Great: Racing’s Most Abused Word

This column is about one simple word that in the world of horse racing isn’t that simple, but is used way too often. This is my take on it, which may wind up making it even more complicated than it already is. But it is something we’ll open for conversation and debate.~ Steve Haskin

“Great:” Racing’s Most Abused Word

By Steve Haskin

As Flightline prepares to add another chapter to his already freaky resume when he stretches out in distance in the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic we should be prepared to hear the word “great” tossed around once again. But will a victory make Flightline a great horse after only five lifetime starts or, more reasonably, will it enable him to be considered a potentially great horse? Potentially great becomes great only after you prove you can sustain that high quality over a prolonged period of time.

Today’s generation has a tendency to let the word “great” roll off the tongue way too easily, and all that does is cheapen it until it eventually becomes meaningless and irrelevant.

This is not meant to knock, demean, or downplay the horses of today and their accomplishments, as we have seen some extraordinarily talented horses over the past three decades. But we do have a tendency to deal strongly in semantics and are quick to put the label of great on a horse based on just a handful of races. We put Arrogate on a throne and placed the crown of greatness on his head, and then following arguably his most jaw-dropping performance he fell off his pedestal, leaving him with only four sensational races to combat the passage of time.

The word great can have different meanings to different people. You can’t even find a good definition for it. Checking the list of synonyms for great, it goes from tremendous, wonderful, exceptional, and perfect down to fine, good, able, and admirable and even farther down, as odd as it may sound, to bad, brutal, and cold. So we use the word because it sounds good and we have no other word to use as a replacement.

Nowadays, people in racing use the word as a knee-jerk reaction to every “great” performance they see, as if that one race defines a horse and his or her status. The only way I can explain it, and this opinion could be way off base, is to look at how Broadway theater audiences have evolved. In the past at the end of a Broadway show a standing ovation was not a common occurrence and meant something when it happened. It was a special moment to recognize greatness. But ticket prices for a show have skyrocketed and audiences who are willing and able to spend such outrageous prices need to convince themselves that the money was worth it. So they now give standing ovations at the end of just about every show as if to make them feel as if they were part of something special, or dare I say great. When people stand and applaud, suddenly the price of the ticket no longer matters. They, in their mind, have witnessed greatness. They block out the reality of an entire theater standing and applauding mediocrity.

Using that philosophy in racing, fans and horsemen who never witnessed the heroics of the greats of the past are quick to say following an exceptional, breathtaking performance, “What a great horse!” Trainers are always quick to say “He’s a great horse.” We all want to witness greatness and if we say a horse is great then he or she must be great and we are privileged to have been there to see it.

As a member of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee, I found it interesting that of the 10 horses and people we put on the ballot, only two – Beholder and Tepin – received enough votes to get into the Hall of Fame. Should that serve as a reminder that there is indeed a difference between truly great, near great, and very good, and that perhaps we are diluting racing’s greatest honor?

Many people are unable or unwilling to differentiate between an all-time great horse, a great horse, and a horse who on occasion does great things. We pretty much know the all-time greats – Secretariat, Man o’ War, Citation, Dr. Fager, Kelso, Forego, Native Dancer, Damascus, Count Fleet, Exterminator, Round Table, John Henry, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Buckpasser, Tom Fool, War Admiral, Swaps, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway etc – horses and their feats that have survived the test of time. But the most recent of these horses, John Henry, raced 38 years ago.

Some people would put Cigar on that list and it would be hard to argue, but I am not sure if many people would rank him above any of the aforementioned horses. The question you have to ask yourself is, can you name a horse since Cigar in 1996 that you would honestly even consider putting in that category. You can call American Pharoah a great horse, but you wouldn’t call him an all-time great. Same with Sunday Silence, Easy Goer, Holy Bull, Skip Away, Alysheba, Curlin, Point Given, California Chrome, Arrogate, Invasor, Ghostzapper, and perhaps even Justify despite his abbreviated career.

And even on that list less than half the horses raced in the last 15 years. How many of the 13 horses mentioned will be considered legends of the Turf?

With the exception of Secretariat and Count Fleet the tag of all-time great comes with a degree of longevity, consistent dominance in top-class races against top-class horses, and basically running and accomplishing great things past the age of 3. Carrying heavy weights (130 pounds or more) and conceding a lot of weight also helped define all-time greatness. Today, champions carry virtually the same weight as horses far inferior to them.

To demonstrate the importance of excelling at 4, the careers of Affirmed and Seattle Slew both declined dramatically following their Triple Crown sweeps, but both accomplished great things at 4 and that is what established them as all-time greats; something even a Triple Crown sweep cannot guarantee. But even with Secretariat and Count Fleet, they both still ran over 20 times, were champions at 2 and 3, and had a signature Triple Crown race so spectacular it elevated them to heights never seen before or since.

I have no idea if American Pharoah could beat Count Fleet, just as I have no idea if I would enjoy a $550,000 Romanee-Conti, vintage 1947, more than a $15 bottle of Vinho Verde from my neighborhood liquor store. Is all-time greatness like with wine, a product of time and perception? With a world that changes dramatically with every decade and keeps producing better athletes why do names like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, and Joe DiMaggio still resound so loudly through the corridors of history?

I am well aware that with the passage of time fact can begin to take on mythical qualities and become fable. Lore becomes folklore. Heroes become superheroes. Stories of Man o’ War and Seabiscuit and Secretariat become tales told in front of the fireplace on a snowy winter night, just as the Black Stallion and Misty of Chincoteague became living breathing legends to millions of children.

But that may never happen again. Because of the lure of the megabucks thrown out there by major breeding operations that have become stallion collectors, trainers and owners are now afraid to lose for fear of decreasing their horse’s value, so they race them sparingly and rake in the big bucks from inflated purses and early offers from breeders while avoiding exorbitant insurance premiums. As a result, as popular as today’s equine heroes become, and as talented as they may be, their names soon begin to fade, replaced by other whirlwind talents with abbreviated careers.

So instead of proving their greatness on the track over a period of time they are simply called great as if that makes them great. But the true greats were put in a position to get beat, whether by racing often, facing the best competition, racing under any kind of conditions, or carrying high weights. Owners and trainers were not afraid of their horses losing, and as a result defeat was not held against them. What mattered was what great feats they accomplished and how many. Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best: “A great man is always willing to be little.”

It must be mentioned that in racing we are talking strictly about males. Because our “great” colts are retired way too early at age 3 due mainly to financial reasons and are not given a chance as older horses they can never be elevated to the next plateau. Now it is the female that dominates the sport in the history books and is able to elevate themselves into the realm of all-time greats because they are given the chance to prove their greatness over a period of time. We are talking about legends like Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Beholder, who have followed the likes of Ruffian, Lady’s Secret, and Personal Ensign into racing’s pantheon.

This all may sound condescending to some, especially younger fans who embrace their heroes with the same fervor the older generation did to theirs. That is not what this column is about. This is about the word “great” and, yes, “all-time great,” and how they are thrown around haphazardly without really knowing or appreciating the incredible achievements that enabled the horses of the past to receive such recognition.

Even the majority of recent “great” fillies like Azeri, Royal Delta, Havre de Grace, Blind Luck, Princess Rooney, Monomoy Girl, Sky Beauty, Bayakoa, and Paseana excelled at 4 and/or 5. Imagine if Songbird and Rags to Riches had gone on to have championship campaigns at 4.

This was a long way to go to make a point. But in short, don’t become a prisoner of the moment every time a horse runs an outstanding race and don’t use the word great ad nauseam and strip it of the power we have always placed on it. If we continue to run it into the ground until it has lost its meaning we will have nothing with which to replace it.

If we continue to diminish the impact of the word, one day a horse will come along and leave jaws dropping like Flightline has, but over a substantial period of time, and we will say, “Now that horse truly is a great horse.” But it will no longer mean anything.

Illustration courtesy of Pierre “Peb” Bellocq – Riva Ridge & Secretariat ’73 Folio


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174 Responses to “Great: Racing’s Most Abused Word”

  1. Cynthia Holt says:

    Following Frontline’s socks-off, mind-blown victory in the Pacific Classic, I had to re-visit this column. I think he represents the ultimate conundrum in the application of the word “great.” He has not had, nor will he have, a lengthy career. He can only carry the weight assigned him in these less robust times. Following the guidelines prescribed for greatness, it appears that he will fall short of the mark. But for one day, I believe that he truly was great. My hope is that he will turn in another impressive win in the BC Classic, which I know will still not be enough to label him “great.” But, who knows? If he races at 5 and stacks up enough great performances, however few, in time that “great” label just might begin to stick. In case you haven’t guessed—yes, I am besotted with this horse. He is GREAT for racing, and for this beleaguered long-time fan’s soul.

  2. Melissa P says:

    Thank you! The word “great” is overused in other sports as well, but nowhere near as in horse racing. To my mind, there have been many really, really good colts in recent history. There are several who have had truly great races. Are these great racehorses? I just don’t think so. They have been retired after too few races to know.

  3. Sharon Brock says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you Steve for putting into words what I have felt for years. Thoroughly enjoy your work.

  4. Diana says:

    I heard recently that the owners of flightline haven’t excluded racing him at 5. I for one hope he does.

    • Saw the same article and let’s hope for the the best on that one. My plans are to go to Del Mar for the Pacific Classic but only if he is in the race. Let’s hope all the horses aiming for that race stay healthy !!! … should be quiet a race.

      • Steve Haskin says:

        Typical for Kosta Hronis. He isi a sportsman a loves to see hiis horses run. Most of his best horses have been 4 and 5 year olds

  5. CLOWNSKILL says:

    Other sports have this problem too. Gale Sayers is in the HOF not because of his numbers over time but for a brief but brilliant career cut short by injuries, But if you saw him play, you knew.

    Sandy Koufax has only 165 career wins. He was a sub .500 pitcher for the first half of his career but was dominant for the last 6 years he played. If you saw him play, you knew.

    Dwight Gooden a career that was the reverse of Koufax. He was brilliant the first half of his career but fizzled out due to drugs and hung around too long. He has 192 wins and is not in the HOF but if you saw him play, you knew.

    Never saw Sayers and Koufax play, though being from Chicago I have seen plenty of Sayers’ highlights. But I did see Gooden live in 1985. Sat 5th row behind home plate at Wrigley field. If you drew a line from the rubber through home plate and extended it into the stands, it would have hit my armrest. He was something to see.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I saw both in person and they were the greatest I’ve seen in the short time they were around. Much like Steve Cauthen.

      • CLOWNSKILL says:

        I think fans outside of NY remember Gooden more for his personal issues rather than the greatness of the first part of his career. He won 17 games when he was only 19. AT 20, he went 24-4. Through the ’91 season when he turned 26 he was 132-53. That’s a career 99% of pitchers would take(along with the $$ it would bring).

        If only he had stayed clean he was bound for the HOF. Unfortunately, in sports how you finish is weighed more heavily than how you started.

  6. Tom Conway says:

    Any racehorse who makes the top 50 of all time is tremendous now. Exterminator, Round Table, Tom Fool,Kelso,Forego, Frankel, Damascus, Dr. Fager, Citation,etc.

  7. Steve how would you assess the racehorse, Ack Ack, who was trained by Woody Stephens and then Charlie Whittingham? He did carry the weight (134 lbs) and out of 27 races he won 19 times and 2nd 6 times.

  8. Matthew K W says:

    Cave Rock, by Arrogate—1:15 4/5, 101 Beyer, over a track where speed wasn’t holding on down the stretch, as it usually does…..well, Cave Rock held on!

    • Matthew K W says:

      Some of these Saratoga/Del Mar maiden races are like stakes races, Cave Rock ran two seconds faster that the 6 1/2 fur stakes race yesterday, at Saratoga….

    • bruce says:

      Thanks for the Beyer info Matthew, yes he was very impressive! I always like to see how they do 2nd time out though…..we’ll see.

    • Lynda King says:

      Good to hear when the Arrogates do well.
      Lost him way, way too early.

  9. Lynda King says:

    Just curious…which Thoroughbreds (horse, gelding, mare), foreign or domestic are on your great list or if you prefer greatest all time?

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I listed all the American horses I believe are all-time greats in the column. Many foeign to name with so many countries. Europe in my time are Ribot, Sea-Bird, Mill Reef, Nijnsky and you can lump together Shergar, Frankel, Sea the Stars, Hyperion, Sir Ivor and others

      • Lynda King says:

        Thank you Steve.
        I was giving some thought today on the horses I would consider to be great.
        Several of the names you mentioned came to mind including Frankel, Sir Ivor, Mill Reef and Nijinsky.
        Going back in time I would add Phar Lap and the mare Kincsem (I think she was Hungarian bred). Also the geldings Kelso and Wise Dan.
        So many possibilities going back through the decades makes it difficult, at least for me, to come up with a short list.
        I think of one and then another name pops into my head.

        • Davids says:

          In Europe, I’d follow the great Lester Piggott’s opinion: Top three in any order Brigadier Gerard, Ribot, Sea-Bird with Frankel fourth. Most still have Sea-Bird as top. I loved Nijinsky so number 5 for him.

          In US, Dr. Fager, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid. I never saw Secretariat live, Damascus I loathed for beating Dr. Fager and I loved Buckpasser but was too young to judge. Nonetheless, those 6 would be my top six. It’s painful not to mention some you favor more but there you go.

        • Steve Haskin says:

          Great horses is a much longer list. I was just referring to all-time great,

  10. Judi says:

    “Great” column, Steve. !!! My husband and I often discuss how words lose their meaning. One example is how young people today will say ‘perfect’ as an automatic response. Really? Now there is nothing better if everything is perfect! I so agree with you on overuse of the word great in regards to horse racing. I cannot regard Justify as great based on his record. There is nothing to judge his races against. I really like your use of Emerson’s words..”A great man is always willing to be little.”

    • Steve Haskin says:

      Thanks Judi. My favorite word in the English language is “Funny.” For a word that signifies something humorous and happy, we say things like, “I dont like that guy he was looking at me funny.” Or “I dont like this fish, it tastes funny.” Or “I feel funny about dropping in unannounced.” How come the bone we hit that hurts so much is called the funny bone?

      Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway? Why do the words dough, cough, rough, and bough all sound different?

    • Judi, I have to disagree about your assessment of Justify especially when you said: “based on his record”. He was undefeated and beat the best of his peers and was one of only 13 to win the grueling Triple Crown. Is he an all-time great? Maybe as a sire (and we will only know that some time down ) the road but I do consider him ” great ” as a racehorse. I have always felt through the “gene pool’ that he was a re-incarnation of Secretariat. It was unfortunate for us racing enthusiasts that he was retired early but if he had a catastrophic breakdown it would have been a great loss to the breed, especially with the untimely death of his super sire, Scat Daddy. I think we would have been treated to some remarkable racing feats that would have possibly put him with the “all-time racing greats”.

  11. Davids says:

    Steve, I recently read an interview with Peter Brant who gave the opinion that in the near future that half the cards in US racing will be turf racing. With this assumption, there is a good chance that ‘the good old days,’ when horses raced to six years or so, may return. Moreover, there could be a return of standing European champions at Kentucky Studs thus infusing more vigor back into US bloodlines. Ironically, turf racing may be the savior of US horse racing.

    Sounds very positive and in the future ‘greatness’ may return through turf runners.

    • Steve Haskin says:

      I’m fine wth that although I dont think our tracks are deigned for turf. Too small and too sharp. You need big sweeping tuns and long staightaways. The only true North Amrican turf couse is Woodbine and perhaps Belmont’s main course. But we can adapt to what we have. It seems there are more 2yo maiden racess on turf now than dirt, and longer ones.

      • Davids says:

        Yes Steve, that’s the problem there isn’t a ‘true’ turf track except Woodbine but Kentucky Downs could be modified to become a turf dominant racetrack with an inner dirt track but then there is the squabble for dates in Kentucky with CDI getting whatever they desire.

    • Lynda King says:

      Davids, I for one would love to see more turf racing in the United States. And of course the infusion of some European blood.

      • Davids says:

        Lynda, I’ve always felt that the promotors of US racing would have an easier time attracting new fans to the sport if turf racing was the dominant surface; it’s more aesthetically pleasing and joins the rest of the world instead of being isolated. Seeing horse and jockey returning to the scales splattered in mud or dust unfortunately is not that appealing. Lol.

  12. Gale Harris says:

    Couldn’t agree more, being an oldster who appreciated, well, not Man o’ War, Exterminator or Count Fleet, but the likes of most of the other greats you’ve mentioned. I know he retired way too soon, but what do you make of Frankel? I’ve never seen anything like him in recent years.

  13. Derek Manthey says:

    Steve you are so right on point. Fortunately in my lifetime I’ve got to witness a few of the all time greats I’ve seen lots of great races, rivalries and extraordinary efforts but still Secretariat’s Belmont still raises the hair on the back of my neck. In fact with a little chemical inducement at the time Secretariat crossed the finish line 3 times before anybody else got there!

  14. Davids says:

    Steve, your analogy of Broadway audiences and modern racing fans with reference to observing greatness couldn’t be more apposite. Having been to numerous live performances: ballet, opera, live theatre around the world you are correct in your appraisal. These days, audiences will stand and applause anything no matter how mediocre the show/performance. Mind you, the older crowd are fairly astute when it comes to discerning greatness and run of the mill performances. As you say, tickets are expensive so the punter wants to think he/she is getting they’re money’s worth.

    You’re right again with horse racing, the modern era doesn’t allow for exciting colts to arise to their full potential because the lure of stud fee bonanzas and insurance prevent this to happen. Not that this particularly worries me as the breeding side of racing is possibly more entertaining/interesting to me than the actual racing. It’s safer, kinder and you are enable to really engage with horses that have emotionally aroused your innermost feelings.

    Flightline is probably the best US racehorse this century but defining him as a great is problematical, a handful of race wins, no matter how spectacular, doesn’t really define greatness. That’s years of service beating generation after generation. Not sure I’m expressing myself that well here but having had three trips to emergency over the past week has been quite shocking, especially for an exercise fanatic all their life. All is well, now though.

    Really enjoyed your column, Steve.