After the excitement of the 1973 Belmont Stakes where Secretariat won by an unbelievable 31 lengths, the cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris sponsored an upcoming match race between Secretariat and Riva Ridge, the 1972 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner. However, both superstars lost races leading up to the Marlboro Cup and the race format was changed to an invitational that would bring together the top three-year-olds and older.
The inaugural running of the Marlboro Cup at Belmont Park on September 15, 1973, featured Secretariat, Riva Ridge, Kennedy Road, Cougar II, Onion, Annihilate Em, and Key To The Mint. Onion had just achieved notoriety by recently beating Secretariat in the Whitney Stakes; Kennedy Road was an accomplished five-year-old who was named 1973 Canadian Horse of the Year; Cougar II, bred in Chile, received an Eclipse Award in 1972; Annihilate Em had won the Travers Stakes a month before the Marlboro Cup; and Key To The Mint was also a 1972 Eclipse Award winner.Secretariat did not disappoint his fans — he won the race by three-and-a-half lengths and set a new world record for 1-1/8 miles. Riva Ridge tried to keep up with Secretariat and the two greats left the rest of the field in their dust. (Cougar II finished third.) The Marlboro Cup marked some firsts in history: It was the first time a sporting event would be sponsored by and named after a corporation; in 1978 it became the first time two Triple Crown winners, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, would run against one another (with Seattle Slew winning by three lengths); and of course Secretariat’s world record time of 1:45 2/5 in 1973. The first Marlboro Cup was also a proud moment for Meadow Stable, the breeder of both Secretariat and Riva Ridge.
Because of the success of the 1973 Marlboro Cup, the race was televised every year on a major network. It became part of the Fall Championship Series at Belmont Park in the 1970s and ’80s, but once the year-end championship Breeders’ Cup began in 1984, the Marlboro Cup lost viewers. The last Marlboro Cup was won by Java Gold, sired by Key To The Mint, in 1987.
Watch the inaugural Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap in 1973: