Horse Madness II–Elite 8: Onion v. Donerail

Welcome back to Horse Madness II, the quest for racing’s greatest Cinderella.  Ironically, the bracket  of upsets has been dominated by chalk, with all favorites advancing to the Elite 8.  Some great matchups ahead, ripe with opportunities for upsets, so stayed tuned…

Updated Elite 8 Bracket

Only one spot remains in our Horse Madness Final 4.  Who will join Sarava, Jim Dandy and Mine That Bird?  Will it be Onion, perhaps the biggest giant slayer of all time?  Or will it be Donerail, the biggest Derby upset in the race’s history?



The Graveyard of Favorites. The legend of Saratoga as a stumbling block for champions is well celebrated, and has numerous entries in this bracket.

But not all upsets are treated equally and Onion’s defeat of Secretariat was quickly dismissed.  Instead of a courageous or historic upset, Onion’s 1973 Whitney victory over Secretariat has been labeled a fluke—the lowest designation an upset can receive. Even Onion’s own rider, Jacinto Vasquez, admitted the win was a complete fluke–”I probably caught him on a bad day. Onion wasn’t the same caliber. It’s just that he loved Saratoga and had a good day.”

Of course, Vasquez is right. Onion is not Secretariat—not even close. And he did catch the champ on a bad day. Secretariat had a low grade fever on Whitney Day. And Big Red was stuck on a dead rail. However, quickly casting aside Onion as another Buster Douglas overlooks the brilliance of Onion’s connections– Vasquez, and primarily the Giant Killer himself, H. Allen Jerkens.

The story of Onion’s historic upset starts four days prior to the Whitney. The four year old gelding, largely relegated to low level stakes and claiming and allowance company, fired a masterpiece at Saratoga, winning an allowance race in spectacular fashion; setting a track record for six furlongs in the process. The horse was thriving. But the Whitney, in just four days? Against the greatest horse ever? The horse who won the Triple Crown by a combined 31 lengths and showed no signs of slowing down, winning his next start at Arlington by nine lengths? Crazy.

Instead of placing the flowered blanket on Big Red, Jerkens did his homework. He watched Secretariat train in the morning and noted the horse looked flat. He then started paying attention to potential starters. There wasn’t a lot of speed in the race. With Onion thriving, Secretariat potentially gassed for his first attempt against older horses, and a favorable race set up, the Chief took his shot. “Just get me a check” was his final instruction to Vasquez.  The public made Onion the second choice, slightly below 5-1, in the six horse field.

On race day, after noticing the rail was completely dead, Jerkens instructed Vasquez to keep Secretariat inside of him—a place Big Red was not accustomed to being. As a cool aside, these prerace instructions occurred in the Saratoga infield as track officials decided to forgo the paddock and instead allow the fans to enjoy a more public saddling. In fact, Jerkens watched the race from the infield, and couldn’t even see his horse for a 1/16th of a mile down the stretch as they disappeared behind the tote board.

To Jerkens surprise, when the pack emerged from behind the tote board, the front running Onion still had the lead, and Secretariat was struggling inside on the dead rail. Following Jerkens instructions, Vasquez invited Secretariat to pass him on the inside. As Big Red pulled closer, Vasquez pinned him against the rail. Secretariat had no answer. The upset Jerkens had envisioned, was a reality.

Here is the video.

In the days that followed, it became public that Secretariat had a low grade fever and the connections considered scratching him, but thought he still had enough to defeat the six horse field. Stories would surface as to the degree of Secretariat’s illness, including that the horse had nine bouts with diarrhea on the walk from the barn to the front side.

Secretariat would later avenge his defeat to Onion, crushing the horse at Belmont that fall and cementing Onion’s legacy as a fluke. Secretariat of course would continue to run into immortality and Onion was relegated to the claiming ranks and a footnote.

In the end, Onion’s Whitney victory was the result of a perfect storm, but a fluke? That’s not fair to the brilliant ride by Vasquez nor to the effort and gamble of the Chief. So NYRA, can we at least get a Giant Killer “Onion” Ring stand at Toga next year? It’s time to properly celebrate this legendary Spa upset.



When it comes to 1913 Kentucky Derby winner Donerail, who left the gates at 91-1, there is a dearth of information to go on other than the odds and published recaps of the race itself. There is no easily available chart or video, but it is pretty clear that this was an upset for the ages.  Donerail won just 10 times in 62 starts, although he did place or show 21 additional times.  His other “major” wins were in the Canadian Sportsmen’s Handicap and the Hamilton Cup.  But on that first Saturday in May, 1913, Donerail was the best horse of his generation, despite being utterly dismissed by the betting public.  He hardly ran like a 91-1 shot, however, drawing away at the finish and winning the Derby in a track record time of 2:04 and 4/5.  He ended up winning by a lengthening half-length over Ten Point, under immortally named jockey Roscoe Goose.  Goose’s nickname was The Golden Goose, which is amazing, but also reflective of his success in the horse racing industry over his entire life, from jockey to trainer to owner.  He eventually became a millionaire – talk about an underdog story.  Perhaps the most telling thing about Donerail, however, is that despite the other big longshots that have won the Derby (Mine That Bird, Charismatic, Giacomo, etc.), Donerail remains the biggest upset by odds in the 140 year history of the race.

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