaks, Delaware Oaks, Alabama, and Gazelle, all by more than six lengths, romped by 8 1/2 lengths in the Beldame Stakes, running the mile and an eighth in a sizzling 1:46 1/5 and equaling the track record, while demolishing one of the greatest fields of fillies and mare in memory; a field that included champion Susan’s Girl, Summer Guest, Convenience, Light Hearted, and Poker Night. If this was the prelude to the big show, everyone knew the track record was about to fall in the Marlboro Cup.

The Meadow Stable entry, the original two opponents for the race, was sent off as the 2-5 favorite, with Key to the Mint at 7-2 and the late-running Cougar II 4-1.

Riva Ridge broke on top under jockey Eddie Maple, but was quickly joined on the inside by Onion, who attempted the same tactics he used in the Whitney by charging to the lead, with Riva in pursuit, followed closely by Kennedy Road and Annihilate Em. Sitting right behind them in striking position was Secretariat, as they blazed along the opening half in :45 3/5.

Heading into the far turn, Riva Ridge moved up to challenge Onion, as Ron Turcotte let out a notch on Secretariat and he began closing in from the far outside. It soon became apparent that the race was going to be between the two Meadow Stable colts, just as the Philip Morris people had envisioned. Cougar II was still far back and Key to the Mint for some reason wasn’t firing on this day.

Following a rapid 1:09 1/5 for the three quarters, it was now all Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Big Red headed his stablemate approaching the top of the stretch, with Turcotte keeping him well off the rail, while looking over his left and then right shoulder to see if there were any threats being mounted. There was no one even close on his outside, so he gave one last peek over at Eddie Maple on Riva Ridge and saw that he had them measured.

Turcotte never once went to the whip and let Secretariat open up on his own, passing the eighth pole with a two-length lead in a scorching 1:33 flat. Turcotte continued hand-riding Secretariat through the final furlong and just waved the whip at him briefly approaching the wire. Big Red crossed the finish line 3 1/2 lengths in front of Riva Ridge, who was two lengths ahead of the fast-closing Cougar II under Bill Shoemaker. The final time of 1:45 2/5 shattered Desert Vixen’s short-lived record by four-fifths of a second and established a new world record.

After the race, Steve Jordan was standing on the track waiting for both colts to return and found himself next to the great Charlie Whittingham, trainer of Cougar II and Kennedy Road, who was waiting for his two horses. Cougar was the first to return and when Shoemaker jumped off and pulled off the tack, Jordan, standing no more than five yards away, heard him say to Whittingham, “Charlie, those are two runnin’ sonofabitches that beat us.”

Secretariat, with such a brilliant performance, had made his Whitney defeat inconsequential, as if it never happened. The Big Red Machine was back operating at full power, with Secretariat pointed for the Man o’War Stakes on grass in three weeks, but that is a story for another day. As for the Marlboro Cup, it would continue to be one of racing’s most sought after prizes, run at different distances, until it was discontinued in 1988, having been won by the likes of Forego, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, and champions Slew o’ Gold, Chief’s Crown, and Turkoman. It was also where Forego carried a staggering 136 pounds to victory and where Triple Crown winners (Seattle Slew and Affirmed) met for the first time.

But it will be best remembered as the race in which the legend and greatness of Secretariat was resurrected against an all-star field, adding to Big Red’s list of track and world records. And he did it bouncing back from an illness. It showed once again that Secretariat was and always will be the sport’s greatest showman.

Photos courtesy of New York Racing Association / Bob Coglianese

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.



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