Horse Madness II: Onion v. Court Vision

Welcome back to the second round of Horse Madness 2016! We are through the play-in round, and an updated bracket is here: Horse Madness 2016.

Two more Cinderellas dancing in this madness: one a David to the Goliath that was Secretariat. The other, a hard-knocking stakes winner who finally achieved Breeders’ Cup success in his third attempt against a classy field and denying Goldikova a spot in the history books.


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 Onion’s defeat of Secretariat was quickly dismissed. But it is where perhaps the greatest giant slayer to grace the front side of Saratoga. There is no graded Onion Stakes at Saratoga, like Jim Dandy. No bar, statue, or even a staircase, dedicated in his honor. 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.

Court Vision

When someone thinks of a Cinderella in the racing world, not many multiple Grade One stakes winners come to mind. But sure enough, one of the biggest upsets in Breeders’ Cup history was courtesy of Court Vision, who at the time of his victory was already a 4x Grade One winner, including wins in the Woodbine Mile and Maker’s Mark Mile.

Court Vision had been at the top of the turf miler division in the US for 2 plus years prior to his unlikely win in the 2011 BC Mile. However, the Dale Romans pupil had shown signs of wear, During his 2011 campaign, he had yet to hit the board, with his best effort being a 4th in that spring’s Maker’s Mark Mile. His final prep for the BC Mile came in the Woodbine Mile, where he finished a 7th as the defending champion. It appeared that Court Vision’s best running was behind him.

Additionally, the 2011 BC Mile had a great filed, led by the two-time defending champ and Euro-sensation Goldikova. Goldikova had won the last two editions of the race (which Court Vision also ran in), and appeared well-suited to become the first horse in the history of the Breeders’ Cup to win the same race three times. Not only did the field include this buzz-saw, but also Gio Ponti, Turallure, and Thorobros favorite Get Stormy.

At post time, Goldikova was 6/5 and Court Vision dismissed at odds of 62-1. Goldikova out of the one hole, had the rail the whole way around. Sidney’s Candy kept her tight to the rail, in what is likely a little but of race riding. At the top of the stretch, Goldikova had no where to run, and had to move outside. But it was too late, as Court Vision already had the momentum, who started his prolonged move from the back of the back just as the field hit the far turn. Goldikova did get the lead, but was passed by both Turallure and Court Vision inside the 1/16th pole, with Court Vision winning in a head bob.

View the race here.

It was shocking that a horse that appeared so off-form could take down such a talented field. Maybe it was the local connection, as the race was held at Churchill; the home base for most Romans trainees. Or maybe, like Onion, Court Vision had a career best day. Either way, Court Vision retired on top following this victory. And Goldikova left the record books unchanged by not being able to complete the three-peat.

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