Upset by a Saggy Onion

May 17, 2020

Great horses become legends because they win more than they lose. They win when they’re expected to win, That being said, strange things happen in horse racing. Winners get beat, and the upsets are huge asterisks on an otherwise unblemished career. They lead us wondering, what if?

  • What if Native Dancer had not been bumped at the start of the Kentucky Derby? Would he have finished his career unbeaten?
  • What if jockey Ron Franklin had not taken Spectacular Bid out so fast in the Belmont Stakes; would we have had three Triple Crown winners in a row?

Sometimes accidents happen. Sometimes upsets occur which leave us scratching our heads in wonder how a horse got beat – many times by horses with the strangest names:

  • The greatest David-defeats-Goliath moment in horse racing history occurred on August 13, 1919 at Saratoga, when the great Man o’ War, starting in only his seventh race, was upset—by a horse named Upset in the Sanford Stakes. Man o’ War got off to a slow start and spent the rest of the race trying to catch Upset, who won by a nose and handed Man o’ War his only defeat. Man o War would go on to win his next 14 races in a row, but Upset’s victory still looms large a blemish on an otherwise perfect record.

Upset would lose to Man o’ War six other times; he won only five of 17 races, earning only $37,504. And no, the term “upset” was not coined after this event; the origin of the word goes back some 40 years before that.

  • Gallant Fox was riding a seven-race winning streak, including his Triple Crown wins, and was a 4-to-5 favorite going into the Travers Stakes—again at Saratoga. But the heavy rains were advantageous to a horse named Jim Dandy, a 100-1 shot who ran away with the Travers, winning by three lengths over Gallant Fox and his rival, Whichone.

Jim Dandy would win only six other races in his 141-race career.

  • As a 2-year-old, Citation had a six-race winning streak snapped at Havre de Grace when he lost the Chesapeake Trial to a horse with the unfortunate name of Saggy. It was legendary jockey Eddie Arcaro’s first ride on the colt, and he was not familiar with the horse. Saggy, whom the Louisville Courier-Journal described as a “baggy-legged auction colt,” was not challenged down the homestretch and won by a length over the champion.

Citation would go on to win 16 races in a row before getting beaten in his comeback from injury by a horse named Miche. If it weren’t for Saggy, Citation would have had a 23-race winning streak.

  • Secretariat was the 1-10 favorite going into the Whitney Handicap but wasn’t feeling his best. It showed, as he finished second to a horse named Onion in what the United Press International called “one of the biggest upsets in racing history.” The horse, known mostly as a sprinter, beat Secretariat by a length. Secretariat began running a fever the next day.

Onion would win only 15 races in 54 starts.

  • Undefeated Zenyatta was making her final appearance in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic. It would be her second race against the boys, and a win would cap off an amazing career of 20 straight wins. She spent most of the race in last place and didn’t make a move until the horses were entering the homestretch.. Jockey Mike Smith finally found a seam on the outside but could not catch Blame, who nosed Zenyatta out for the win. It would be her only defeat.

Blame and Saggy were the only two horses with impressive records to upset champions. Saggy finished with eight wins in 14 races, and Blame finished 13:9-2-2, with $4.3 million in earnings.

Contributing Authors

Peter Lee

Peter is a  former journalist and  a horse racing historian. He is also the author of Spectacular Bid: The Last Superhorse of the Twentieth Century.

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