How A Horse Named Onion Defeated A GiantPlay
This story was re-broadcast on our 5/30/20 episode. It originally aired in May 2018.
Horse trainer H. Allen Jerkens can be described, according to one of his former groomsmen, in two words.
"The best," says Ralph Theroux, a horse racing lifer who once worked for Jerkens.
"He had the greatest powers of observation of any human being, let alone horse trainer, that I’ve ever known," Ralph says.
Jerkens’ quiet command of his horses earned him a nickname.
"We just knew him as 'Chief,' " Ralph says. "He was 'The Chief.' "
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But Jerkens had earned another nickname: "The Giant Killer."
"He would always be embarrassed when people would call him 'The Giant Killer,' or if a newspaper writer would refer to him that way," Ralph says.
But Jerkens was a giant killer. Or at least a giant beater. His horse Beau Purple had defeated the great Kelso in 1962 and in 1963. A few years later, the Jerkens-trained Handsome Boy upset 1966 Horse of the Year Buckpasser. Those wins alone would have made for a pretty great training career.
An 'Average' But 'Kind' Horse
But then, in 1972, an unheralded 2-year-old gelding would canter into Jerkens’ life. His name was Onion, a home-bred from Hobeau Farms.
Ralph was one of Onion’s grooms. He remembers his personality as "about average. Nothing special."
Allen Jerkens' son, Jimmy, then 13 years old, was one of Onion’s walkers. He calls Onion "a kind horse."
"He wouldn’t try to kick you," Jimmy says. "He wouldn’t try to bite you, like the stallions do. They’ll take their leg and slap at you, and try to get their leg over the shank so they can get loose. He would never do any of that stuff."
So how did Onion fare on the track?
"Early on, he wasn’t really, you know, 'Oh, boy. We got some good 2 year old on our hands here,' " Jimmy says.
"He didn’t start to get good until that spring and summer of ’73, and then he kinda came into his own and ran some terrific races," Ralph says. "But they were one-turn races. They were sprints."
Allen Jerkens and his crew didn’t see Onion as a horse that could win longer races, and certainly not against that year’s crop of quality 3 year olds, which included Secretariat. So, early in the 1973 season, Onion only raced in low-grade, non-stakes races.
But then, in late July, Allen Jerkens entered Onion in a 6 1/2 furlong allowance race at Saratoga. Jimmy and Ralph were there.
"And I saw him pull away from a bunch of really good sprinters," Jimmy says. "A horse called Spanish Riddle, who was a top sprinter, and another one called Tap The Tree. And he just pulled away from them like they didn’t even belong on the same track with him."
Onion won, posting a track-record time of 1:15 1/5.
"And he came out of that race like he hadn’t even run," Ralph says. "He was sharp, he was happy, he wasn’t too high-strung. He really had it together."
Secretariat's Phenomenal Year
Around the time that Onion was sharpening his game, Secretariat arrived in Saratoga. The horse racing world saw his presence there as a sort of coronation. Blue and white bunting, the colors of Secretariat’s home stable, greeted his arrival.
Jimmy Jerkens was wide-eyed.
"On Broadway, they had these banners all over the place, going all the way across Broadway, from one side to the other, in the Meadow Stable colors," he says.
Secretariat wasn’t your average champion. In the spring, he had established track records at the Kentucky Derby.
... at the Preakness ...
… and, most dramatically, at the Belmont.
Secretariat won the Belmont by an astonishing 31 lengths and became the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years. His world record time of 2:24 for a 1 1/2-mile race will almost certainly never be broken. Ralph witnessed it all from the grandstand.
"The day he won the Belmont, they could have brought Man O’ War to run against him. It wouldn’t have mattered," he says. "No horse who had ever looked through a bridle was going to defeat him on that day. That day was his crowning achievement of an already great career."
Jerkens Targets Another Giant
So it would have been crazy for Allen Jerkens to even consider running Onion against Secretariat at Saratoga, right? But Allen knew Onion was in top form. And, while most people oohed and aahed over Secretariat, Allen looked for a weakness in him. A few days before the Whitney Handicap, he watched Secretariat work out.
"He was on his white stable pony. And he just happened to be out there, because a set of his horses was out there," Jimmy says of Allen. "And Secretariat worked a half a mile, and he thought it was very dismal work for Secretariat. He used to work very fast. He ran fast, and when he trained, he trained very fast also. But this particular time, he was very sluggish."
Allen Jerkens had also heard rumors that Secretariat was running a slight fever and had dropped weight. Some wondered whether he was tired after his incredible performances at the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Allen sensed an opportunity. But he didn’t tell anyone. Shortly before the Whitney Handicap, he was approached about entering a horse.
"The racing secretary had called him," Jimmy says. "They asked him if he had any interest."
The racing secretary wasn’t really serious about it. But Jerkens told him that he would enter Onion.
"He couldn’t believe it when my father actually entered him," Jimmy says.
Onion Vs. Secretariat In The Whitney
On Aug. 4, 1973, five horses entered the gates at Saratoga before a crowd of over 30,000. Secretariat was the prohibitive favorite at 1 to 10 odds. Onion was 5 to 1, with jockey Jacinto Vasquez aboard.
As the horses came to post, Jimmy was near the six-furlong pole on the backstretch with his twin sister and his brother. They must not have thought Onion had much of a chance, because they weren’t at the rail.
"There was an old fruit stand, and the guy that owned the fruit stand had an old black-and-white TV, which had the race on it at the time," Jimmy recalls.
Jimmy saw Onion’s strong start and joined Ralph at the 6 1/2-furlong pole on the backstretch, across the oval from the starting gate.
"And then we watched them come around the clubhouse turn and come right at us for a few strides before they settled into the backstretch," Ralph says. "You could see Onion just striding out in complete command."
Then Jacinto Vasquez pinned Secretariat and his rider, Ron Turcotte, to the rail, where he felt the track was slowest. But Secretariat was ... Secretariat.
"You just beat a Triple Crown winner. You just beat a champion with an old gelding. Those things aren’t supposed to happen."Jimmy Jerkens
"And then, when they turned the elbow into the homestretch, we could see Secretariat moving up and getting almost even with him," Ralph says. "Then we lost sight of them, because the tote board in the centerfield of the racetrack at that angle would obscure our view for a good eighth of a mile."
"Onion was a half a length in front as they disappeared behind the tote board," Jimmy says.
"We all assumed that when the horses reappeared, that Secretariat would have gone by Onion and be drawing away to victory, just because of who Secretariat was," Ralph says.
"And I was just positive that Secretariat was going to be about four lengths in front," Jimmy says.
"When they came out from behind the tote board, Onion still had the same advantage on Secretariat," Jimmy says.
"And when we saw that Onion was still in front, we got to jumping up and down and screaming as loud as two kids can scream," Ralph says. "And rooted him home those last few strides to the wire."
"It’s still very close. Onion has Secretariat on the rail. They are very tight quarters. It’s Onion holding on as they come to the wire. Secretariat is not going to get him. It’s going to be Onion! He’s holding as they hit the finish. It’s Onion winning it by about a length."
"We went berserk," Jimmy says. "Forget it. I mean, we were jumping around like idiots. It was incredible. You just beat a Triple Crown winner. You just beat a champion with an old gelding. Those things aren’t supposed to happen."
"It was just so much fun," Ralph says.
But not for Secretariat’s handlers, who came under scrutiny for running Secretariat when he might not have been at his best. Secretariat returned to form the following month in the Marlboro Cup Invitational, where he set a new world record for a mile and 1/8. Onion galloped in a humbled fourth.
But Secretariat would lose the 1973 Woodward Stakes behind Prove Out, another horse trained by Allen Jerkens. Jimmy sees Secretariat’s losses to his father’s horses as a possible blemish on Secretariat’s stellar career. As for Ralph Theroux ...
"I don’t. His Triple Crown, his Belmont Stakes took your breath away," he says.
'One Of The Biggest Upsets Of All Time A Hundred Years From Now'
Onion never won another stakes race. He ran as a claimer until 1977, when injuries forced him into retirement. Onion, son of Third Martini, nephew of Mopkins, died in 1995.
But nearly five decades after Onion’s victory over Secretariat, at least a couple of the humans associated with Onion think his victory at the Whitney was a significant one.
"I think it’ll be one of the biggest upsets of all time a hundred years from now," Jimmy says.
"It’s David and Goliath. It gives us all hope," Ralph says. "We’re all just mere mortals. But if we train right and we point all our efforts to accomplishing a certain goal, maybe we’ll have our Onion, too."
Allen Jerkens was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame just two years after Onion upset Secretariat. He died in 2015.
Ralph Theroux and Jimmy Jerkens are still working in horse racing.
This segment aired on May 19, 2018.