by Bob Ehalt
For more than a century, Victorian Saratoga Race Course has been the stage for some of racing’s greatest upsets.
It was actually Saratoga that made the term “upset” fashionable back in 1919 when the aptly named Upset handed Man o’ War his lone loss in 21 career starts, beating him in the Sanford Memorial.
In 1930, Gallant Fox, the sport’s second Triple Crown winner, went down to defeat at the hands of 100-1 shot Jim Dandy in the Travers at the Spa.
Just two years ago, a capacity crowd looked on in stunned disbelief when Keen Ice shocked Triple Crown champion American Pharoah in the Travers.
Turn back the pages of time some 44 years and there was another day that added one of the most memorable chapters to the ages-old tale about Saratoga being “The Graveyard of Champions.”
It happened on August 4, 1973 when an upstart named Onion ran the race of his lifetime for a trainer known as “The Giant Killer” and made the impossible happen. He defeated the seemingly invincible Secretariat.
More than four decades later, the 1973 Whitney remains one of Saratoga’s most astonishing races and stands as that one moment that defined all of the greatness rolled into the spectacular Hall of Fame career of winning trainer H. Allen Jerkens.
In Onion, Jerkens took a gelding who raced in maiden claimers, turned him into a track record holder at Saratoga and then just four days after that blazing effort in a 6 1/2-furlong sprint, stretched him out to a mile and an eighth and defeated the beloved first Triple Crown winner in 25 years.
“It was absolutely one of his biggest wins,’’ said Jimmy Jerkens, the 58-year-old son of Allen Jerkens and a trainer himself. Allen Jerkens passed away at the age of 85 in March 2015. “It was hard to explain the feeling. He was in La La Land. He couldn’t believe it happened.”
It also illustrated how there are no sure things in horse racing, especially at Saratoga.
Sometimes even a horse as great as Secretariat can have an off day, or one when he simply should not have run.
Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s regular rider, said he took the defeat in the Whitney harder than any other loss in his 16-year career. He said Meadow Stable’s strapping red colt was weakened by a fever which left him a shell of the champion that had won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths in world record time two months earlier. He vociferously tried to get Lucien Laurin to scratch Secretariat on the eve of the Whitney, but with a record crowd expected at the Spa and CBS televising the race to a national audience, the veteran trainer refused to listen.
“I begged Lucien not to run Secretariat in the Whitney,” Turcotte said. “I actually begged him.”
Heading into the Whitney, Secretariat had transcended horse racing and became America’s most beloved sports hero at a time when the Watergate scandal divided the nation. En route to his Triple Crown sweep, the 3-year-old son of Bold Ruler became the first athlete to grace the covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week.
After his epic victory in the Belmont Stakes and a romp in the Arlington Invitational, Laurin targeted the Whitney as a stepping stone for the Travers two weeks later at Saratoga.
One week before the Whitney, when Secretariat turned in a blistering one-mile workout over a muddy track at Saratoga that was timed in 1:34 – track record time for that distance – there was no hint that anything could derail the Triple Crown champion in his first race against older horses.
Then, a few days later, Turcotte was working out another horse when Secretariat and exercise rider Charlie Davis galloped by him.
“Charlie yelled at me, ‘What did you do to my horse?’” Turcotte said.
It was discovered that Secretariat was battling a debilitating fever of between 102-104 degrees.
Two days before Whitney, when Turcotte worked Secretariat, he quickly understood what Davis had told him.
“I got on Secretariat and he couldn’t even pick up his feet. He was a sick horse,” said Turcotte, now 76. “I brought him out to work his usual five furlongs and I couldn’t ask him to run any more than four furlongs. He was too sick.”
After Secretariat’s lackluster four-furlong work in about 48 seconds, Turcotte went to see Laurin in hopes of finally talking him out of running in the Whitney. Laurin wouldn’t budge.
“I told Lucien, ‘I am sorry, but this horse can’t run Saturday.’ Lucien said ‘He has to run.’ I was told if he was 75 percent of himself, he’d beat that field. I said this horse is not even 50 percent,” Turcotte said. “They told me I had to ride him. If I didn’t want to ride him, Lucien said he’d get someone else to ride him. Jockeys were breaking his arm to get on Secretariat. I told him I would ride Secretariat because I didn’t want him to get hurt with another jockey beating him up when he was sick. I wanted to protect him.”
Meanwhile, on July 31, four days before the Whitney, Onion set a new track record for 6 ½ furlongs and Allen Jerkens began toying with the idea of entering the gelding, who was considered a miler at best, in the Whitney.
After watching Secretariat’s workout two days before the race, Jerkens was convinced he should tackle the superstar with his speedy gelding.
“Allen was great at watching other horses on the track and spotting weaknesses in them or seeing that a horse was in great form,” said Mike Hushion, who was a groom for Jerkens in 1973. Hushion retired as a trainer at the end of the recently concluded Belmont Park meet.
As Jimmy Jerkens put it, his father believed something was amiss with Secretariat.
“He went a leisurely half-mile in about 48 (seconds) whereas the real Secretariat would have done it in :45 with his mouth open,” he said. “Once he saw that, dad thought that outside of Secretariat it wasn’t a great field. He gave Onion a little blowout and the rest was history.”
A then-record gathering of 30,109 jammed Saratoga that day and bet Secretariat down to a huge 1-10 favorite, but what happened after the starting gates opened left the crowd and television viewers at a loss for words.
“They all fall, don’t they?” Hushion said. “Onion was the right horse in the right place at the right time.”
As expected, Onion grabbed the early lead, with Secretariat moving up to third in a field of five after the first half-mile. On the final turn, Secretariat launched a bid along the inside that brought him alongside the 5-1 second choice. Fans roared as they expected the Triple Crown winner to blow past Jerkens’ gelding, but Turcotte knew better.
“I was trying to keep him together and in the stretch his legs got wobbly,” Turcotte said. “I just waved my stick at him. I didn’t want to hit him because he would have taken a misstep and hurt himself. I couldn’t bring myself to ask anything more out of him, he was giving me everything he had but he was so sick he couldn’t go by.”
As Secretariat weakened and finished second, Onion edged clear to a length victory that led to an emotional scene in the winner’s circle as tears welled in the eyes of Allen Jerkens, who engineered a second upset of Secretariat nearly two months later in the Woodward with Group Plan.
“It was common for him to get choked up over his horses,” Jimmy Jerkens said about his father, who will be honored on August 26 when Saratoga’s Grade 1 King’s Bishop Stakes is re-named the H. Allen Jerkens Memorial. “He went at the game so hard that when there was a culmination of something good, it overwhelmed him. He’d cry openly.”
For Turcotte, there were tears as well, but for a much different reason.
“Secretariat had given me so much, even though he was so sick. It was unbelievable. A normal horse would have been last,” said Turcotte, who gained a measure of revenge the following month when Onion finished a well-beaten fourth behind the victorious Secretariat in the inaugural Marlboro Cup. “For all the races I rode in, all the wins and losses, I never cried. But I cried after that race. I got in my car and cried all the way home. I was sick. It was a brutal day.”
And yet, as history shows, it was also a typical day at “The Graveyard of Champions.”