The Race that Secretariat Inspired

by Kristin Berkery

Secretariat Thoroughbred horse

Secretariat and his groom Eddie Sweat before the Marlboro Cup in 1973.

In celebration of this Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, let’s take a look at the Marlboro Cup Invitational Handicap, a race that was originally created for the legendary Secretariat and his stablemate, Riva Ridge.

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 Thoroughbred horse

Secretariat winning the first Marlboro Cup, with Riva Ridge second and Cougar II third.

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.)

Marlboro Cup Program

The program for the first Marlboro Cup. From

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:

Secretariat’s Half-Brother Rescued from Feedlot

Rescued brother of Secretariat is alive and well at age 32

Straight Flush, half-brother to Secretariat

He has since passed away, but the story of Secretariat’s half-brother was really interesting and heartwarming. Straight Flush (Riva Ridge x Somethingroyal, Secretariat’s dam) was destined for the slaughterhouse when he was rescued just in time and retired to a ranch in Southern California. He looks so handsome in the photos!

Straight Flush died peacefully at the age of 32 in 2007.

By horse-breeding standards, only those horses that have the same dam are considered half-siblings. Straight Flush and Secretariat were out of the same mare, so they were half-brothers. However, Secretariat and other horses sired by Bold Ruler are not called siblings.

Coming up… Kentucky Derby trivia.

Secretariat’s First Foal Had Spots!

Secretariat statue at Kentucky Horse Park

The Secretariat statue at Kentucky Horse Park

An Appaloosa mare named Leola helped Secretariat launch his breeding career.

by Kristin Berkery

The legendary Secretariat brings to mind many things, but not necessarily spots. Still, an Appaloosa mare played an important role in Secretariat’s life.

First Secretary, Secretariat's first foal

First Secretary, Secretariat’s first foal. Photo from the Appaloosa Horse Club of Canada

In early 1974 after the big red horse had made his mark in racing history, there was a question about his fertility. Several semen analyses revealed that his sperm appeared immature, so the next test was to breed him and see if a foal resulted. The Appaloosa mare Leola was chosen as Secretariat’s first lady-in-waiting, and in November 1974, she foaled a chestnut colt with a blanket pattern. He was named First Secretary.

Before First Secretary’s birth, there was a bidding war between Appaloosa enthusiasts who badly wanted Leola and the special foal she carried. Jack Nankivil of Minnesota prevailed after taking out a mortgage on his home. To recoup some of his investment, Nankivil immediately sold 15 lifetime breeding rights to the foal before anyone knew whether it was a colt or a filly.

Understandably, Nankivil was thrilled when Leola delivered a colt who looked like his sire, but with a blanket.

Leola delivered a colt who looked like his sire, but with a blanket.

First Secretary

First Secretary

Once the colt arrived though, the American Appaloosa registry refused to identify Secretariat as the sire because no breeding certificate had been issued for the cross. The Canadian Appaloosa registry had no problem with listing Secretariat as the sire, even without a breeding certificate, so Nankivil had First Secretary registered in Canada. When the Canadian and American registries later agreed to recognize each other’s stud books, First Secretary’s foals became eligible for American registration.

First Secretary sired 247 foals in his lifetime, of which many were successful in the show ring or the racetrack. He was not shown or raced himself. He died in 1993 after a bout with colic.

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