Secretariat Falls Short Against Older Rivals in Whitney

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Secretariat Whitney Saratoga Onion Ron Turcotte Penny Chenery Lucien Laurin horse racing Triple Crown graveyard of champions upset jockey
Onion (front left) defeats Secretariat (far right) in the 1973 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga.

BloodHorse is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Secretariat's Triple Crown season by tapping Lenny Shulman's wonderful look back at each of his 1973 races on the calendar dates of those events. Shulman's series helped celebrate the 40th anniversary in BloodHorse Magazine.

Secretariat managed to win his first post-Triple Crown race against three overmatched foes in a quickly thrown-together race called the Arlington Invitational Stakes, June 30, 1973, but the waters would get deeper when the strapping Bold Ruler colt was sent to his summer base at Saratoga Race Course. In the 3 ½ months since Secretariat began his 3-year-old campaign in mid-March, he had run seven times and was finally given a break of five weeks between starts.

Instead of running him against his classmates in the Jim Dandy or Travers Stakes, however, the decision was made by owner Penny (Chenery) Tweedy and trainer Lucien Laurin to turn Secretariat loose against older horses in the Whitney Handicap Aug. 4 at Saratoga. With only a precious few months before she would have to relinquish her charge to Claiborne Farm and his next career as a stallion, Mrs. Chenery felt the need to accomplish as much as she could with her great horse.

“I was trying to get prestige, money, records, everything I could,” Chenery said, looking back on the campaign 40 years later. “The Whitney was a prestigious race, and we knew the end was coming. ‘Greed’ is the word that comes to mind. You have to understand, my family had no background on which to make these decisions. Mother and Dad were gone. (Adviser and friend) Bull Hancock had died the year before. Everything was deferred to me, and I just didn’t make good decisions.”

More than the Whitney competition, the major problem turned out to be Secretariat himself. In late July on a sloppy track, Secretariat had worked a mile in 1:34 – faster than the track record for the distance. But instead of instilling confidence, the colt was sending the wrong signals to his regular rider, Ron Turcotte.

“The track was all washed out and I didn’t like his work, even though it was done in record time,” said Turcotte recently. “Two days later he started dragging his feet, and it was obvious he wasn’t feeling good; he was running a temperature and coming down with something. (Exercise rider) Charlie Davis galloped him and told Laurin he wasn’t going right. I got on him the Wednesday before the race and we went a half in :48 and change. I had to chirp to him to make him go the half-mile. (Trainer) Allen Jerkens was on the fence and saw the whole show. I told Laurin the horse was sick and begged him not to run in the race.

Secretariat training at Saratoga in 1973. (BloodHorse Library)

“The day before the race we had a pretty good argument, Lucien and me. I told him the horse was sick, and if you start beating up on him, you’re going to hurt him. He told me I didn’t have to ride him if I didn’t want to, but I was going to ride him to protect him. I don’t know if it was some deal with TV or not, but Lucien told me he had to run him.”

Four older horses lined up against Secretariat Aug. 4 in the Whitney, including the Jerkens-trained Onion, who had set a track record for 6 ½ furlongs at The Spa four days earlier. Onion broke on top in the Whitney and was allowed to set a moderate pace while Secretariat, off casually, raced in fourth position. Turcotte urged Secretariat from the inside, but he couldn’t get on even terms with Onion, who held on for a one-length victory in a pedestrian 1:49 1/5 for 1 1/8 miles.

“At the quarter pole he was a dead horse,” Turcotte said of his mount. “When I reached back and tapped him one time, he started acting up, and I never touched him after that. I waved the stick at him but didn’t punish him. I just wanted to protect him. He still got head-and-head with the other horse, but then he really fell apart.

“Some people said the rail was deep and that’s why he lost. Others said it was Saratoga being the graveyard of favorites. Saratoga and the rail had nothing to do with it. I came back and won the next race on the rail. Secretariat came back real sick, and they had to medicate him and walk him for a week.”

The Whitney was Secretariat’s first loss since the Wood Memorial in April, another race in which his health (an abscess in his mouth) had compromised his chances.

“I watched the Whitney in disbelief,” Chenery said. “How could this be? There was a feeling this horse could do anything and we were testing his limits. Saratoga is an intoxicating place and there was a lot going on, and perhaps I wasn’t thinking straight. After the race, we were forced to accept that we had a problem, and we concentrated on how we could salvage the rest of the season.”

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