Thursday, June 7, 2012

This Belmont speaks to racing's other great upsets...

Upsets DO Happen!

Remembering Onion

A great deal of conversation around racing circles this week has centered on I'll Have Another's bid to complete the first Triple Crown in 34-some years.  Comparisons abound naturally and perhaps the most dominating performance was the smashing victories of Penny (Tweedy) Chenery's Secretariat in 1973.  The word 'invincible' was often used to describe this 3-year old son of Bold Ruler and until the running of the August 4th, 1973 version of the $50,000 Whitney Stakes at Saratoga, the handle fit.  But that August afternoon, one optimistic trainer went against popular opinion and saddled a little known gelding with an odd name:  Onion.  But then H. Allen Jerkens had a reputation around the tracks for just that:  Upsets.  A word that entered the lexicon of American sports on the back of another horse appropriately named just that: Upset, who managed to defeat the original 'Big Red,' the great Man o' War.  Then again, Saratoga itself had a reputation as the "Graveyard of Champions," but purely in the figurative sense.  The track boasted a list equally long for famous horses winning AND losing at the upstate New York track.  In fact, they celebrate the spoiler each year by the running of the Jim Dandy Stakes, named for the little known 100:1 shot that managed to defeat another Triple Crown winner named Gallant Fox.

Ron Turcotte headed to the saddling
enclosure for the 1973 Whitney
 Stakes.     [image:]
But, Onion was not your average spoiler.  The son of Third Martini out of the Beau Gar mare, With A Flair had gone off as second favorite at 5:1, partly off Jerken's reputation with the home crowd and partly by Onion himself,  having broke Saratoga's 6-panel track record on a recent (July 24th) outing.  Jerken's optimism was further buoyed after Secretariat turned in a pre-race workout that the trainer described as being 'flat.'

H. Allen Jerkens
 Of course, 'flat' and Secretariat used in the same sentence was subjective at best and the bettors, with few choices anyway, didn't seem to notice, sending the chestnut colt off at 1:10.  Given the odds and short field, the race was restricted to win-only betting.  Only three other horses entered the race, primarily to pick up a check for the title of  'also-rans.'  The race itself was not terribly interesting except for the outcome.  Onion simply broke from the gate, showed everybody his butt and was never headed, maintaining his turn of speed over the 1 1/4 mile distance.  Oddly (given it was five-horse race),  Secretariat experienced traffic problems early and some pundits questioned jockey Ron Turcotte's handling of the horse, including trainer Lucien Laurin.  It was also noted that Secretariat had been running a slight fever before the race, but given the anticipation and turn-out expected for the Whitney, a late-minute scratch would have been...well, it is safe to assume that a lot more was at stake that day than Secretariat's unblemished record and it was obvious that both owner and trainer could feel the heat.

Onion never did win another stakes race and in his second meeting with Secretariat (inaugural running of the $250,000 Marlboro Cup), the gelding ran a distant fourth to Secretariat's track record of 1:45 2/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.  However, it should be noted that when Onion retired in 1977 his earnings topped $243,000.  Hardly a couch potato as racehorses go.  But like many, he had dropped to the claiming ranks, went through a series of injuries and mixed fortunes...but retired to the same farm where he was foaled:  Jack Dreyfus Sr's. Hobeau Farm (in Ocala, Florida),  where he died in the fall of 1995.  Dreyfus himself seemed to specialize in upsetting more than just races.  He virtually invented the mutual fund and took it one step further by directly marketing the investment tool to the public. But on the track, his horses staged a number of coupes, including Prove Out who also handed Secretariat a defeat in the Woodward Stakes; Beau Purple managing the consistent Kelso in the Man o' War Stakes; and Handsome Boy, defeating the favorite, Buckpasser for the Brooklyn Handicap.



Will we finally get another Triple Crown?  Well, not if somebody like H. Allen Jerkens has anything to say about it and perhaps here lies the great appeal of this game.  Because 'upsets' CAN and DO happen.  And the old story turns into a brand new story.  Course I haven't picked a Belmont winner in 17 years so don't look for any sagely advice here!  Try the Ouija Board.

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