Remembering Jaw-dropping Performances of the Past

Following Flightline’s remarkable victory in the Pacific Classic, Jay Hovdey wrote a column about the most memorable performances he had seen in California that pretty much blew him away and left a lasting impression on him. That inspired me to do the same from an Eastern point of view. So here are the moments over the past 55 years that left me awestruck.~ Steve Haskin

Remembering Jaw-dropping Performances of the Past

By Steve Haskin


With the final Breeders’ Cup Classic preps in the book, most everyone has to be wondering if any of the top horses are capable of posing a threat to Flightline. Life is Good’s expected romp in a depleted Woodward Stakes at odds of 1-20 never happened as he could only manage a workmanlike 1 ¼-length victory over 26-1 shot Law Professor while America’s favorite bridesmaid, the gutsy but unlucky Hot Rod Charlie, winner of last year’s Secretariat Vox Populi Award, showed his gameness by battling back to nip Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs.

Although racing fans across the country were hoping and expecting to see Life is Good blow his field away, there were a number of positives to take from his effort, which we will get into in a future column. In the meantime, Flightline looks more imposing than ever coming off his fifth spectacular victory in as many starts in the Pacific Classic, which brought back memories of races over the past half century that were so eye-catching they left yours truly stunned and still do after all these years. It is tough ranking these races and the thrills they provided, but we’ll give it shot. So here are those races that left me in awe. I’m sure everyone has their own list, so feel free to share them.

Exciting close finishes such as Zenyatta’s Breeders’ Cup Classics, Forego’s Marlboro Cup, Personal Ensign’s BC Distaff, and the Sunday Silence — Easy Goer battles in the Preakness and BC Classic and many others are for a future column.

1—Secretariat, 1973 Belmont Stakes – It would be a great injustice to Big Red’s performance to waste mere words on it. This is the one race in history where only three words are needed – “Secretariat” and “Belmont Stakes.” That will be followed immediately by “31 lengths” and “2:24.” All you have to hear are racecaller Chic Anderson’s words “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine” for all the memories to come flooding back and the goosebumps and tears to begin all over again. In short, we will never see anything like this again. It is truly racing’s one moment that will forever remain frozen in time.

2—Damascus, 1967 Travers Stakes – Even though this was a perfect setup for Damascus with only four entered and two of them speed horses, who dueled through fast fractions, this race was visually spectacular with Damascus coming from 16 lengths back midway down the backstretch to win by 22 lengths eased up and equaling the track record in the mud. I can state emphatically that no horse ever went by two leaders as quickly as Damascus did. When he caught Tumiga and Gala Performance on the far turn, if you blinked your eyes once and then opened them, you would have seen Damascus already six lengths in front and just coasting along with Bill Shoemaker sitting perfectly still on him. Like Secretariat’s Belmont it mattered little who he beat. It was something you never saw before and would never forget. When Damascus did face a Hall of Fame field in the Woodward Stakes, dubbed “The Race of the Century,” he again demonstrated that explosive move and cat-like quickness, and rabbits or no rabbits he still was able to annihilate two of the greatest horses of all time, Buckpasser and Dr. Fager, by 10 lengths. Considering who he beat, and with such disdain, this performance certainly could easily have been ranked in the Top 10, but we’ll just mention it here.

3—Dr. Fager, 1968 Vosburgh Handicap – If you never saw this race live, sadly you will never see it, as NYRA personnel in charge of the video department admitted that the race somehow was lost or destroyed and was gone forever. So one of the most remarkable performances in the history of the sport has not been seen for 54 years and never will be seen other than through the eyes of those who were at Aqueduct on November 2, 1968 or watching at home on TV. A week before the seven-furlong Vosburgh, NYRA winterized the track (this was before the inner track was built), which made the surface some two seconds slower than normal. This was Dr. Fager’s farewell and trainer John Nerud asked racing secretary Tommy Trotter to put 145 pounds on Dr. Fager. Trotter said he couldn’t do that but did burden him with a staggering 139 pounds. He was also going against the brilliant sprinter Kissin George, who had just romped in the six-furlong Sport Page Handicap after being sent east and turned over to Allen Jerkens. To watch Dr. Fager run Kissin George into the ground through blazing fractions of :43 4/5 and 1:07 4/5 over a track that slow and with that much weight and then go on to romp by six lengths in a track-record 1:20 1/5 was simply mind-boggling. That record would last 31 years before being broken by sprint champion Artax, who ran a fifth of a second faster carrying 25 pounds less than Dr. Fager.

4—Dr. Fager, 1968 Washington Park Handicap – Although Dr. Fager’s world record mile in 1:32 1/5 arguably is the most iconic record second only to Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes, I am putting it just below the Vosburgh because almost everyone was expecting a world record over the lightning-fast Arlington surface, which was the scene of the previous three world record miles. But what blew everyone away was how easily Dr. Fager won carrying 134 pounds and being eased the length of the stretch, drawing off under wraps to win by 10 lengths. This was after running his second quarter in :20 3/5, believed to be the fastest quarter ever run within the body of a race, and six furlongs in a scorching 1:07 3/5. It is now 54 years later and no one has run a faster mile on dirt. Hall of Fame jockey Ted Atkinson said after the race, “Hell, if he had been asked he could have done it in 1:30 and change.” As Dr. Fager was pulling up, out of the silence came a single faint word from track announcer Phil Georgeff: “Wow!”

5 and 6—Arrogate, 2016 Travers Stakes and 2017 Dubai World Cup – Because both victories were so completely opposite it was difficult deciding whether to put Arrogate’s victory in the Dubai World Cup or the Travers Stakes at No. 5, so I am putting them both here because both were equally jaw-dropping in different ways. No one had a clue who Arrogate was when he came to Saratoga for the Midsummer Derby off a so-so 1 ¾-length allowance victory at Del Mar and wasn’t even the more highly regarded Bob Baffert two horses in the Travers field. No one could have imagined the performance that was follow, as Arrogate went to the front and absolutely demolished his opponents, winning by 13 ½ lengths in a spectacular 1:59 1/5, shattering General Assembly’s 37-year-old track record by four-fifths of a second. So the following year when Arrogate got left badly at the start in the Dubai World Cup and dropped back to a distant last in the 14-horse field, everyone felt the race was over for him. But those same people were awestruck when Arrogate charged past the entire field and blew by the top-class Gun Runner in the stretch to win going away by 2 ¼ lengths. When I started to write my column on the race I was literally at a loss for words until I just let my feelings pour out reflecting my amazement at what I had just seen.

7—Canonero II, 1971 Preakness Stakes – There are several degrees of shock when watching a horse race. You can be shocked by a huge margin or a record-setting time or a sensational stretch run. But Canonero set a new standard in the Preakness. It would seem nothing could top the shock of his Kentucky Derby victory when this ribby, crooked-legged Venezuelan import, who had sold as a yearling for $1,500, rallied from 18th, 20 lengths off the pace to win by 3 ¾ lengths. If he hadn’t been in a six-horse mutual field he surely would have gone off at odds nearing 100-1. So going into the Preakness with a classy Calumet speed horse in Eastern Fleet appearing to be the fastest horse in the field and the one to catch, there seemed no way that the plodding Canonero could rally from that far back at a shorter distance and come even close to catching Eastern Fleet or out-close the plucky little Derby runner-up Jim French, who was tough as nails and always right there at the finish. Canonero also was breaking from post 9, which was not ideal at Pimlico. I cannot remember being more shocked than I was when Canonero went right after Eastern Fleet approaching the clubhouse turn and dueled head and head with him through testing fractions of :47 and 1:10 2/5. Turning for home they were still eyeball to eyeball, but Canonero would not quit. He finally put Eastern Fleet away inside the eighth pole and not only drew off to a 1 ½-length victory he broke Nashua’s track record by three-fifths of a second. To this day that performance astounds me and I still can’t believe he was able to do what he did coming off the Derby. That convinced me this was no ordinary horse.

8—Secretariat, 1973 Preakness Stakes – This is the one race that left me awestruck by something that did not occur in the stretch, but earlier in the race. Remember, at the time Secretariat had established himself as something special, especially after his record-breaking performance in the Kentucky Derby, but visually he hadn’t done anything we’d never seen before. When Secretariat was running last early on in the Preakness everyone assumed we would see the same type of race he ran in the Derby, which was gradually moving up and picking off horses before unleashing his closing kick. I was watching the race from the roof, so I got a great start-to-finish look at a move I, and everyone else, had never seen before. As he approached the clubhouse turn Secretariat decided it was time to move and when Secretariat decided it was time to move you just gave him his head and held on, which is all Ron Turcotte could do. In a flash, Big Red blew by horses so fast on the turn he was in front by two lengths before anyone could comprehend what they were seeing. Jockey George Cusimano on the front-running Ecole Etage said he was going along easily and had plenty of horse when he heard what sounded like a freight train coming up behind him. Then he looked over and saw Secretariat, who went by him with such force he blew the number off his sleeve. Everyone was stunned, but as Sham moved out and took up the chase many wondered if Secretariat had done too much too early. But he went on to win comfortably, which pretty much assured everyone that a Triple Crown sweep was imminent, as they now knew this was a horse who could do things other horses were incapable of. And that was before they found out years later he had shattered the track record. This was another moment frozen in time that still leaves people stunned every time they watch it.

9—Rachel Alexandra, 2009 Mother Goose Stakes – I could have put any one of three of Rachel’s victories in this spot, including her 20 ¼-length laugher in the Kentucky Oaks or her six-length drubbing of top colts Summer Bird and Munnings in the Haskell Invitational in near track-record time in the slop. But the one that really took my breath away was the Mother Goose even though she faced only two opponents. But those two opponents, Flashing and Malibu Prayer, were coming into the race off impressive winning streaks and both would go on to be grade 1 winners. Here was the speedy Rachel Alexandra sitting five lengths off the lead before pouncing on the two leaders, coming between both of them. In a flash she was gone and even though Calvin Borel eased her to a mere gallop nearing the sixteenth pole while looking back twice, she still won by 19 ¼ lengths in a blazing 1:46 1/5. The only horses I can recall who ran a faster mile and an eighth at Belmont were Hall of Famers Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Forego, and Precisionist, and champion older mare Riboletta. And none of them won anywhere near as easily as Rachel did. This victory was very reminiscent of Flightline’s 19 ¼-length romp in the Pacific Classic and even his 13 1/4-length score in the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, the way they both extended their leads with every stride despite being eased up in the stretch. I can only imagine how fast Rachel would have gone had she been asked to run even a little in the final sixteenth.

10—Ruffian, 1974 Spinaway Stakes – Good luck trying to choose only one Ruffian victory that blew you away. How about all of them? I could even choose her career debut when no one knew much about her and she was sent off at odds of 4-1. I remember being at the track and my friend assuring me Ruffian would stop after setting a blazing :45 1/5 half. Well, all she did was win by 15 lengths equaling the track record at Belmont Park. In her stakes debut, the Fashion Stakes, she equaled her own record winning by 6 ¾ lengths over Cragwood Stable’s highly regarded Copernica, who had also romped in her debut. She then blew the doors off a very fast filly named Laughing Bridge in the Astoria Stakes, winning by nine lengths in a stakes-record 1:02 4/5. But after stretching out to six furlongs, Laughing Bridge won the Schuylerville Stakes by 13 lengths in 1:09 4/5 and the Adirondack Stakes by five lengths and seemed ready for a rematch with Ruffian in the Spinaway Stakes. That turned out to be her misfortune as Ruffian burst out of the gate and quickly opened a two-length lead. She just kept pouring it on, winning eased up by almost 13 lengths in a blistering 1:08 3/5, just three-fifths off the track record. And we’re talking about a 2-year-old filly. To win that easily going that fast and by such a huge margin and crushing a brilliant filly like Laughing Bridge it confirmed that we were looking at some sort of freak.

11—Ghostzapper, 2003 Vosburgh Stakes – At the beginning of Ghostzapper’s career he looked destined to be a sprinter, as trainer Bobby Frankel started him off in seven straight sprints. But it reached a point that Frankel felt compelled to stretch him out in the 2004 Iselin at Monmouth and two races later he wound up winning the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic in stakes-record time  But the race that sticks out in my mind was the 6 ½-furlong Vosburgh Stakes. That’s when everyone came to the realization that this was a very special horse. Before making the transition to becoming a horse who wanted to be on or just off the lead Ghostzapper had been a closer who had come from the clouds with an explosive stretch run to be beaten a half-length in the seven-furlong King’s Bishop Stakes. Then came the Vosburgh, dropping back in distance against older horses, and Ghostzapper was so far back, racing in 10th and last, 13 lengths off the pace, no one could imagine him even finishing in the money. He began to kick in on the far turn, but nearing the top of the stretch he was still seventh, 10 lengths back. Then came an explosion very few had seen before. At the eighth pole he had already collared the leaders and was moving with such momentum he just kept pouring it on and opening up on the field, eventually winning by 6 ½ lengths in a blazing 1:14 3/5. To show how special Ghostzapper was, despite making only 11 career starts, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.

12—Frosted, 2016 Met Mile – I still would like to know where this performance came from. Frosted was always regarded as a good horse who unfortunately came along the same year as American Pharoah. He did win the Wood Memorial and Pennsylvania Derby by two lengths and the Maktoum Challenge in Dubai by five lengths before finishing fifth in the Dubai World Cup. Many horsemen feel it takes several months to recover from a trip to Dubai. Frosted was in Dubai for two races and then returned to the U.S. where he had eyes popping with a performance in the Met Mile that defies all logic. Despite not having run in a one-turn race since breaking his maiden two years earlier and having won both his mile and an eighth stakes in a mediocre 1:50 and 1:50 1/5, he somehow demolished his field by 14 ¼ lengths in a blazing 1:32 3/5, two fifths off Dr. Fager’s world record on dirt. In his final three career starts following the Met Mile he did manage to win the Whitney by two lengths and then was beaten at 2-5 in the Woodward before getting beat over 19 lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to close out his career. How he did what he did in the Met Mile I have no idea.

13–Arazi, 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile — This is a last-minute addition that I definitely overlooked and deserves to be higher up. All I can say is “And Arazi runs right by him!” as Tom Durkin frantically called as Arazi blew by Bertrando so fast after making the most amazing and explosive move ever seen by a 2-year-old. “Bertando stunned by the move of Arazi. Just incredible!” And coming off sprints in France no less. No one had ever seen anything like this and surely no one was expecting it. So began the most unusual Derby trail ever, with Arazi training in France after undergoing knee surgery following the Juvenile.

There have been a number of other brilliant performances with horses winning by huge margins, such as the Belmont Stakes victories by Risen Star, Point Given, and Bet Twice or Alydar’s demolition of the Whitney Stakes where he crushed top-class older horses by 10 lengths in 1:47, which made people wonder once again how this colt could get beat so many times by Affirmed. And has any young 3-year-old ever run as fast as Alydar’s son Easy Goer. who romped by 13 lengths in the Gotham Stakes in an unreal near world record 1:32 2/5, eased up? No one could have expected such a performance by 3-year-old in March. There was Arts and Letters’ 15-length score in the 1969 Blue Grass Stakes in which he won eased up and still missed Round Table’s track record by only two-fifths of a second. On the Derby trail, who can forget Bellamy Road’s other worldly performance in the Wood Memorial, in which he won by 17 ½ lengths in a swift 1:47. And this was coming off a 15 ¾-length allowance victory at Gulfstream Park.

Although his margins weren’t as big, there are few back-to-back performances I can remember that left me as amazed as Prove Out’s dominating victories over Secretariat and Riva Ridge in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup. As surprising as it was winning both races, it was how he did it that boggled the mind. You will have to read my column on both races to fully grasp the enormity of what Prove Out accomplished.

And then this year we had Charge It’s stunning 23-length romp in the Dwyer Stakes. Unfortunately a foot abscess forced him to miss the Travers. There was Gamine’s jaw-dropper in the Acorn Stakes, and I must also mention the spectacular runaway victories by Autobiography, Borego and Waquoit in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Inside Information in the Ruffian and BC Distaff, Bertrando in the Woodward Stakes, and the dominance over top-class older horses by Holy Bull in the Woodward.

And finally I must mention the shock of seeing Mine That Bird not only win the Kentucky Derby at 50-1, but come charging through the entire field like a horse possessed to win by 6 ½ lengths. That is another baffling performance that will never be explained by rational thinking.

I’m sure I’m overlooking several other jaw-dropping performances that escape me at the moment, so please feel free to add your own and share them in your comments.

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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