Secretariat

The Greatest “Rabbit” Punches in Racing History

It is time for one final history lesson before we hit the Derby trail. And this is one topic you don’t normally read about. This one you can say is about horses and trainers having a bad “hare” day. ~ Steve Haskin

The Greatest “Rabbit” Punches in Racing History

By Steve Haskin

One aspect of Thoroughbred racing that has been an integral part of its history, but hardly gets mentioned, is the use of “rabbits,” those fleet-footed sacrificial lambs that are used to either assure a fast pace for their late-running stablemates or are on a kamikaze mission to soften up a particular speed horse and preventing him from stealing a race.

For these unfortunate steeds, several of whom were either champions or record holders in their own right, their names live in infamy, a symbol of unfair tactics and compromising the chances of far more accomplished horses.

But rabbits, named for the mechanical rabbits that greyhounds chase in races, have been in the sport for as long as people can remember. In Europe, they are major part of the game, but are more commonly referred to as pacesetters, as they are entered simply to assure an honest pace for their more illustrious stablemates and not directed at one particular horse. It is a totally different game there and great horses rarely “steal” the major mile and a half and mile and a quarter races, which are run on grass and where the pace is far slower than our dirt races.

In this country, rabbits or pacesetters have been responsible in determining championships, the winners of classic races, and for track and world record-breaking performances. There have also been times, however, when rabbits have backfired, leaving their trainers with egg on their face. 

Let’s turn back the pages and follow Alice down racing’s rabbit hole and see what adventures we find on the other side.

The story most told is of Hedevar who is best known as the rabbit who softened up the brilliant Dr. Fager for his stablemate Damascus in the 1967 Woodward Stakes, dubbed “The Race of the Century.” Also in the field was the defending Horse of the Year Buckpasser, who also had a rabbit in the speedy Great Power. This was nothing new for the late-running Buckpasser, who rarely won a race by more than a length. This would be the 11th time in his career he would be accompanied by a rabbit or pacesetter. But more on Buckpasser and his bunny brigade later. With Horse of the Year at stake, Frank Whiteley, trainer of Damascus, and Eddie Neloy, trainer of Buckpasser, were not about to let the freakishly fast Dr. Fager, who hated having a horse in front of him, have a free ride on an easy lead. Whiteley also did not want to blow the 3-year-old championship to the good doctor after Damascus’ incredible campaign.

As big a race as the ’67 Woodward was, no one at the time realized the true magnitude of the event. You had three Horses of the Year and three Hall of Famers who, between them, would capture an amazing 12 championships, equal or break 11 track records, set two world records, and win carrying 130 pounds or more 12 times. Six of those records have never been broken. When Dr. Fager set a world record for the mile at 4, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/4-mile track record at Aqueduct, he broke Dr. Fager’s previous record. When Damascus broke the 1 1/8-mile track record at Arlington Park, he broke Buckpasser’s previous record. When Damascus equaled the 1 1/4-mile track record at Saratoga, he equaled Buckpasser’s previous record.

In 81 combined starts, they won 64 races, 54 of them stakes, and finished out of the money only three times – Dr. Fager on a disqualification after finishing first by 6 1/2 lengths in one of the most controversial stewards’ decisions of all time, Damascus after being eased in his final start with a bowed tendon, and Buckpasser in his first career start, in which he finished fourth, beaten 1 1/4 lengths going 5 1/2 furlongs. So, for all intents and purposes they never finished out of the money in 81 starts.

Of course, no one wanted to see the race compromised by the use of not one but two rabbits. As Dr. Fager’s trainer John Nerud said, “I think if I was confident I had the best horse I would not be using up two to beat one.”

But no one apparently reminded Nerud of the 1957 Belmont Stakes when he used a rabbit named Bold Nero to kill off Preakness winner Bold Ruler to set it up for Gallant Man. Bold Ruler broke like a rocket, but was hounded for almost a mile by Bold Nero, as the pair opened a 10-length lead on the field. With Bold Ruler softened, Gallant Man blew by him in the stretch, winning by eight lengths in track record time.

Back to the ’67 Woodward, Dr. Fager drew post 2, with Hedevar and Great Power directly to his inside and outside. Although Great Power was not expected to hang around very long, Hedevar had previously held the world record for a mile and was second to Wheatley Stable’s great champion Bold Lad in the Met Mile. With the Doc’s regular rider Braulio Baeza committed to Buckpasser, Bill Boland was given the mount.

The start was quite a sight, as Ron Turcotte, on Hedevar, pushed hard coming out of the gate, and then gave his mount two right-handed whacks with the whip, while Bob Ussery stung Great Power four times in rapid succession. Turcotte then went to the whip two more times entering the clubhouse turn. All the time, both riders were screaming in an attempt to stir up Dr. Fager even more. Here were two of the fastest horses in the country in an all-out drive under the whip and neither could outrun Dr. Fager, who was under a stranglehold by Boland.

Ussery later said, “Mr. Neloy never said to kill off Dr. Fager. He just said to go to the lead at all costs. That’s what the man wanted and he was paying me to do my job.”

As expected Great Power didn’t last very long and quickly retreated after a quarter of a mile, but the classier Hedevar clung to Dr. Fager and pushed him through torrid fractions of :22 2/5 and :45 1/5. Boland, like all riders, was no match for the sheer strength of Dr. Fager and couldn’t hold him any longer. When he let him go, the Doc blasted away from Hedevar and opened a 1 1/2-length lead after three-quarters in a suicidal 1:09 1/5, with a gap of six lengths between Hedevar and Handsome Boy in third. But the damage was done. Damascus and Buckpasser both put in their runs and closed in for the kill. But it was Damascus, with his extraordinary acceleration and cat-like quickness, who ran off from Buckpasser and flew by Dr. Fager at the quarter pole before drawing off to a resounding 10-length victory, nailing down Horse of the Year.

The following year, Damascus and Dr. Fager hooked up again in the Suburban Handicap, with Damascus carrying 133 pounds and Dr. Fager 132. Once again, Hedevar was entered, but was scratched the morning of the race with a minor injury. When Nerud heard the news at the racing secretary’s office he said to whoever was listening, “Well, the race is over.”

Not only was Dr. Fager the fastest horse in the country, he was impossible to crack if you looked him in the eye and was virtually unbeatable on an uncontested lead. When Dr. Fager cruised to the lead on his own, Damascus was now on a solo mission. His rider Manny Ycaza had no choice but to put the colt into the fray early and test Dr. Fager, who had managed to get away with an opening quarter in :24 and half in :48 2/5, which was trotting horse time for the Doc. Most people had to believe the race was over at that point. Damascus made three moves at Dr. Fager, but they were repelled each time. The Doc finally put Damascus away at the quarter and went on to score by two lengths over Bold Hour, who had been laying back waiting to pick up the pieces, with Damascus, who was a bit short for the race with only one easy allowance score in five months, finishing third. Dr. Fager, despite the slow early fractions and carrying 132 pounds, equaled Gun Bow’s track record of 1:59 3/5 for the mile and a quarter.

The next act came in the Brooklyn Handicap only 16 days later. This time Hedevar was healthy and back on his search-and-destroy mission. Dr. Fager now was carrying 135 pounds with Damascus toting 130. Hedevar, as expected, broke like a bullet, but there was no Dr. Fager eyeballing him. Baeza had a stranglehold on the Doc and let Hedevar scoot off to a clear lead through a half in :45 4/5. But down the backstretch he could no longer hold the headstrong Dr. Fager and had to let him go. The Doc roared by Hedevar and quickly opened a four-length lead in a rapid 1:09 4/5. That is a scorching pace going 1 1/4 miles under 135 pounds. Around the turn, Damascus, who had been far back this time, exploded with his patented rapid-fire acceleration. Like in the Woodward, he charged past Dr. Fager and drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths. His time of 1:59 1/5 not only broke Dr. Fager’s short-lived track record, it still stands after 52 years.

That ended the heated Damascus-Dr. Fager rivalry. Hedevar actually would show up again against Dr. Fager in the Washington Park Handicap, this time on his own, and was trounced by the Doc. Despite carrying 134 pounds and being eased up the entire length of the stretch, winning by 10 lengths, Dr. Fager still was able to run the mile in a world record 1:32 1/5, a time that has still not been broken on dirt.

Now getting back to Buckpasser, it was his stablemate Impressive who set blazing fractions in the Hopeful and Champagne Stakes setting it up for Buckpasser’s late charge. In Buckpasser’s 3-year-old debut, a seven-furlong exhibition allowance race at Hialeah, Neloy also entered Impressive and another fast colt, Stupendous in the five-horse field. Impressive once again did his job, setting fast fractions, but someone forget to tell him not to keep going. He drew off to a four-length victory over Buckpasser in 1:21 4/5. Buckpasser would go on to win the remainder of his 13 starts at 3, so it was Impressive who prevented him from having an undefeated season. 

However, Impressive did pay Buckpasser back by cutting out scorching fractions of :43 3/5 and an insane six furlongs in 1:06 4/5 in the one-mile Arlington Classic, enabling Buckpasser to break the world record, which Dr. Fager broke two years later. Other than the ’67 Woodward, Buckpasser’s fleet-footed stablemates never really targeted one particular horse. They were in there to kill off anyone who happened to be near the lead and to make sure no one got loose to steal a race on Buckpasser. Impressive would go on to be champion sprinter that year.

One famous rabbit was Angle Light even though he most likely was not an intended rabbit at all for Secretariat in the 1973 Wood Memorial. His owner, Edwin Whitaker, always felt Angle Light could beat Secretariat, and it likely was because of him that Lucien Laurin ran both horses. But with the up and coming star Sham shipping in from California fresh off a victory in the Santa Anita Derby it surely would not hurt having the speedy Angle Light in there in case Sham and trainer Frank Martin had any visions of stealing the Wood. But as we all know, Secretariat was suffering from an abscess in his mouth and never fired. By the time Jorge Velasquez on Sham realized Secretariat was not a danger it was too late to catch the front-running Angle Light. Needless to say there has never been a grimmer looking person in the winner’s circle than Laurin after the Wood. Angle Light had done the job of a rabbit, but there was no one to take advantage of it.

Another successful rabbit punch came in the 2005 Woodward Stakes when trainer Rick Dutrow entered the recent $75,000 claim, Show Boot, a sprinter with good early speed, to run the brilliant Commentator into the ground for Saint Liam in a four-horse field. Commentator had just beaten Saint Liam with a front-running performance in the Whitney and Dutrow was not about to let that happen again. Show Boot did his job well and Saint Liam came along to pick up the pieces.

For every Hedevar, Impressive, Bold Nero, and Show Boot, there are rabbits who have failed miserably at their job, although it often was not of their doing. In the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, trainer Laz Barrera entered Life’s Hope as a rabbit to kill off Seattle Slew for that year’s Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who had just been beaten by Slew in the Marlboro Cup. In that race, once Seattle Slew was allowed to get away with a :47 1/5 half Affirmed had no shot, especially when Slew flew home his final five-eighths in :58 4/5, covering the mile and an eighth in a blazing 1:45 4/5.

Now, stretching out to a mile and a half, Affirmed was going to need help. But no one apparently told him of the strategy. When Life’s Hope charged to the lead from the outside to engage Seattle Slew, there was Affirmed between the two of them battling head and head with not only Slew but his own rabbit. Steve Cauthen tried to pull back on the throttle and get Affirmed out of this mess, but when he did his saddle slipped costing Affirmed any shot of winning. The pace was brutal with a half in :45 1/5 and the three-quarters in 1:09 2/5. Despite that, Slew still battled back when headed by the late-running Exceller and was just nosed at the wire in one of the gamest performances of all time.

Then there was Todd Pletcher entering Eugene Melnyk’s mediocre sprinter Bishop Court Hill as a rabbit for Melnyk’s Travers winner Flower Alley in the 2005 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The move most likely came out of fear of the California invader Lava Man. Bishop Court Hill was another who did his job well, but unfortunately the horse he ran into the ground was Flower Alley, as the two battled eyeball to eyeball for the first three-quarters of a mile before Bishop Court Hill quickly retreated, followed by his stablemate. Lava Man also was victimized by the fast pace and faded badly, which enabled the other California invader Borrego to sweep to the lead from last place and draw off to a 4 1/2-length victory with Flower Alley beaten more than 15 lengths, done in by his own rabbit.

Bishop Court Hill was a son of Holy Bull, who was one horse that shrugged off a rabbit and went on to a gutsy victory in the 1994 Travers Stakes.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas had his Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat in the Travers, but needed help up front to push Holy Bull, who was suspect at 1 1/4 miles, so he entered a rabbit named Comanche Trail to expose Holy Bull by pressuring him all the way. That he did, forcing Holy Bull to set brutal fractions of :22 4/5, :46 1/5, and 1:10 2/5. No Travers had ever won setting fractions that fast. Even though Tabasco laid a few lengths back, he couldn’t handle that quick a pace and backed out of it, leaving the big closer in the race, Concern, as the only threat to Holy Bull, who looked beaten when Concern came charging up and was right off his flank at the eighth pole. But Holy Bull wouldn’t quit. He dug in and held off Concern to win by a neck with a 17-length gap back to Tabasco Cat in third.

One of the strangest uses of a rabbit came in the 2005 Kentucky Derby when the rabbit and the horse he was supposed to help were trained by two different trainers. The big dilemma all trainers in the Derby had that year was how to beat the brilliant Bellamy Road who had won his two starts by 15 3/4 lengths and 17 1/2 lengths, the latter being the Wood Memorial in which his time of 1:47 flat earned him a monstrous 120 Beyer speed figure. 

Pletcher had a talented colt for Coolmore named Bandini, a six-length winner of the Blue Grass, as well as the aforementioned Flower Alley, winner of the Lane’s End Stakes and a well-beaten second to Afleet Alex in the Arkansas Derby. Patrick Biancone, meanwhile, had a lightning fast colt for Coolmore named Spanish Chestnut who had tired badly in the Lane’s End and Blue Grass, finishing up the track in both races. Biancone said at the time he wanted no part of the Derby, but whether it was through Pletcher’s prodding, as Biancone claimed, or strictly Coolmore’s decision, Spanish Chestnut was entered for the sole purpose of killing off Bellamy Road to help Bandini.

Spanish Chestnut, as expected, shot to the lead and set the fastest pace in Derby history, going :22 1/5, :45 1/5, and 1:09 2/5, eventually finishing 17th. That was enough to kill off Bellamy Road, who faded to seventh, but it also killed off Bandini, who was only 3 1/2 lengths off that torrid pace and wound up finishing 19th. Flower Alley also was cooked by the pace, which set it up for 50-1 shot Giacomo to rally from 18th for the victory.

Another unusual use of a rabbit occurred in the 1985 Jersey Derby at the new Garden State Park when Wayne Lukas used one to help a horse who wasn’t even in the race. Spend A Buck had just demolished his field in the Kentucky Derby, opening a big lead early and romping by 5 1/4 lengths, running the third fastest Derby in history. Instead of coming back in the Preakness, owner Dennis Diaz broke tradition and went for the Jersey Derby’s $1 million purse and $2 million bonus given to any horse who won the Cherry Hill Mile, Garden State Stakes, Kentucky Derby, and 1 1/4-mile Jersey Derby. Spend A Buck had won the first three by a total of 25 1/2 lengths and Diaz went for the big purse rather than pursue the Triple Crown, which caused a great deal of controversy.

Lukas, meanwhile, had won the Preakness with Tank’s Prospect a week before the Jersey Derby, and he figured if Spend A Buck had plans to come back in the Belmont Stakes he wanted to make sure he didn’t have an easy race in the Jersey Derby, so he entered a speedball named Huddle Up with the sole purpose of eyeballing Spend A Buck as long as he could and exhausting him to the point that it would knock him out for the Belmont.

Huddle Up did just that. He pressed Spend A Buck through brutal fractions of :22 4/5 :45 2/5 and 1:09 flat. Spend A Buck looked wobbly legged at the head of the stretch when Creme Fraiche slipped through on the inside to stick his head in front. But Spend A Buck kept battling and managed to eke out a gutsy neck victory in a three-horse photo. As it turned out, Lukas’ strategy worked, as Spend A Buck passed the Belmont, but Tank’s Prospect was eased in the race, pulling up with a career-ending injury, so it was all for nothing.

We don’t see rabbits as much as we used to, but you can bet when the occasion arises and you have a brilliantly fast horse appearing to be the only speed in a major race, some trainer will pull a rabbit out of his hat and toss him in the ring. It’s just the nature of the game.

1967 Woodward Program available for purchase, please inquire at information@secretariat.com