When Secretariat Lost at Saratoga

This year, the racing world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat’s Triple Crown victory. But here in Saratoga, we remember the superstar horse in a different light. Secretariat arrived at Saratoga in 1973 as a conquering hero, but even he wasn’t immune from falling victim to Saratoga’s reputation as the Graveyard of Favorites.

Less than two months after winning the Triple Crown to cement his status as a cultural icon, Secretariat was widely considered a shoo-in to win the 1973 Whitney Stakes. After dominating each of the Triple Crown races with record-setting performances—all of which are still standing 50 years later—Secretariat appeared to be in top form for his return to Saratoga, where as a 2-year-old in the summer of 1972 he began to emerge as a star. He was undefeated in three Saratoga races as a juvenile, including the Sanford and Hopeful. 

But along came Onion. Trained by Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens and ridden by Hall of Famer Jacinto Vasquez, Onion was the second choice at odds of 5 to 1 in the Whitney field of five. Secretariat, meanwhile, was overwhelmingly favored at odds of 1 to 10 to add a Whitney win to his ledger. Although a mostly unknown commodity, Onion was entering the Whitney off of a performance in which he set a 6½-furlong track record at Saratoga, albeit not in a stakes race or against top competition. 

Before a crowd of 30,119 on August 4, 1973, Vasquez and Onion immediately went to the lead in the Whitney and never looked back. Secretariat raced in third before moving up to second on the inside rail exiting the final turn. Onion, however, held off the challenge of the Triple Crown winner to win by a length. After the race, Secretariat’s jockey, Ron Turcotte, and trainer Lucien Laurin had different explanations for the unexpected result, with Laurin publicly questioning Turcotte’s ride and Turcotte claiming Secretariat banged his head while in the gate. Penny Tweedy, Secretariat’s owner, later said the horse was running a low-grade fever before the race, but she didn’t scratch him because she thought he was well enough to win.

“We didn’t go out there just to beat Secretariat,” Vasquez said after the race. “We wanted to beat them all. My horse was fit and ready, and he held his ground all the way. In the stretch it was close and we were head and head, but my horse had a little extra and he gave it to me.”

Onion and Secretariat met again on September 15, 1973, in the inaugural running of the $250,000 Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park. Secretariat had no issues with Onion or anyone else in the race, romping to victory while setting a new world record of 1:45²⁄₅ for 1⅛ miles. Onion finished fourth. Secretariat was retired at the end of the year with a record of 16 wins from 21 starts. 

While Secretariat went on to the Hall of Fame and is considered by many to be the greatest racehorse of all time, Onion faded into obscurity. Although he raced through 1977, he never won another stakes race and completed his career with a record of 15 wins from 54 starts. But still—he’ll always have Saratoga.   

The Greatest Upset of Them All

It didn’t make headlines like Onion’s upset of Secretariat, so do you know which horse delivered the biggest win payout in Saratoga history?

Jim Dandy pulled off a miracle in the mud, defeating Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the 1930 Travers at odds of 100 to 1. Onion knocked off Triple Crown winner Secretariat 50 years ago in the Whitney; he never won another stakes race in his career. And the aptly named Upset handed Man o’ War the only loss of his career in the 1919 Sanford. These are the horses who’ve given Saratoga the moniker “Graveyard of Favorites.”

But the biggest upset of them all happened just six years ago. The name Perplexed probably won’t ring through the ages, because the D. Wayne Lukas–trained gelding didn’t beat any Hall of Fame legends. But on July 24, 2017, the horse delivered the largest payout in Saratoga history: a whopping $232.50 on a $2 bet. How illogical—and perplexing—was the half-length victory under apprentice jockey Luis Reyes? Well, Perplexed, who was winless in his nine starts prior, won at the astronomical odds of 115.25 to 1. He never won in 13 starts after.

“That’s why we run ’em,” says Hall of Famer Lukas. “We don’t mail ’em in.” Perplexing indeed.   

–Brien Bouyea

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