‘The Big Cat’: Cougar II an Unheralded Chilean-Bred Superstar of the 1970s

‘The Big Cat’: Cougar II an Unheralded Chilean-Bred Superstar of the 1970s

Ownership of a top-class racehorse surely must be an exciting thing to experience. It’s also something that rarely happens. For most owners, it never happens. As luck would have it, Florsheim Shoe heiress Mary F. Jones (who later was known as Mary Jones Bradley), had the privilege of owning Cougar II, a 1970s racing star, and the experience far exceeded her hopes as all she had asked her trainer Charlie Whittingham to do when she bought him was “get me out of the claiming ranks.” What she didn’t realize at that time was that she had a future champion on her hands, and a horse she would grow to love.

Cougar II, a Chilean-bred by Tale of Two Cities out of Cindy Lou, by Madara, was imported to the U.S. as a 4-year-old in 1970 after some success in his native country. He made his first four starts for Perla De Chico Stud and trainer G.A. Riley, winning two stakes at Del Mar: the Escondido Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on turf followed by the Cabrillo Handicap at about 1 ¼ miles on dirt, defeating Quicken Tree, both in track record time.

After that, as Mary Jones would later recall, “Joe Hernandez offered Cougar for sale. Charlie Whittingham showed him to me, and I fell in love with him at once,” so she purchased him for $125,000 and turned him over to Whittingham.

Cougar placed in three of four starts for his new owner in 1970, while coming awfully close to winning the Del Mar Handicap.

To start 1971, and foreshadowing the good things to come, Cougar II won the San Gabriel Handicap over modest competition and then took down the San Marcos Handicap by six lengths. He next finished second by a half-length to the brilliant Daryl’s Joy on Santa Anita Park’s turf course in the 1 1/2-mile San Luis Obispo Handicap.

Transitioning back to dirt, he was a good second to Ack Ack while racing extremely wide around the far turn in the Santa Anita Handicap, losing by 1 1/2 lengths. Bill Shoemaker rode him in the first three starts of 1971, but opted for Ack Ack in the Santa Anita Handicap, so Laffit Pincay Jr. took over on Cougar that day.

Back on turf for the San Juan Capistrano, and with Shoemaker in the saddle, he defeated Daily Racing Form’s 1970 Horse of the Year Fort Marcy by three lengths. Under top weight, Cougar II was third via disqualification in a rough edition of Hollywood Park’s Century Handicap, with Shoemaker remarking that he was “riding sideways from the half-mile pole to the wire” because of the traffic. He then posted popular wins in the Californian Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on dirt and the Ford Pinto Turf Invitational (later renamed Hollywood Turf Invitational) at 1 1/2 miles on turf, beating Fort Marcy by a neck, after being more than 20 lengths back early in the race, prompting Shoemaker to say, “It has been a long time since a horse gave me that kind of acceleration.”

When an interviewer asked Jones how she felt about owning Cougar II, she said, “It’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to me, and something I never thought was going to happen to me, because there aren’t that many super-horses in the world, and many people have asked if I waited a long time, but I didn’t wait any time at all because I didn’t expect it.”

Jones certainly loved owning one of the top horses in the country, and she was looking for Horse of the Year honors for her immensely popular runner, who had affectionately been nicknamed “The Big Cat,” so she wanted Whittingham to enter him in the Hollywood Gold Cup against Ack Ack.

In their only previous meeting, Ack Ack had held off the hard-charging Chilean on a track labeled “slow,” which was not to Cougar’s liking. But after the wins in the San Juan Capistrano, Californian, and Ford Pinto Invitational, Jones believed he was much improved, and she thought he would perform better on a fast track, so she made the bold statement, “I cannot wait to have it out with Ack Ack in the Gold Cup!”

Much to her consternation, Whittingham scratched Cougar II on the morning of the Gold Cup, and Whittingham’s “other horse,” Ack Ack, won with 134 pounds, and would later be voted Horse of the Year. Unfortunately for Jones, and perhaps unfairly to Cougar II’s legacy, Whittingham would not allow the rematch to take place. 

Cougar II turned up a week later in the two-mile Sunset Handicap on turf. After hitting the rail nearing the sixteenth pole and losing his momentum, he averted disaster, but held on for second. Over the Counter won by a half-length while carrying 114 pounds to Cougar II’s 130. The excellent mare Typecast, carrying 110 pounds, was another length back in third.

Cougar II’s next start was an uncharacteristically bad performance in the United Nations Handicap at Atlantic City Race Course in New Jersey, where he finished sixth by 21 lengths to Run the Gantlet on a soft turf course.

After the race, Whittingham realized that the temperamental Chilean hated boggy turf courses, as he recalled the dreadful 10th-place finish in the 1970 Man o’ War Stakes, where Cougar II wound up 25 lengths behind Fort Marcy.

Later in his career, Cougar II was flown to Maryland in 1971 and 1972 for the prestigious Washington D.C. International Stakes at Laurel Park, but each year he was scratched after a tremendous amount of rainfall drenched the turf course.

Whittingham also canceled plans for a trip to the 1973 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris, France, which Rheingold won on wet turf, for the same reason. As for Jones, after the Atlantic City debacle she said, “I wish we could get Run the Gantlet on a firm turf course. I’m sure we would win by at least five lengths!” 

Since Jones was confident that her horse was of championship caliber and worthy and capable of putting his hat in the ring for Horse of the Year, he was sent to New York for the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park.

Cougar II romped by an easy and dominating five lengths, running 1 ¼ miles on dirt in 2:00 2/5, with Shoemaker astride, only to be disqualified to third for interfering with a fading and vanquished Tinajero during the stretch run. He was much the best that day and had obliterated the best field the East Coast could assemble, including champion racemare Shuvee. His final time was the second fastest Woodward in history at that point in time. Whittingham, upset about the disqualification, said, “Cougar barely brushed that other horse, and the jockey came out of the saddle like a Drugstore Cowboy!” Whittingham later speculated that the disqualification may have robbed “The Big Cat” of Horse of the Year honors.

Cougar II went back to California and won the Oak Tree Invitational, effortlessly, running 2:24 3/5 for 1 1/2 miles on turf. Famed racing writer Leon Rasmussen observed, “When Cougar makes his charge, he looks like he is riding Sir Lancelot into battle.”

In 1972, Cougar’s next four starts were losses: three seconds (San Pasqual, Santa Anita Handicap, San Juan Capistrano) and a third (San Antonio). He was blocked in the San Pasqual and by the time he got in the clear it was too late, but he did well to be second to Western Welcome while carrying top weight of 128 pounds, compared with the winner’s 115 pounds. He lost the “Big Cap” by a head to Triple Bend in a driving finish, while giving away seven pounds (126 to 119). In the San Juan Capistrano, he got the lead much earlier in the race than usual and set fast fractions (2:23 for 1 1/2 miles) before weakening slightly in the shadow of the finish line to lose to Practicante by three-quarters of a length at 1 ¾ miles. He might have won with a better-timed ride from Shoemaker.

After the San Juan Capistrano, Triple Bend opted to go to New York instead of facing Cougar II at level weights in the Californian Stakes, and what a good decision that was because Cougar II came from 16 lengths off the pace to defeat Kennedy Road by 2 3/4 lengths while running the second fastest 1 1/16 miles on dirt in history at the time: 1:39 1/5. That was just a fifth of a second off Swaps’ world record.

Indeed, Cougar II had returned to form in a big way. Three weeks earlier on the turf, he completed 1 3/8 miles in 2:11 in winning the Century Handicap, a North American record that stood for nearly 15 years. Shoemaker said, “There isn’t a horse in the country who can beat Cougar right now, at level weights.”

Cougar II was sidelined with a minor injury after a third-place finish in June. The narrow losses while carrying top weight prompted Jones to complain that Cougar III was the “star of the show” and “the best horse,” and she thought it was unjust that he was hampered in this manner, saying, “People want to see him win!” while suggesting that the races should be at level weights.

Cougar II returned in autumn to take the Carleton F. Burke Handicap, coming from 17 lengths back early to beat Kentuckian by 1 1/4 lengths, and that was followed by a facile two-length victory over Queen’s Hustler in the Oak Tree Invitational. Cougar II was awarded the Eclipse Award for championship turf horse of 1972.

The first goal of 1973 for the now 7-year-old champion was for him to win the Santa Anita Handicap after second-place efforts in both 1971 and 1972, and Whittingham brought him up to the race on workouts alone after a four-month layoff to win under top weight of 126 pounds by a nose under jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. He defeated Kennedy Road in 2:00, which was two-fifths of a second off the track record. He then was a distant third on yielding turf in the San Luis Rey to runaway winner Big Spruce, and third again, coming on a little too late, in the San Juan Capistrano Handicap to close out the Santa Anita season.

The second goal Cougar II had in 1973 was to become a millionaire. That historic milestone was achieved at Hollywood Park on May 5, 1973, in the Century Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on turf. Cougar II won by 3 1/2 lengths under Shoemaker’s guidance, while defeating Wing Out, Life Cycle, champion Susan’s Girl, and Big Spruce. He became only the 11th equine millionaire in horse racing history, the first foreign-bred millionaire, as well as the richest foreign-bred horse, which were enormous accomplishments, and Cougar II also was the richest-active runner at the time. By the end of 1973, only 13 horses were millionaires as Secretariat and Riva Ridge would both join the exclusive list later in the year.

His next start was the Hollywood Turf Invitational, in which he finished third by 1 1/2 lengths, causing Jones to voice her displeasure with the ride given by Shoemaker, even though Cougar II carried 130 pounds, compared with Life Cycle and Wing Out, carrying 115 and 118 pounds, respectively. This led to high drama because Jones wanted to replace Shoemaker with Pincay in the upcoming Hollywood Gold Cup.

The now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran a story by writer Gordon Jones, titled, “Florsheim Heiress Gives Shoe the Boot!” Mary Jones remarked to the press that Cougar II had won a million dollars – mostly with Shoemaker aboard – but that he would have won $2 million had Pincay been riding him! This seemed to rile up many racing fans to whom Shoemaker and Cougar II were a team.

Jones was booed when she arrived in the paddock for the Hollywood Gold Cup, and fans cheered Shoemaker. Once the race started, Shoemaker and Kennedy Road gained good position early, while Pincay tried to keep Cougar II within striking range early on. But the mercurial Cougar II had other plans. Pincay said that the more he got after Cougar II, the more the horse fought him, dropping farther and farther back, to where he was nearly 20 lengths out of it at the far turn.

Finally, although much too late, Cougar chose to get going, while closing nearly 15 lengths in the last half-mile, to be third by five lengths. Fans roared their approval for Shoemaker and Kennedy Road as they barely edged 1972 Hollywood Gold Cup winner Quack in a photo finish. Trainer Whittingham saddled the first three finishers in the race. Shoemaker snidely remarked, “I couldn’t have done it without Mary.”

Pincay complained that Cougar II was stubborn and a bit of a “head case,” echoing Shoemaker’s past observation that he could be “difficult to ride.” Shoemaker had also pointed out that the horse had a mind of his own and wanted to lag too far behind early in a race, leaving himself with way too much to do.

Cougar II was definitely not docile and compliant. Even in the post parade, he would often do as he pleased, stopping to look at the crowd before going off to warm up as fans cheered.

Shoemaker was back in the saddle for Cougar II’s remaining three starts, and the pair took down Hollywood Park’s closing day feature, the Sunset Handicap at 1 ½ miles on turf, defeating Life Cycle in 2:26, before heading to the East Coast to tackle the arguably greatest horse of all time.

A confident Charlie Whittingham brought Kennedy Road and Cougar II to New York and told a reporter, “I didn’t come here with an empty wagon. Cougar is a very, very good horse.”

Cougar II probably matched the track record in the inaugural Marlboro Cup, but that effort wasn’t enough to get the win. He closed late to be 5 1/2 lengths behind in third place to the mighty Meadow Stable duo of Secretariat and Riva Ridge. Secretariat won in world record time of 1:45 2/5, further solidifying his claim to the title of greatest horse of all time, a claim that started after his devastating Belmont Stakes victory and magnificent Triple Crown sweep.

 After the race Whittingham said that “if he hadn’t broken so badly and hadn’t had to alter his course in the stretch, he would have been closer. We’ll be back for the Woodward … and I’m not conceding anything to Secretariat and Riva Ridge.”

Whittingham’s opinion of “The Big Cat” was high.

The 1973 Woodward Stakes was Cougar’s last start, but he caught a sloppy track, which was simply not his thing, and he finished a well-beaten third, 15 1/2 lengths behind Prove Out (Secretariat was second).

The Woodward was not an indicator of his ability; it was an indicator of his disdain for a sloppy racetrack. Whittingham planned for the Oak Tree Invitational to be his swansong, but the slightest setback prevented that from happening and, instead, he was paraded before an adoring public at Santa Anita that day.

Like Native Diver before him, and John Henry after him, Cougar was immensely popular with California racing fans who were happy to see him show off one last time.

Cougar II was retired with a record of 50 starts, 20 wins, seven seconds, 17 thirds with purse earnings of $1,162,725, which was good for ninth place on the all-time earnings list at that time.

Years later, Equibase adjusted his Chilean earnings, and he’s now listed as having earned $1,169,058. Illustrating his high level of class, he had 18 stakes wins and 22 stakes-placings in his career, giving him 40 total stakes placings from 50 starts. He almost always carried top weight and usually was the wagering favorite. His 1:39 1/5 for 1 1/16 miles on dirt, and his 2:11 for 1 3/8 miles on turf were remarkable displays of speed and versatility. He finished in the money in 30 of his last 31 races.

In the Eclipse Award voting, Cougar II earned a unanimous vote as Champion Turf Horse of 1972, but only narrowly lost the Handicap Horse category, 13-11, to Autobiography. In each of those same categories in 1971 he was second best (9 votes each) to Run the Gantlet and Ack Ack, respectively.

The grading system for stakes races did not start until 1973 in the United States, but in order to assess Cougar fairly, he contested 27 Grade 1-equivalent races, winning 10 of them (the Woodward would have been 11) and placing in another 15, while being unplaced twice (both on boggy turf courses).

The editors and panelists at the BloodHorse magazine may have been remiss in excluding Cougar from their list of the Top 100 horses of all time, but the Racing Hall of Fame got it right by inducting him into the Hall of Champions in 2006.

In 2007, Del Mar renamed the Escondido Handicap in his honor. These are fitting and well-deserved tributes to a horse of historical significance who exemplified class and consistency throughout a battle-tested 6-year-long racing career.

At stud, he sired 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol.

Mary F. Jones owned some good racehorses, but none came close to taking the place of “The Big Cat” in her heart, but how could they when, as one reporter remarked, “Mary thinks Cougar is Man o’ War.” Cougar II died on June 11, 1989.