Now that the calendar has turned to August, the eyes of the racing world have turned to the historic Saratoga Race Course in beautiful Saratoga Springs, N.Y. This town is wonderful to visit any time of the year, but it really springs to life during the summer racing meet, when top thoroughbreds converge to compete in top-quality races.
Saratoga has been hosting summer races since 1863, and over the years it has become known as the “graveyard of champions.” This refers to the fact that many times, horses that seemed invincible went down in stunning defeat. Although races like these can lead to huge payoffs for bettors, it comes at great expense to champion horses. Two of these horses share that history and also the nickname of Big Red. They were Man ‘o War and Secretariat.
Man o’ War Melts
Man o’ War was a stunning chestnut colt who raced in the years 1919 and 1920. When he competed in the Sanford Stakes for 2-year-olds on Aug. 13, 1919, his reputation was already such that he seemed a lock to win. His previous six victories were so impressive that it seemed it was impossible for him to lose. In fact, this was the only race that he ever would lose in his entire racing career.
Starting gates were not used at this time, and starters had to make sure horses were properly lined up behind a tape barrier and ready to race. Unfortunately for Man o’ War, the tape was sprung when he was apparently backing up. Essentially, he was left at the start.
His bad racing luck continued, as he was blocked in the stretch and had to switch to the outside for clear running room. Despite cutting into the lead with every stride, he came up half a length short of the winner. The only horse to beat the great Man o’ War was the aptly-named Upset. To this day, whenever there is a stunning loss in the sports world, it is referred to as an upset.
Man o ’War won 20 of 21 races, including one by a stunning 100 lengths, and most certainly would have been a Triple Crown winner had he competed in the 1920 Kentucky Derby. To this day, he is widely regarded as the greatest racehorse of all time.
The second Big Red came to Saratoga on Aug. 4, 1973. This was the legendary Secretariat, winner of that year’s Triple Crown. After winning the Belmont Stakes by a historic 31 lengths in world-record time, racing fans at Saratoga were chomping at the bit to see him compete in the 1973 Whitney Stakes.
Perhaps the grueling Triple Crown campaign had taken its toll on the mighty Secretariat. Despite winning the Arlington Invitational after his Belmont triumph, some people noted that he seemed to have lost weight during the weeks leading up to the Whitney. Even if he was not entirely himself, it seemed unlikely that Secretariat would lose.
In fact, he did. Although Secretariat made his move at the top of the stretch, he flattened out and was unable to best the second betting choice, a horse named Onion. It was later revealed that Secretariat had a low-grade fever the day of the race, which may have contributed to his lackluster performance.
Another interesting face about the Whitney was that it was one of three races beginning with the letter W that Secretariat lost. The others were the Wood Memorial and the Woodward States. At any rate, Secretariat completed his racing career with 16 wins in 21 starts, and he remains one of the most beloved and popular racehorses in the history of the sport.
What stunning upsets are in the works at Saratoga this year? I’ll be watching from my favorite racing venue, but I’m not going to put any big money down this time. Too many crazy things happen at this track. Only time will tell, but win or lose, this race track makes for some memorable stories.