Most Memorable Finishes Part 2

If you enjoyed Part 1 of the most memorable finishes we have a lot more this week. We all have our favorites and these are determined by historical significance and from a personal standpoint. ~ Steve Haskin

Most Memorable Finishes Part 2

By Steve Haskin

Wild Again winning the inaugural 1984 Breeders’s Cup Classic (Breeders’ Cup photo)


Although last week’s column ended in 1985 I am beginning this week’s column with an earlier race that I had listed but overlooked, one that is very well known to most racing fans.

1984 Breeders’ Cup Classic (Wild Again) – This race needs no introduction as we are all aware of its importance in establishing the Breeders’ Cup as one of the world’s great events in its first year. Yes, it was an exciting finish and a shocking result and is listed for its historical impact. But the overwhelming favorite, Slew o’ Gold, who was on the verge of greatness, was suffering from a quarter crack and his jockey Angel Cordero put on quite an act when he took up sharply in deep stretch despite appearing to be beaten after falling back to third. Because of Cordero’s dramatics it seemed as if the stewards were obligated to take down either the horse inside him, the nose winner Wild Again, or the horse outside him, the hooded Gate Dancer, who already had a reputation having been disqualified from fourth in the Kentucky Derby. There was no way the Breeders’ Cup or Hollywood Park wanted the first Classic to be decided on a disqualification, and it was Horse of the Year candidate Slew o’ Gold’s jockey who was claiming foul, so they took down the “notorious” Gate Dancer, who in my opinion did nothing to warrant it when it looked as if Wild Again was more to blame for coming out. But neither horse affected Slew o’ Gold or deserved to be taken down and the gutsy Wild Again was a deserving winner, especially since his owner supplemented him to the race for an outrageous $360,000… for a 30-1 shot. Now that is chutzpah. With Pat Day saluting the heavens afterwards, providing an everlasting image, the Breeders’ Cup was on its way.

1987 Haskell Invitational (Bet Twice) – As New Jersey correspondent for the new publication Thoroughbred Times it was a thrill to cover a race of such importance, with all eyes on Monmouth Park to witness the showdown between Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Alysheba and the Derby and Preakness runner-up Bet Twice, who then crushed Alysheba in the Belmont, winning by 14 lengths. Also in the mix was the exciting speedster Lost Code, riding one of the oddest winning streaks in memory, winning the Alabama Derby, Thomas Nash Memorial Handicap, Illinois Derby, Ohio Derby, St. Paul Derby, and Arlington Classic. This was his big move up to the top level. Lost Code, as expected, went to the lead, tracked by Bet Twice, who was the local hero, being stabled most of the year at Monmouth with Jersey favorite trainer Jimmy Croll. Alysheba took back and waited to make his move. Coming to the top of the stretch, Bet Twice went after Lost Code as Alysheba moved to the inside. Turning for home, Bet Twice pulled on even terms with Lost Code, but as they moved in toward the rail Alysheba had to veer to the outside. Now the battle was on. Lost Code showed what he was made of as he matched strides with Bet Twice. Alysheba still had a couple of lengths to make up but was flying. It was obvious all three horses were going to hit the wire together. In the end it was Bet Twice by a neck over Alysheba, who was a neck in front of a game Lost Code. Monmouth was going through a growth spurt in the mid-80s and this race put the Haskell on the map as one of the country’s top races for 3-year-olds.

1987 Breeders’ Cup Classic (Ferdinand) – While this was an exciting finish between two Kentucky Derby winners, which certainly made it historic, it was not one of my favorite races because it looked as if Ferdinand, as he was known to do, began to idle in the final sixteenth after taking the lead from a stubborn Judge Angelucci, while Alysheba, although closing the gap, seemed to be doing so only because Ferdinand was allowing him to do so by shutting it down. I am probably being too unkind to what was a thrilling finish between back-to-back Derby winners, but I was actually more excited and more impressed with both horses in the following year’s Santa Anita Handicap when they laid it all out with Alysheba, in front this time, stretching his neck out and holding off a relentless Ferdinand. They would repeat it again in even more dramatic fashion in their next meeting in the San Bernardino Handicap when Alysheba had to come again to beat Ferdinand by a desperate bob of the nose in a heart-pounding three-horse photo with outsider Good Taste. That race was as exciting as it gets. So just consider this the Alysheba – Ferdinand trilogy.

1988 Haskell Invitational (Forty Niner) – Forty Niner spent half his career in photo finishes and knew how to fight and how to win. He was one of the gutsiest horses I’ve ever seen and he needed every ounce of his courage to outduel the top-class Seeking the Gold the entire length of the stretch in 100-degree weather. I remember so well at noon that day the sun was actually burning the top of my head even through my hat. Here were two colts giving 100 percent in stifling heat while going stride for stride, with a tenacious Forty Niner refusing to let an equally game Seeking the Gold get by him. Back at the barn after the race Forty Niner had three fans blowing in his stall to try to cool him down. Amazingly, several weeks later Forty Niner again beat Seeking the Gold by a desperate nose in the Travers Stakes. What made these battles all the more interesting was that both these sons of Mr. Prospector grew up together at Claiborne Farm. Forty Niner would then lose a heartbreaker in the Woodward Stakes against older horses when he dug deep yet again but just failed to hold off Alysheba by a neck, and Alysheba had to break the track record to beat him, running the mile and a quarter in 1:59 2/5. I don’t think that I have ever seen three gutsier performances strung together, especially in only a month and a half.

1988 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Personal Ensign) – All you have to do is say Secretariat’s Belmont or Affirmed and Alydar’s Belmont and that is sufficient. They require no other words. The same can be said of Personal Ensign’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff and her determination to catch the Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors in the deep stretch run. Winning Colors was on a clear lead enjoying her return to Churchill Downs on a sloppy sticky track with Personal Ensign, appearing to dislike the surface and with too much ground to make up, charging at her relentlessly trying to end her illustrious career undefeated. Everyone already knew at the sixteenth pole it was going to come down to whose nose was going to be in front at the wire. First Personal Ensign had to get by the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks, and Mother Goose winner Goodbye Halo and even that was going to be close. After that it would take about three or four more strides to crack the big powerful speedball Winning Colors. Just like Forego in the 1976 Marlboro Cup history would not be denied as Personal Ensign just got up to win by a nose ending one of the great careers of all time. For a race that requires no words I think that was more than enough.

1989 Preakness Stakes (Sunday Silence) – Has there ever been a five-year period in racing that saw more epic finishes than 1984 to 1989? And we didn’t even include the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic, that track announcer Tom Durkin called a “racing epic,” but paled by comparison to the ’89 Preakness between the same two antagonists, Sunday Silence, the pride of the west, and Easy Goer, the pride of the east. Before the Kentucky Derby, Easy Goer had been anointed the next Triple Crown winner by his avid worshippers only to run into a black bullet named Sunday Silence and a deep, wet Churchill Downs track he showed the year before in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile he despised. So, here came the Preakness and his chance for redemption. A week before the race Sunday Silence came down with a foot bruise and if he wasn’t able to work the following day he likely would have to be scratched. Noted veterinarian Alex Harthill was summoned from Kentucky. He went into the colt’s stall and both the top and bottom doors were closed. Shortly after, he came out and left and while we will never know what took place behind closed doors, the next morning Sunday Silence worked a half in a stunning :46 1/5. A week later Sunday Silence and Easy Goer engaged in a stretch battle for the ages, with Pat Valenzuela managing to get Sunday Silence outside of Pat Day on Easy Goer and in a stronger position. Both colts ran their hearts out with Sunday Silence just edging his rival to take the first two legs of the Triple Crown. And this was a colt who was so close to being scratched a week earlier.

1996 Dubai World Cup (Cigar) – I had traveled halfway across the world to cover a new race called the Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world run at tiny Nad Al Sheba Race Course in the deserts of the rapidly growing Dubai. The $4 million purse topped the Breeders’ Cup Classic by $1 million. But no one knew what to expect or whether this race would succeed. It sure helped that they were able to lure American superstar and reigning Horse of the Year Cigar. But it had been reported that Cigar was battling foot problems since arriving in Dubai. Still, he was on the track every day and looked great. But as I sat in the media tent, word came in that Cigar was going to be scratched. Had I traveled this far to a strange new land for nothing except to see two decent American horses, Soul of the Matter and L’Carriere, face a bunch of locally based horses and mediocre European grass horses? To cover myself I wrote an opening paragraph about Cigar being scratched just in case. Then the horses filed on to the track from the stable area located on the backstretch. I looked through my binoculars and there was Cigar with his trusted pony Snowball. Thank goodness. Could he extend his winning streak to 13 races running on a questionable foot and at night for the first time? As they came down that interminably long stretch, Cigar had the lead, but here came Soul of the Matter with all the momentum. He ranged up alongside Cigar and inched ahead. “Oh, no, Cigar is going to get beat. Soul of the Matter is a good horse but where is the story?” Just then, Cigar seemed to find another gear or just dug deep into his heart of a champion. He came back again to win by a half-length. My story was written. The Dubai World was here to stay. It was a glorious flight back home.

1998 Breeders’ Cup Mile (Da Hoss) – This one surely was personal. In 1998 my family and I made several visits to Michael Dickinson’s Tapeta Farm and witnessed first-hand the struggle Dickinson and his crew had getting Da Hoss back to the Breeders’ Cup Mile after his victory in 1996 off only one minor race at Colonial Downs in two years. Da Hoss had been suffering one physical problem after another and his chances of making it back to the Breeders’ Cup seemed extremely slim. Dickinson kept showing me letters he faxed to co-owner Art Preston. On May 30 following an ultrasound of his tendon all seemed promising. But on July 10 he wrote: “Dr. Ross examined Da Hoss today, and he thought he had muscle atrophy on the left hind and was moving worse than he had ever seen him… It is disappointing to us all.” But his crew kept working feverishly on him. His groom spent six hours a day in the stall with the horse, rubbing him, giving him physiotherapy, massage treatments, ice treatments, and laser treatments. Dickinson then wrote to Preston: “We all know that he does have aches and pains, and on a nuclear scan he lights up like a Christmas tree. We’re all holding our breath at the moment and it will indeed be a miracle if he wins the Breeders’ Cup again this year. But miracles do happen.” What happened in the Mile will forever be etched in Breeders’ Cup lore. Da Hoss was forced to move early on the far turn after getting bumped and having to check on the first turn. Rallying four wide, Da Hoss hit the front at the three-sixteenths pole. Dickinson was upset, fearing the horse had moved too soon. Da Hoss was on the lead with more than a furlong still to run. From out of the pack came the stretch-running Hawksley Hill, who charged up alongside Da Hoss inside the eighth pole and actually got his head, then neck in front at the sixteenth pole and looked about ready to draw clear. Da Hoss, with only one allowance race under him in two years and countless setbacks, had made a gallant effort, but he was a beaten horse. But then the “miracle” happened. Da Hoss dug in and came battling back, his neck fully stretched and his teeth clenched. No one could believe it. Da Hoss kept reaching for more and with one final surge he stuck his head in front right on the wire. A stunned Tom Durkin, calling the race, bellowed: “Oh, my! This is the greatest comeback since Lazarus!” I remember back in July when all looked lost and Dickinson’s crew all were crying. Four months later, in the Churchill Downs winner’s circle, they all were crying once again.

1998 Belmont Stakes (Victory Gallop) – This was it. The 20-year-old Triple Crown drought would be over in a few seconds. Joining the list of racing’s immortals would be… Real Quiet? Really? A horse so unassuming and narrow from the front his trainer nicknamed him “The Fish”? A horse who was not even the most talented 3-year-old in his own barn? But it was going to happen. After upsetting the Derby and winning the Preakness, Real Quiet now held a commanding lead coming down the stretch. Racecaller Tom Durkin said it all: “Real Quiet is taking the lead, he’s coming to the eighth pole; 20 years in the waiting; one furlong to go. But here comes his rival Victory Gallop… Kent Desormeaux imploring Real Quiet to hold on. Victory Gallop a final surge; it’s going to be very close. Here comes the wire — it’s too close to call! Was it Real Quiet or was it Victory Gallop? A picture is worth a thousand words. This photo is worth five million dollars. Oh, no, history in the waiting on hold until we get that photo finish.” The wait seemed forever as I stood behind Real Quiet’s owner Mike Pegram’s box waiting to see if history had been made. Even if Real Quiet had held on there was a good chance he would be disqualified for coming out and interfering with Victory Gallop. Could the stewards really disqualify a horse from a Triple Crown sweep? They never got to make that decision as Victory Gallop’s number went up. By the way, Victory Gallop’s owners would go on to win another historic photo that year with a gutsy 6-year-old. His name was Da Hoss.

2007 Belmont Stakes (Rags to Riches) – If you want historic, this is your race. When Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense passed the Belmont Stakes after getting nipped by Curlin in the Preakness, the final leg of the Triple Crown lost most of its luster. That was until it was given a much-needed shot in the arm with the inclusion of Kentucky Oaks winner Rags to Riches. It couldn’t have turned out better. After the decision was made to run Rags to Riches there she was, charging down the stretch in the Belmont locked in furious combat with the brilliant, tough, and determined Curlin, whose meteoric rise to stardom was one victory away from taking on legendary proportions. The crowd of 46,870, the smallest since 1996, was on its feet as the feisty filly and the brawny colt looked each other in the eye, neither budging an inch. One of the great battles in Triple Crown history was on. There is a saying attributed to both Eleanor Roosevelt and Carl Sandburg: “A woman is like a tea bag. It’s only when she’s in hot water that you realize how strong she is.” Curlin put Rags to Riches in scalding water down the Belmont stretch, but it was he who got burned. Rags to Riches, who had stumbled badly at the start and then raced wide the entire way, took the outside route, while Curlin, who had saved ground, split horses inside her with a quick burst of speed. Now, as they honed in on each other, it was time to see which one had the strongest will. It was a classic male vs. female confrontation, something you don’t see in most other sports. Rags to Riches, who had been manhandling humans since she was a baby, was not about to be intimidated by the powerful chestnut colt. Curlin came out and bumped Rags to Riches, who just shrugged it off, sticking her head in front. Although Curlin kept digging in and battling back, Rags to Riches refused to relinquish her head advantage. As she eased in slightly and Curlin again came out into her, the two were leaning all over each other as the wire approached. Most horses, especially fillies, would have been intimidated by the contact from a bruiser like Curlin, but Rags to Riches seemed to relish this test of superiority and she held her advantage to the wire, becoming the first filly in 102 years to win the Belmont.

2009 Woodward Stakes (Rachel Alexandra) – You want more fillies, we got another one. This was the race a filly literally shook the Saratoga grandstand. Rachel Alexandra had not only decimated her own sex winning the Fantasy takes by almost nine lengths, the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths, and the Mother Goose by 19 1/4 lengths, she had beaten the boys in the Preakness Stakes and romped in the Haskell Invitational by six lengths, crushing the Belmont winner Summer Bird. Now came the bold move to take on older males in the Woodward Stakes. A 3-year-old filly going against older males in a Grade 1 race was unheard of, but Rachel’s connections were looking for new and higher mountains to climb. To make things even more difficult, Rachel had to repulse one challenge after another throughout the race, while pressing a brutal opening quarter in :22 4/5, and still was able to dig down deep and turn back her final and most formidable challenge from the multiple graded stakes winner and $1.7-million earner Macho Again. First, she had to turn back Past the Point, then the previous year’s Belmont winner Da’ Tara, prompting racecaller Tom Durkin to say, “There’ll be no free ride for Rachel Alexandra. They’re making her work for every step today.” And work she did through a testing three-quarters in 1:10 2/5. Then Asiatic Boy made a futile run at her followed by Whitney winner Bullsbay. Finally it was Macho Again who came at her, closing in with every stride. Rachel, under a barrage of 13 right-handed whips from Calvin Borel who had already hit her eight times, kept finding more. The crowd urged Rachel to hold on, their hearts pounding with every stride. At the wire, it was Rachel Alexandra by a head and the place went crazy. Rachel returned to an eruption of cheers, unlike anything heard before at Saratoga. But that race gutted her and it took her a long time to get back to the races. When she did she won several stakes, but was never the same filly we had seen earlier in 2009. But 13 years later, all those who were there still remember the day Rachel rocked the Spa.

I am wrapping this up with my three favorite Breeders’ Cup Classic finishes – the 2000 and 2001 victories by Tiznow and the 2013 victory by Mucho Macho Man, three of my favorite races of all time. The stories behind all three of these races are so long and so special and at times so heartwarming and gut-wrenching I would be doing them a gross injustice by trying to squeeze them in here. They can all be found in my archives at along with the amazing story behind Zenyatta’s heartbreaking defeat in the 2010 Classic, to me the greatest race she ever ran.

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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