08/02/2013 3:28PM

Jay Hovdey: The day Onion slayed Secretariat

The program page from the 1973 Whitney.

The race remains one of those "Where were you when … ?" moments. A bookmark in the pages of the sport. When Onion, owned by Jack Dreyfus, beat Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 4, 1973, the wind shifted and the story changed, and everything you thought you knew suddenly was turned upside down.

Secretariat was a "Super Horse." It said so right there on the covers of Time and Newsweek. He had turned the Triple Crown into his personal playground, the first horse to sweep the series since 1948. Since winning the Kentucky Derby, the big chestnut had essentially been running against the clock, and the clock was taking a beating. The Whitney, over the same ground Secretariat had won the Sanford and the Hopeful the year before, figured to be nothing more than another brush stroke in an ongoing masterpiece.

Forty years later, the traumatic sight of Secretariat struggling to catch the unheralded Onion remains vivid.

"He’s beat," exclaimed Joe Burnham, racing’s great cinematographer, as we gathered around a tiny TV set in the Del Mar press box that day. On the screen there was Secretariat, pinned to the rail, failing to make a significant dent in the advantage Onion had established from the outset. At the finish, it was Onion by a length.

"I bet Onion," said Dave Johnson, just the other day. During the summer of 1973 Johnson was in his second full season as New York’s announcer, having succeeded the legendary Fred Capossela, and it was Johnson’s lyrical tenor delivering the Whitney play-by-play on the CBS broadcast.

"I bet Onion because of the race he ran just before the Whitney," Johnson went on. "In those years, Jerkens horses just blossomed up there at Saratoga. It was amazing how they’d run out of their skin, much better than they had down state."

Yes, there was that. Allen Jerkens, 43 at the time, already had a leg up on the Hall of Fame when he led over Onion for the Whitney, just four days after the gelding set a Saratoga track mark for 6 1/2 furlongs.

"They saddled the horses in the infield that day, the only time I think they’ve ever done that at Saratoga," Jerkens said this week. "Our horse handled it fine. He had his pony there with him, and he looked beautiful. I remember saying to myself how good he looked.

"Talking to Jacinto, I said it is kind of deep on the rail, isn’t it?" Jerkens continued. "It looked like it was dry, but it was squishy underneath after it rained the day before. He said yeah, you got to stay off the rail. Onion was the speed, so I asked him if he was going to sell out early and open up. He said, ‘No, no. Easy, easy.’"

Which is exactly what Jacinto Vasquez did with Onion, leading the field through an opening quarter in 24 2/5 and the half in 47 4/5.

"We stayed in the infield to watch the race," Jerkens said. "The tote board blocked part of the view. Onion was in front when they went behind it and I expected Secretariat to be in front when they came out again. But it was Onion."

If the 1973 Belmont Stakes was the apogee of Secretariat’s career, winning as he did by 31 lengths, the Whitney was a reality check. Even a Super Horse was subject to the pitiless biology of a viral infection.

"I walked over with that horse from the barn to the paddock for the Whitney," said Bill Nack, Secretariat’s biographer. Groom Eddie Sweat and exercise rider Charlie Davis were attending to the big horse.

"In the 10, maybe 15 minutes it took to take that walk, Charlie must have wiped Secretariat’s ass at least nine or ten times," Nack said. "Diarrhea was running down his back legs. I asked Eddie, ‘Is he sick? Did he eat something?’ Eddie said, ‘Naw, he’s just nervous.’ ‘Nervous?’ I said. ‘What the hell’s he got to be nervous about?’ "

In fact, Secretariat had been talking to his people. Prior to the Whitney he worked too fast, then too slow. Jockey Ron Turcotte voiced his concerns to trainer Lucien Laurin, but the show went on. There was great pressure to run, coming not only from track management but also a TV network tied to a four-race series in New York, with Secretariat as the star, and from the thousands of fans who were making a pilgrimage to Saratoga just to see the colt in the flesh.

"I was learning then that anything could happen in horse racing," said Penny Chenery, Secretariat’s owner. "We knew he had a low-grade infection. But we decided he was strong enough to win anyway, and we were wrong.

"I try not to brood about it. It was a bad result, but it did make the Marlboro much more important."

This would be the definition of a silver lining. The first Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park was originally intended as a match between stablemates Secretariat and Riva Ridge, winner of the 1972 Derby and Belmont. The same week Secretariat lost the Whitney, Riva Ridge was upset in an allowance race on grass. Marlboro marketing ace Jack Landry took those lemons and turned them into champagne. The Marlboro morphed into an exclusive invitational affair that included Cougar II, Kennedy Road, Key to the Mint, and, yes, Onion.

Secretariat won that first Marlboro in world record time, Riva Ridge finished second, and the Marlboro Cup ran for 15 years, setting a high bar for race sponsorships. As for Onion, he finished fourth in the Marlboro and promptly receded into the mists of history.

"He won two races at the end of the season," Jerkens said. "Then we decided not to go to Florida and winter in New York instead. Getting ready to come back in the spring he bowed [a tendon]. We gave him the whole year off and then brought him back, and he won a couple of races, for $25,000 or something like that. We never ran him real cheap. Eventually he went to the owner’s farm, where he had a nice field with all the other old geldings. He lived to be 26."