The Legendary 1973 Whitney Handicap
It was 1973 and Secretariat was on his way to racing immortality, having just captured the first Triple Crown since Citation in 1948. The Meadow Stable star would go on to win three Eclipse awards that year: his second Horse of the Year title, best three year old colt, and top grass runner. Secretariat’s loss in the 1973 Whitney Handicap added to the legend of Saratoga as the “Graveyard of Champions” and catapulted trainer H. Allen Jerkens’ reputation as “The Giant Killer”.
Secretariat is ranked number 1 in the HRN Top Thoroughbreds of All-Time.
Prior to the running of The Whitney, NYRA, Phillip Morris Company, and the CBS television network struck a deal to create the Marlboro Cup, a race to be run at Belmont on September 15th, with Secretariat as the star attraction. The promoters saw the race as a publicity stop on the way to their big event.
During the month of July, some said Secretariat had lost weight and was not training well. In Bill Nack’s Making of a Champion, he wrote about the concerns: “Turcotte (Jockey Ron) kept telling friends privately that the colt was not himself—his workouts through July were the least impressive of his entire career.”
There was tremendous pressure for Secretariat to be in the 46th running of The Whitney. His final workout went in :48-1 and was one of the slowest of his career.
Jerkens decided to run Onion in The Whitney because, “We thought it was a small field and we probably had a chance to be in the money.”
On August 4, 1973, a record crowd of 30,119 gathered at Saratoga. The Secretariat fans bet heavily and made him the 1-10 favorite with Onion as the 5-1 second choice, and the outcome has become legend.
Onion’s victory over Secretariat is best described by Jerkens: “He was a much better horse than anyone gave him credit for. In fact four days before beating Secretariat he broke the track record here (Saratoga) going six and a half furlongs and now a days nobody would let you do it. They would think you were nuts, but he did it. And he went right into the race and he was very good and he was very well ridden (by Hall of Famer Jacinto Vasquez) and he caught Secretariat going the wrong way a little bit.”
Jerkens gave Vasquez credit for the victory: “We thought he would go to the front because Onion was a sprinter and we knew the rail was not too good so he stayed off the rail and kind of enticed Secretariat to come inside of him and then he moved over little by little and made it tighter on him. He rode a brilliant race on the horse, that’s for sure.”
After the race there was debate about the upset of Secretariat. Was the loss Turcotte’s fault? Why had the horse’s training been so inconsistent? Later it came out that Secretariat had a low-grade fever on the day of the race, but that with all of the hype the Meadow Stable connections felt that they had to run him and that he probably could win anyway. Big Red continued to run a fever for several days after the defeat.
The 1973 Whitney has become the signature upset victory for “The Giant Killer” Allen Jerkens, but that was only one of his great wins. His horses beat Kelso three times; Forego, Riva Ridge, and Buckpasser each once; as well as Secretariat for a second time.