If you want to start a (mostly) friendly debate among horseracing devotees on opposite sides, just ask: “Name the greatest racehorse of all time.”

“Big Red!” will say one.

“No, Big Red!” will say the opponent.

Truth is, they both will be correct since “Big Red” was the nickname tagged to both Man o’ War and Secretariat, horses racing half a 20th Century apart.

With this year’s Sanford Stakes behind and the Whitney Stakes ahead as the season and the temperatures heat up in Saratoga, NY, it’s worth revisiting this (mostly) friendly debate and perhaps even come to a (mostly) agreeable conclusion.

“The Blood-Horse” poll

In 1999, The Blood-Horse magazine convened a panel of seven racing experts to rank-order the 20th Century’s top 100 racehorses. Man o’ War beat out Secretariat for the top spot, each garnering three first-place votes.

But one panelist (who shall remain nameless to safeguard his e-mail inbox) actually ranked Secretariat 14th best, dropping him to overall second place in the poll. The panelists’ ranking resulted in a (not-entirely) friendly disagreement.

“(Secretariat) was beat a few times,” said the voter who had chosen Citation for the top spot and dropped Secretariat to 14.

“That’s an outrage,” one dissenting voter told the New York Daily News. “You mean this one person thought Secretariat would place last in a 14-horse race?”

For its part, The Blood-Horse promoted its top two selections as a ranking that “…will generate debate for years to come.” Wow, was that ever an accurate prediction.

But what of the horses that influenced the outcome and what happened to them after fading (mostly) ingloriously into the sport’s history?

Herewith an overdue appreciation of Upset and Sham with a little Onion added for flavor.

Saratoga Springs 1919

The Sanford (Memorial) Stakes is an annual event raced the third week of the summer meet at Saratoga. Inaugurated in 1913 and named after New York businessman Stephen Sanford, it is a restricted race for two-year-olds run on dirt as a six-furlong, or 3/4-mile, sprint. “Memorial” was dropped from the name in 1927 and it was downgraded to a G3 event in 2014.

It is now a relatively minor race on the Saratoga calendar (Quick! Name this year’s winner). But in the candy-striped-awning, full-skirt, homemade-ice-cream days of August 1919, it was the kind of event attracting the highest of high society, perhaps more so even than the Triple Crown, then only one-year old (Quick! Name the 1919 first winner).

At that time, there were no mechanical starting gates. Horses were aligned, more or less in an even row, sometimes behind a drawn rope, the dropping of which signaled the start of the race. (Fun fact: even today, the opening time at every Walt Disney World theme park globally is referred to officially as the “rope drop”).

In the seven-horse field for the 1919 Sanford, Glen Riddle Farm’s Man o’ War and Sweeper son Golden Broom were the most highly regarded two-year-olds. Man o’ War came in undefeated in six races as the 1-2 favorite. Second choice Golden Broom had garnered the highest price in the 1918 Saratoga sale, a whopping (for 1918) $15,600.

But Henry Payne Whitney, namesake of the race, owned the respected third choice, Upset, a Whisk Broom colt that came up just short against Man o’ War in both the Grand Union Hotel Stakes and the U.S. Hotel Stakes earlier in that Saratoga meet.

Man o’ War colorized postcard. CREDIT Unknown

The starter on August 12, 1919 was C.H. Pettingill, a last-minute replacement who, according to the New York Times account of the race “…spent several minutes trying to get the horses lined up and then sent them away with only those near the rail ready for the start.”

Man o’ War got off to a poor start from which he would never fully recover. Golden Broom gained the lead, but faded in the turn to Upset who held a 3/4 length lead over the charging Man o’ War in the final 30 yards and held on to win by a neck.

Upset defeats Man o’ War in 1919 Sanford at Saratoga. ©Saratoga Race

It’s worth noting that Man o’ War conceded not only the poor start, but also 15 pounds to the victor.

Upset beats Man o’ War Aug. 13, 1919. ©New York Times Archive

The loss was so shocking that Man o’ War jockey Johnny Loftus was denied a renewal of his license in 1920 by The Jockey Club, a denial rumored to be the result of the loss in The Sanford. He was replaced by Clarence Kummer.

It would be the only loss Man o’ War would suffer in his 21-race career, a loss dismissed by some as resulting from human error at its start. But what of the horse who had staged the result?

Upset was in fact a formidable foe. He would later finish second to Paul Jones in the 1920 Kentucky Derby, a race bypassed by Man o’ War. Upset and Man o’ War would square off again three more times, including the 1920 Preakness and that summer’s Travers Stakes. Man o’ War would win each contest, with Upset always second by short margins though carrying lower weight.

A game competitor, Upset would finish second again by a neck in the Clark Handicap at four, his last stakes race. The horse that upset Man o’ War would finish his career after 17 starts with a 5-7-1 record, especially commendable considering four of those placements were against his arch foe, Man o’ War. He earned $37,504 in his career, worth $566,400 in today’s dollars. He died in 1941 at age 24, remembered as a respected adversary of perhaps the greatest racehorse in history.

Upset and groom Will Harbut. CREDIT Unknown

Contrary to popular belief, the use of the term “upset” in sports to designate a win by an underdog did not originate with that 1919 Sanford Stakes. It had in fact been in common usage in sports reporting a half-century before. Still, while Upset may not have helped coin a phrase, he did popularize it while helping crown a Champion in Man o’ War.

Saratoga Springs 1973

The Whitney Stakes is an altogether different contest than The Sanford. It was founded in 1928 and named after one of Saratoga’s most prominent families. Run in the heat of early August, the race is a G2 restricted to three-year-olds and older. It is longer, nine furlongs or 1 1/8 miles, reduced in 1955 by 1/8 mile from its original classic distance.

Its list of distinguished winners include War Admiral (1938), Dr. Fager (1968), Real Quiet Triple Crown-denier Victory Gallop (1999), Medaglia d’Oro (2003), Invasor (2006), Zenyatta-defeater Blame (2010) and remarkable three-time winner Kelso (1961, 1963, 1965).

But not Secretariat in 1973.

That year, a four-year-old Florida-bred gelded journeyman horse of questionable pedigree was in a Saratoga Whitney Stakes gate facing the greatest racehorse in at least a quarter-century in Secretariat. As undistinguished as his name, Onion was an East Coast horse trained by Long Islander H. (Harry) Allen Jerkens, nicknamed “The Chief,” which was his preference. But he would come to be known as “The Giant Killer.”

H. (Harry) Allen Jerkens, H of F NY trainer who defeated Secretariat twice with two different horses, Onion and Prove Out. ©Eclipse Sportswire

Onion would go on to race even as an eight-year-old. He would amass a respectable 15-12-5 record over 54 starts. But he is remembered for only one of his starts and for only one of his wins.

Fresh off his amazing Belmont victory, Secretariat was defeated by Jerkens-trained Onion in what has come to be regarded as the greatest upset in racing history. 

Onion outduels Secretariat in 1973 Whitney. ©NYRA

A Jerkens-trained horse would remind race fans the feat was no fluke when Prove Out later defeated Secretariat in the 1973 Woodward (G1) at Belmont.

Prove Out beats Secretariat in the 1973 Woodward. ©NYRA

Jerken’s-trained horses defeated Kelso three times and Buckpasser once in the Brooklyn Handicap (G1). He guided Prove Out to He guided Prove Out to a win over Riva Ridge in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). “The Chief” would be the youngest trainer at 45 ever inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But Jerkens is (mostly) remembered as the trainer of two of the only four horses to defeat Secretariat on the racetrack (he lost his 1972 maiden at Aqueduct to Calumet Farms Herbull, another loss was a disqualification), saving his greatest giant slaying for that 1973 Whitney and adding luster to Saratoga’s reputation to as “The Graveyard of Champions.”

…but that gets ahead of our story.


Secretariat 1973

By the summer of 1973, Secretariat was far more than a racehorse—the Big Red son of Bold Ruler was a national phenomenon. He was the first Triple Crown Champion in 25 years, since Citation in 1948. He won the G1 Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes all in record times that still stand nearly a half-century later. He won the Belmont by a jaw-dropping 31 1/2 lengths—more than half a football field—in a hand ride, with rider Ron Turcotte glancing over his shoulder at the forgotten field behind him in racing’s most famous photograph.

Turcotte looks back during Secretariat’s Belmont. ©Bob Coglianese NYRA

Secretariat appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

Time magazine June 11, 1973. ©Time Inc.

Along with Riva Ridge the previous year, he helped rescue the finances of Meadow Stables and its beloved owner, Penny Chenery, and would even defeat his Champion stablemate in the 1973 Marlboro Cup. And, unlike Man o’ War, Secretariat had won the Sanford Stakes in 1972.

Penny Chenery with Secretariat and Ron Turcotte after winning the Belmont. ©Bob Coglianese NYRA

Secretariat would prove far from perfect, but that was difficult to foresee during his two-year-old season and his stunning Triple Crown run.

The 1970 crop produced horses more than capable of being dominant in most other years. As a two-year-old, Stop The Music would run second twice and third once behind Big Red and would defeat him in the Champagne Stakes (G1) when Secretariat was disqualified from the win.

In what was supposed to be a walkover year for Secretariat, Angle Light would win the Wood Memorial (G1) at Aqueduct, with Secretariat finishing a disappointing third behind the horse that would come to be known as Big Red’s chief rival on the Triple Crown trail, Sham.

Sham became Secretariat’s chief rival on the Triple Crown trail. ©NYRA

Sham was a Kentucky-bred son of Pretense owned by Claiborne Farm and Sigmund Sommer. Ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., he was conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Frank “Pancho” Martin, who was not at all the loud-mouth caricature he’s portrayed as being in the 2010 Disney film Secretariat according to Big Red’s jockey, Ron Turcotte.

The horse gained his early fame racing on the West Coast, winning both the Santa Anita Derby (G1) in then-record time and the Santa Catalina Stakes (G3) before his runner-up finish in the Wood ahead of Secretariat.

Sham decisively winning the Santa Anita. ©Santa Anita Park

Secretariat entered the Kentucky Derby as the 3-2 favorite with Sham listed at 5-2. But Sham smashed his jaw while waiting in the Kentucky Derby starting gate and was later found to have lost two teeth in the accident.

1973 Kentucky Derby ©The Kentucky Derby

While Secretariat would go on to win the race in a still record 1:59.4, Sham would finish a scant 2 1/2 lengths, calculated as .034 seconds, behind the winner in the fastest two-horse finish in Kentucky Derby history.

Secretariat defeats Sham in the 1973 Kentucky Derby. ©The Kentucky Derby

The rivalry continued two weeks later in Preakness. Rounding the first turn, Secretariat would make a now-famous move to gain command of the race and win in what would be confirmed years later as the fastest Preakness ever with Sham again 2 1/2 lengths in arrears. In what was a reflection of the times, Sham was given only bottled water to drink before the race.

Given a final chance to even their rivalry, Sham was no match for Secretariat in the most dominating Belmont in history. Secretariat became a legend, Sham a footnote. But the footnote rarely mentions Sham suffered a stress fracture of his right cannon bone in that Belmont, his last race a last-place finish, and was retired.

1973 Belmont Stakes. ©NYRA

Following his own retirement after a 16-3-1 career over 21 races, Secretariat stood his entire stud career at Claiborne Farm in Paris, KY where he was euthanized October 4, 1989 following months of suffering painful laminitis. The beginning of William Nack’s June 1990 Sports Illustrated story “Pure Heart,” perhaps the greatest story ever written about horseracing, begins with an anecdote from the ensuing autopsy of Secretariat:

“We were all shocked,” (Dr. Thomas) Swerczek said. “I’ve seen and done thousands of autopsies on horses, and nothing I’d ever seen compared to it. The heart of the average horse weighs about nine pounds. This was almost twice the average size, and a third larger than any equine heart I’d ever seen. And it wasn’t pathologically enlarged. All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger. I think it told us why he was able to do what he did.”

Sham stood at Spendthrift Farm, KY from 1974 to 1992 when he was moved to Walmac International. He died in his stall of an apparent heart attack April 3, 1993 at age 23.

With him, he took a 5-5-1 record over 13 starts and, unknown to most…a heart that weighed 18 pounds, the same as Secretariat’s.

Man o’ War Statue. ©Kentucky Horse Park

Kentucky has produced its share of the GOAT, the Greatest of All-Time. Today, a museum stands in Louisville to honor the accomplishments of hometown boxing hero, Muhammad Ali. In Lexington’s Kentucky Horse Park, there is a bronze statue of a proud Man o’ War and another of Secretariat that depicts the Champion as he entered the Winners Circle after his Derby triumph.

Statue depicts Secretariat after Kentucky Derby win. ©Kentucky Horse Park

Nowhere is there a statue or plaque honoring Upset or Sham, two horses that, born in any other year, might be counted among the greatest racehorses of all time.

Every Muhammad Ali needs a Joe Frazier to contend and underscore his greatness. So it is with Upset and Sham, two unheralded horses who each heralded the coming of a hero.

The Verdict

After examining in detail every facet of the pedigree, careers and accomplishments of Man o’ War and Secretariat during and after their racing careers and those of their not-so-famous rivals; after pouring over scores of articles in the archives of the Daily Racing Form, The Blood-Horse and even archival material in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga and the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs, it becomes clear which horse, Man o’ War or Secretariat, is the greatest racehorse of all time.

Without the slightest doubt—it’s Big Red.